Under the Sky of Damascus: Berlinale 2023 Review

Year: 2023

Runtime: 88 Minutes

Directed by Heba Khaled, Talal Derki, Ali Wajeeh

By Sarah Manvel

Sometimes the purpose of a documentary is to shine a light on a part of the world most people will never see. Sometimes the purpose is to provide a voice to people who feel they have no voice of their own (which is nonsense of course, we all have a voice, it’s just that many people stop their ears). Sometimes the purpose is to demonstrate how difficult it is to tell any story when real life won’t stop getting in the way. And often a documentary ends up being about something very different to the original story that was planned to be told. 

“Under the Sky of Damascus” was planned to be the story of how a collective of women actors would produce a play about male violence in Syria. It was financed by directors Heda Khaled and Talal Derki, who live in exile in Germany, and managed on the ground by Ali Wajeeh, which is why it has three directors. As a rare document of life inside Syria, it’s worth seeing and it’s important that the Berlinale gave this movie its support. But it is not the movie that the directors intended to make, which is no one’s fault – there’s that famous saying about what happens when you make plans. On the other hand, if the movie hadn’t been made, none of what happens would have worked out the way it did. 

In Syria there are no laws protecting women from abuse, in the home or anywhere else, and there are no cultural taboos to prevent men from doing any of the terrible things learned about in the course of this film. But the young women in Syria will not stand for this. A collective of young women in their twenties has bought a large, shell-damaged house with the intention of turning it into a theatre. They will renovate it themselves, live in the bedrooms upstairs and work together to make a play confronting this epidemic of violence. In many countries in the west this would be difficult enough. 

The original collective was much larger, but when the topic of the play was announced half of the participants immediately dropped out. They were all very polite about it, but it’s clear there are some taboos they just can’t touch. The remaining group explores all-female spaces within the city – including a mental hospital, where the stories the women who live there tell are unutterably bleak – to gather research for the plot of the play. But no theatre group exists without infighting. Some of the women get upset at the ‘not all men’ nature of the work as it comes together, and there is a schism. And then unfortunately something much worse happens, something as bad as any anecdote told by an American actress taking a meeting in a hotel room with a producer she didn’t know. This means the movie is suddenly living its own subject matter in an unpleasantly direct way, and one which the crew did not foresee.  

The women dress and act like any serious-minded hipster (apart from the heroic levels of chainsmoking) but live in a shattered city, full of bombed-out buildings and narrow concrete alleyways. Other than a few comfortable apartments, everything is cracked, and grey, and tired. The women who agreed to be filmed telling their sad stories are brave on a scale it’s hard to appreciate. It’s possibly unappreciated even by the members of the collective, who all have the vague air of scolding righteousness familiar to anyone who’s spent time with, or been, any nineteen-year-old feminist. And what happens in the real lives here is so depressing it’s hard to think about. Are their lives not tough enough, without the men they encounter making it worse? But the flip side of all that horror is enough bravery to power a battleship, to stand up one way or another and assert their right to live safe and unmolested. It’s the bravery which is the main takeaway from the film, the knowledge that living to fight another day is all that matters and silence does not necessarily mean consent. Sometimes it’s the pause to draw breath in order to scream. 


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