Philippe Van Leeuw’s Insyriated is a suspenseful microcosm of Syria’s civil war played out through its effects on one family and the hard decisions they have to take to survive.
War Roomby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Insyriated takes place during a single day in a heavily bolted and barred apartment as a middle-class Damascus family tries to survive the encroaching civil war outside.
Mother Oum Yazan (Hiam Abass) is doing the best she can to protect her family – a young son (Mohammad Jihad Sleik), two teenage daughters (Alissar Kaghadou and Ninar Halabi) and the boyfriend of one of them, and her father-in-law Mustafa (Mohsen Abbas) – while awaiting the return of her husband, expected back that night. She’s also sheltering Halima (Diamand Abou Abboud), Selim (Moustapha Al Kar) and their baby, neighbours bombed out of their flat upstairs.
Tragedy is set in motion when Selim leaves the flat to meet a journalist who has promised to help him and Halima escape from Syria into Lebanon that evening. Oum Yazan’s live-in Indian maid Delhani (Juliette Navis) is watching from the kitchen window and is distressed to see him shot by a sniper as he crosses the courtyard. Where he falls, only his unmoving feet are visible, so he could be dead or still alive. Oum Yazan stops Delhani telling Halima in order to prevent her going outside to help him and getting shot herself.
Writer and director Philippe Van Leeuw creates an atmosphere of unrelieved tension and dread from the start. The family’s apartment is the only one left occupied in their block – it’s constantly under threat from roaming militia, seeking to enter, to appropriate it as a vantage position for a sniper or simply rob it of any remaining valuables. There are footsteps overhead and repeated hammering at the door as they seek to enter and Oum Yazan tries to rebuff them. Explosions are heard in the distance as rockets land in the city. Snipers bullets whistle overhead. At times the family are forced to take cover away from the windows in the narrow kitchen. As in Puiu’s Sieranevada, the camera moves fluidly around the confines of the apartment, but in Insyriated it creates a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment that amplifies the fear that those inside it are feeling – either visibly or trying to suppress it. It comes to a head when events mean that Oum Yazan is faced with an impossible moral choice between saving her family and leaving Halima to a likely fate.
The constant fear that pulses from the screen is almost too much to watch. Performances by all are highly coloured, ramping up the nonstop tension. Navis, however, is the most nuanced, reluctant to offend or disobey her mistress yet wrestling with her sense of what is right, caught in someone else’s conflict, and it’s interesting to see the role of the migrant worker in the Syrian family. Apart from professionals Abbass, Abboud, and Navis, casting was done using Syrian refugees in Lebanon, where the film was shot.
Insyriated is an uncomfortable but must-see film – a drama that feels like a documentary – that gives a worthy insight into the plight of ordinary people in a desperate situation.
Insyriated premiered at the Berlin Film Festival and is released on 8 September 2017 in the UK.