Syria has its own legendary singer/actor and ‘ud player Farid al-Atrash (1915-1974). He is referred to as “the king of ‘ud” and widely followed and imitated. In more recent times, singer Lena Chamamyan of Armenian origin, with her mixture of Syrian and Armenian music with Western influence is also an acclaimed star, who has drawn attention also from foreign media. Before the war, every year in June, the Jazz Lives in Syria Festival was held both in Damascus and Aleppo, but the last edition mentioned in its official website dates back to 2010.
The Ministry of Culture controls several theatre venues in Damascus and in other cities. Among these, the Damascus Opera House, Dar al-Asad li-l-funnun wa’l-thaqafa (al-Asad House for Arts and Culture), which has remained open despite the war, even after being badly damaged by a mortar attack in April 2014. Attendance even briefly swelled to pre-war numbers in the December following the attack, according to Agence France Presse. In general, theatre in Syria is a state-controlled activity: Not only due to the funding mechanism, but also because scripts are submitted to the Ministry of Culture for approval and censors attend rehearsals. Therefore, self-censorship is very common and prompted. However, over the years the best Syrian directors and playwrights have engaged forbidden topics and critiqued the government’s use of surveillance and torture, sometimes employing paradox and surrealism, all too often risking to be imprisoned, excluded from the scenes and/or suffer from reprisal.
Today, not surprisingly, the majority of the country’s best-known theatre directors and writers work outside of their homeland. Some of them, like ‘Umar Abu Sa‘da, Muhammad al-‘Attar and Nawar Bulbul, have created therapeutic theatre pièces with refugees (in January 2018 the former two have completed their theatrical trilogy, dedicated to the lives of women seeking refuge from war: Trojan Women in 2013, Antigone of Shatila in 2014 and Iphigenia in Germany; the latter has been working with children in the Za‘tari refugee camp in Jordan to stage Shakespeare’s plays). However, there are still some artists who continue to live and perform in Syria, as it is the case of Usama Ghanam, theatre director, dramaturg and translator, who is the founder and technical director of a unique initiative, the Damascus Theatre Laboratory, an independent art circle for theatre based in Damascus. Since 2011, he has been running long-term training programs for young Syrian playwrights. His latest play, Drama, a free adaptation of Sam Shepard’s “True West” set in Damascus, spreads the message that the city persists in living despite the unstopping fight.
As far as the national cinema scene is concerned, in 1963, with the rise to power of Ba‘th Party, al-Mu’assasa al-‘amma li-l-sinama (National Film Organisation – NFO) was created. Over the years NFO has been almost the only film producer in Syria, the distributor of foreign films in the country and of Syrian films abroad. “A lot of films of the NFO, after the script was approved and everything was completed, were banned. Other films disappeared immediately for a certain period, and then returned to circulation. Sometimes, first they were forbidden and then allowed. Other times their commercial diffusion was forbidden but their screening in festivals, in Syria or abroad was permitted.” (Nicosia, 2007) In 1979, the Mihrajan Dimashq al-sinama’i al-duwali (Damascus International Film Festival) was launched, which was held every two years until November 2010. Due to the tight control of censorship, directors and screenwriters have been often forced to use complex symbolism or to take refuge in historical themes. Among Syrian most famous directors who have gained also international fame, it is worth mentioning: ‘Abd al-Latif ‘Abd al-Hamid, Samir Dhikra, Muhammad Malas, Usama Muhammad, Nabil al-Malih etc. With the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, filmmaking and all other forms of artistic expression underwent deep changes.
Videos became particularly important as activist tools and works in a variety of media began to appear online. The majority of the videos that have been produced amidst the current conflict have been driven more by the wish to document a particular moment or situation than by aesthetic pursuits. However, many works stand out and some movies have gained international attention and received prizes all over the world. Among the latest: Akhir al-rijal fi Halab (Last Men in Aleppo, 2017), by Firas Fayyad, which earned critical acclaim and numerous awards and nominations, including the 2018 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature; or Yom Adaatou Zouli (The Day I Lost My Shadow, 2018), by Soudade Kaadan, which won the 2018 “Lion of the Future”, the Venice Film Festival award for a debut film.
In the 2000s Syria witnessed an outpouring of musalsalat (TV series), intended for the national market but also for other Arab countries (mainly of the Gulf). The industry has not interrupted its production during the current conflict and has managed to produce an average of twenty serials per year since the uprising began. Serials are shot in Damascus or in neighbouring Lebanon under arduous wartime conditions; they air despite Gulf boycotts (Salamandra, 2016). Nowadays, Syrians have also access to Netflix and are exposed to a variety of foreign TV series that is inevitably impacting the internal market. If musalsalat have always tackled themes considered taboos, in recent years they have started to reflect also on the war and its causes. Scholar Christa Salamandra explains that “drama creators work to expose what they deem the pathologies of a flawed, regressing political and social evolution,” citing as an example the 2018 series al-Waq waq (The Back of Beyond), where a group of Syrian people of various religious, class, regions, and ethnicities are shipwrecked on a deserted island. They resolve to create a democracy, but it devolves into dictatorship. The series reflects on politics, collective memory, history and the representation of the past. In April 2020, a Ramadan series, the detective drama Muqabala ma‘a al-sayyid Adam (An Interview with Mr Adam) hit the headlines and was met with revulsion, because the picture of a 24-year-old woman, died when in custody of the government, was used to represent a fictional murdered woman. The photography used in the musalsal was the same through which the family of the young woman had discovered her death, one of the thousands released by a dissident military police photographer in 2014, in what came to be known as the Caesar report.
