Sean McAllister’s award-winning film A Syrian Love Story (2015) is a searing documentary portrait of a family torn apart by dictatorship and war. Amer and Raghda met and fell in love in a Syrian prison fifteen years ago. They were both political prisoners – Amer was a Palestinian freedom fighter, Raghda a Syrian revolutionary – and both were tortured. On their release they married and started a family. McAllister first meets Amer in 2009 and over five years follows the family’s fraught lives. After writing a book about their love story and experiences in prison, Raghda was once again detained and Amer is left to bring up their four boys alone.
McAllister films the family talking to Raghda during a rare phone call. Bob the youngest cries for his mum while Kaka, a teenager, tries to make sense of Basher al Assad’s tyrannical regime. In 2011, as the ‘Arab Spring’ emerges and protesters take to the streets, Amer uses the opportunity to highlight the plight of Raghda, ceaselessly calling for her release. Finally his persistence, and pressure from the west, has the desired result and Raghda is released in a small amnesty of political prisoners. McAllister’s handheld camera captures their euphoria followed by the difficulties Raghda has adapting to home life and her insomnia (she is haunted by nightmares following her time in prison).
As the protests intensify, McAllister is himself arrested in Syria and held for five days. His camera is seized and because it contains compromising footage of the family, they are forced to flee to Lebanon. McAllister follows them there and finds Amer and Raghda’s relationship is showing signs of strain. At one point Raghda takes off, leaving Amer with the children, feeling hurt, confused and betrayed. As a Palestinian, he cannot claim asylum outside Lebanon but Raghda, as a Syrian political prisoner, has the necessary status for them to be accepted in Europe. Finally, she returns to Amer and the family is granted asylum in France. Once here, the tone of A Syrian Love Story shifts. McAllister captures the bleak reality for so many refugees, having to start afresh, mourning the disintegration of a country as well as the loss of their beloved homeland. Raghda in particular feels utterly untethered – she was well known in Syria, but in France she is a nobody.
As their rows intensify, Amer finds himself a girlfriend while Raghda broods, smokes and gets drunk on wine. Using frequent close-ups, McAllister captures the breakdown of their relationship with unflinching honesty, to the point that it becomes hard to believe that they would allow him such intimacy. It’s some measure of their courage, and a desire to show the world their reality, that they do. The family’s emotional journey mirrors Syria’s physical collapse and the personal and political are irretrievably entwined. It may be bleak viewing, but A Syrian Love Story is a timely and necessary reminder of what Syrian refugees face today. It’s a poignant tale of a marriage breakup that echoes the agony and heartbreak of countless other Syrians who have found their homes destroyed and their lives in ruins. For Raghda, at least, it also ends on an unexpected note of hope.