Under the Sky of Damascus (2023) Berlinale 2023

February 22nd, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Heba Khaled, Talal Derki, Ali Wajeeh; Documentary with Eliana Saad, Inana Rashed, Souhir Saleh, Sabah Al Salem; Denmark/USA/Germany 2023, 88 min.

Men are outnumbered by women in the Syrian capital of Damascus but, increasingly, they still manage to dominate the female population. A collective of female actors do their best to stage the growing repression in this well-intentioned documentary from Heba Khaled, Talal Derki and Ali Wajee.

Unfortunately the artistic undertaking hits the road blocks when it soon emerges that a member of the crew tried to exploit the women sexually. “Women are more enslaved than ever in these times” declares middle-aged actor Sabah Al Salem, who has recently been released from prison after her active protests against male dominance. “The biggest exploitations we face are of a sexual nature”.

In a clip from one of Salem’s feature films, we see the male actor striking her with full force on the cheek, with the director not even batting an eyelid. The interviews are harrowing, one young woman complaining how her father regularly beat them all, often so violently that they had to go to hospital. Another woman tells the story of how her husband went on to marry two more wives and sent her, his first wife, and their daughters to live with his family where they are now treated like servants.

At a centre for Deaf and Mute women, a member of staff reveals how many have been sexually abused. One women was raped by three men, and the court found them guilty – but the first rapist had to marry the victim, to satisfy the honour of the family.

The stage undertaking makes good progress until one of the actors, Eliana Saad, abruptly stopped coming to the rehearsals claiming her boyfriend was against her participation. It later turns out this was not true. Adel, the line producer, had been harassing Eliana, asking for sex and threatening her with punishment if she refused to comply with his wishes. The sexual harassment episode forms the production’s centrepiece, but rehearsals were later suspended, and so was the film. The directors Heba Khaled and Talal Derki then returned to their homes in Berlin; but later changed their minds when film critic Ali Wajeeh took over the production and direction in Damascus, finishing film and play with the help of DoP Raed Sandeed.

This is a brave piece of guerrilla filmmaking and the crew is entitled to some leeway. But there are too many questions left unanswered, and the exact circumstances of Adel’s attack on Eliana and the other actresses, Inana Rashed and Souhir Saleh remain unsubstantiated. Under the Sky of Damascus is a potent piece of agit-prop, a story that needs to find an audience not only in Syria, but throughout the Arab world where thousands of women are abused and even killed by husbands, fathers, brothers and cousins – with the so-called honour killings still going unpunished. The feature, a debut for many of the crew, is dedicated to these victims. AS



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