In an interview to the opposition website Enab Baladi, Syrian director Tha’ir Musa explains also the moves of the Syrian government in the cinema industry: “At the beginning [of the Syrian conflict] the interest of the regime turned to drama to convoy its point of view and devote its narrative to the musalsalat, serving its policy. However, such musalsalat were rejected by pan-Arab channels that refrained from showing series dealing with the Syrian situation, whether they were from the side of the regime, or the opposition’s. This pushed the regime towards cinema, which ensures it reaches international public opinion and the largest segment of public through festivals featuring these films.” It is a fact that – judging from the information on its official websites – starting from 2018 the National Film Organisation has produced, co-produced, or funded more film projects than in the previous few years. These films present the official narrative of the Syrian government on the war and the destruction in the country, ascribing all the responsibility to terrorists and a foreign conspiracy. Some recent examples are: Dimashq-Halab (Damascus-Aleppo, by Basil Khatib, starring the famous actor Duraid Lahham), the story of a father’s journey between the two cities of the title, where the destruction of Aleppo is attributed to the “opposition”; Musafiru al-harb (War Travellers, by Jud Sa‘id) narrates another journey of another father when the war is raging and the battle of Aleppo is at its peak; and Rajul al-thawra (Revolution Man, by Najdat Anjur) is the story of a foreign journalist that illegally enters Syria and witnesses a chemical massacre, which the film portrays as staged by “opposition groups”. Overall, also the film industry has benefitted from a more open attitude triggered by the 2011 revolution, even among the films produced by NFO. However, Palestinian-Syrian writer and critic Rashid Issa points out that “while traditional forms of censorship may have eased up a little, others have appeared.” Religious and sectarian issue have started becoming red lines. The example reported by Issa is related to the big controversy over director Najdat Anzour’s latest film Dam al-nakhil (Blood of Palm Trees) released in September 2019, which forced the filmmaker to suspend screenings, apologise and later remove the scene where the actor who plays the role of a coward soldier speaks with a Druze accent from Suwayda.
In 2020, two Syrian films Ila Sama (For Sama) by Waad al-Khatib and Edward Watts and al-Kahf (The Cave) by Firas Fayyad were nominated for the Oscars in the Best Documentary category (Firas Fayyad had previously received a nomination in 2018 for another documentary) and are now available for the international audience respectively on Netflix and Amazon Prime. In recent years, the growth of documentaries has sparked off intense debates among Syrians and foreign observers alike. For example, Syrian journalist Wassim al-Sharqi suggests in his article on the independent media platform Syria Untold that the film ‘An al-aba’ wa-l-abna’ (Of Fathers and Sons) by Talal Derki, which explores the life of a family of Islamist fanatics in Idlib, gained the 2019 Oscar nomination in the documentary section, thanks to the “adherence of (the director’s) orientation to the prioritization of anti-terrorism policy adopted by different US administrations… at the expense of pressuring the Syrian regime to realise a political change in the country”. More in general, many of the documentaries appeared in recent years are blamed for their complaisance to mainstream aesthetics and taste–which makes them more marketable—sometimes to the detriment of their “local” credibility, as scholar and media specialist Donatella Della Ratta explains in her review on world acclaimed Ila Sama, featured on Syria Untold.
In 2015, in the Kurdish-held northern region there was the first edition of the “Rojava Film Days”, which screened all-time classics from all around the region and the world in the main cities. The next year, it became “Rojava Film Festival” and in 2018 the festival took the name of Kobane International Film Festival (KIFF) and opened in the eponymous town. For every movie featured in the festival the organisers provide subtitles in Kurmanji to “support the effort of the Kurdish community to speak their own language” (as stated on the festival website). Moreover, the festival organises workshops and panels on cinema. Each year, the festival starts on the 13 of November to commemorate a fire that burned down a cinema of ‘Amuda (a town in the far north-east of the country) in November 1960, killing hundreds of children. The responsibilities for this tragic event are still controversial, and the central government of Damascus has always forbidden any public commemorations of the victims. In 2019 the name of the festival changed again in Rojava International Film Festival with a new website, which is less rich and detailed than the previous one. However, due to the October Turkish offensive into northeast Syria, it was not held and the organisers invited people all around the world to help the festival having its third edition by screening one or more of the selected films abroad. Promotion of Kurdish cultural production in the public space occurs also through the Rojava Theatre Festival, which until 2016 was called the Kurdish Theater Festival, and has changed its name, erasing the adjective “Kurdish” to respect cultural diversity; or the Festival of Arts and Literature organised by the Union of Intellectuals of Rojava – whose first edition was held in Germany in 2014. In addition to these, libraries and houses of culture and arts devoted to Kurdish heritage have been flourishing in recent years in the main cities of the northeastern region.
There are no major players among religious leaders who have an influence on a wide geographical environment: The majority are mosque preachers and Sunni religious figures, as well as priests and Christian authorities.