If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to run a household in the midst of a civil war, look no further than Insyriated. Philippe Van Leeuw’s Berlin Audience Award winner is a gruelling if slightly underdeveloped portrayal of daily reality for millions of Syrian families.
Watching a film set during an ongoing conflict like Insyriated, where one knows that events similar to those depicted – or worse – take place every day, can feel ethically problematic. Instead of sitting here in the safety of the cinema, sympathising with the pretend suffering of the actors onscreen, “Couldn’t I be doing something to help the actual people experiencing these horrors,” one asks oneself? But while there is an exploitative aspect to Philippe Van Leeuw’s film, it also succeeds admirably in placing the viewer at the very heart of things in a way that eludes the snap news bulletins.
The premise of Insyriated is simple enough. In a middle-class apartment in Damascus, mother and matriarch Oum (the extremely impressive Hiam Abbass) attempts to keep her household together as gunfire, aircraft and artillery rage incessantly outside. She not only has to keep an eye on her three children, but also on her housekeeper Delhani, her father-in-law (Mohsen Abbas) and several family friends. Above all, it is in creating the concrete and highly believable setting of a family home under siege that Insyriated excels.
Details are instrumental to director Van Leeuw’s vision, from dried up, spluttering water pipes and stuttering televisions and mobile phones, to the deafening cracks of sniper fire and thuds of artillery shells. Oum herself refuses to abandon the little details of everyday life despite the grim situation, telling a guest to get dressed when she finds him sleeping shirtless and insisting – just after bombs have rained down – that lunch must still be served on time. In playing a woman who must keep up appearances, as well as keep her lips sealed about a dreadful secret, Abbass puts in one hell of a performance.
That secret lies at the heart of Insyriated, but unfortunately Van Leeuw fails to turn it into a sufficiently engaging story. Without giving too much away, early on a member of the household is shot by a sniper as he makes his way outside. Unsure of whether he is dead or alive, Oum and Delhani have to stay silent until nightfall, when they can bring him inside. Yet for the rest of the film’s running time, Van Leeuw’s leaves this crucial strand largely untouched, instead pursuing incongruous dead ends such as a rape scene and an illicit relationship which feel slightly pointless.
Meanwhile important parts of the narrative, such as a couple’s desperate attempt to flee to Lebanon, are left unresolved. In effect, the film’s total focus on atmosphere comes at the expense of plot. Nevertheless, as a viewer one certainly leaves Insyriated with a more visceral understanding of what the Syrian conflict means for millions of families. Whether that is of any help to them, is a separate question.
Maximilian Von Thun | @M3Yoshioka