Film review – Insyriated (Philippe van Leeuw, 2017)

Philippe Van Leeuw May have taken a cheap shot with the title of this film, but the shallowness starts and ends there. It’s an imperfect but nonetheless powerful film that takes a gripping story and frames it within the resonatingly-threatening streets of the modern-day war-torn Syrian capital Damascus.

Inspired by a real anecdotal stories of people living in Damascus, the action takes place entirely within the confines of a small flat over a 24-hour period. Inside the flat lives the matriarchal Oum Yazan (Hiyam Abbass), a mother trying to keep her family together, alive and safe through the ongoing battles. Lodger Halima (Diamand Bou Abboud) is planning to escape from Damascus with her husband Samir (Moustapha Al Kar)) and newborn baby.

The story starts in earnest when housemaid Delhani (Juliette Navis) witnesses a sniper shooting Samir, who collapses in plain sight of one of the windows. Confiding in Oum Yazan, the pair decide to keep the shooting a secret to help maintain the peace inside the besieged flat.

It’s a powerful story no doubt, but its strengths are heightened by some excellent performances by the three central female characters. It is essentially a cross-analysis of how far people go to maintain their own lives and the lives of those they love.

Of the three central roles, none are better delivered than the performance given by the relatively unknown Diamand Bou Abboud. It is certainly the most substantial of the roles: they are relatively outcasts in the group, she has a newborn baby and wants to protect it, but is new to motherhood. It is one late scene when there are two intruders in the house that serves as one of the most memorable and horrific of the year, proving that what we don’t see on screen can be far more powerful that what we do see. It is a heartbreaking and sickening moment in the woman’s life and challenges the viewer to decide what they’d do in her shoes or in those of her cohabiters. Abboud really proves her acting mettle here.

There is little in the way of musical accompaniment in the film, and the cinematography is tough to view critically due to the filming style and confined location. These facts don’t detract from the overall impact, which is more about telling a powerful story than wowing the audience with an elaborate production. As Van Leeuw states in his production notes for the film, “there are no tricks, no special effects, it is just a plain look at the drama of the situation.” [1]

Historically, Arabic-language films have limited appeal at the global box office. True, there have been a number of success stories in recent years (notably Naji Abu Nowar’s 2014 drama ‘Theeb’, which took $774,556 globally [2][3]), but it doesn’t appear as though Insyriated has bucked the trend. Its inevitably sluggish performance at the UK box office (£10,706 from 19 arthouse theatres [4]) means that the film will have to perform well on home streaming platforms in order to recoup the money. Fortunately it is available now through Curzon On Demand and iTunes for the same price as a cheap cinema ticket, along with the standard DVD releases.

It’s not an outstandingly brilliant film, but it is in turns moving, horrific, heartbreaking, shocking and thought-provoking. A solid achievement by the Belgian director and the strong cast. It deserves an audience and will hopefully get that over the coming months.






Film review – Hasta La Vista / Come As You Are (Geoffrey Enthoven, 2011) 

As road movies go, Come As You Are follows a well-worked formula quite closely. It goes something like this: a group of young friends decide to go on a road trip together to overcome a fear or hang-up. In the process of doing so they also learn a lot more about themselves and thus the purpose of the trip changes despite the goal remaining the same. 

That opening paragraph drastically does this film a disservice, because the unique plot elements are more than enough to allow this film to feel fresh and deliver an effective message. The three Flemish friends in this case all suffer from a form of physical handicap: Lars (Gilles de Schryver) is wheelchair-bound due to a debilitating and aggressive brain tumour; Philip (Mariano Vanhoof) suffers from paraplegia and has vastly restricted physical movement, thus needing constant care; Jozef (Tom Audenaert) is almost fully blind and can only see vague outlines of objects. The story starts with Philip, who has recently discovered that there is a brothel set up in the south of Spain especially for men with physical disabilities, so they decide they need to trick their parents into letting them go on a holiday to the vineyards of Europe, with the brothel as their real destination. 

The basic hilarity of this situation would be easy to play for cheap laughs, but director Geoffrey Enthoven and writer Pierre De Clercq thankfully find a more pertinent voice in the bittersweet frustration of their situation. Whilst the holiday should be a huge release to finally get away from their parents and see the outer world at their own pace, the day-to-day reality of their disabilities is far too restrictive. 

One of the more interesting story arcs is actually for the backup minibus driver Claude