Belgium/France/Lebanon (2017) Dir. Philippe Van Leeuw
War films almost instinctively tend to focus on either those on the front line or the firsthand civilian victims of military oppression. Belgian writer-director Philippe van Leeuw chooses to focus on a lesser featured contingent to suffer during a conflict, those on the periphery with no direct investment aside from simply surviving.
In the war torn Syrian capital of Damascus, barricaded in a single apartment is the family of Oum Yazan (Hiam Abbass), her two young daughters Yara (Alissar Kaghadou) and Aliya (Ninar Halabi), son Yazan (Mohammad Jihad Sleik), father-in-law Mustafa (Mohsen Abbas) and their maid Delhani (Juliette Navis). They are also sheltering Yara’s boyfriend Kareem (Elias Khatter) as well as neighbours Halima (Diamand Abou Abboud), Selim (Moustapha Al Kar) and their newborn baby.
With Yazan’s husband currently away to seek help, Yazan strives to keep everyone safe, not letting them out unnecessarily and controlling the food and water rations. Ahead of leaving the flat, Selim sneaks out to meet someone who will help them when he is shot in the courtyard, witnessed by Delhani. She tells Yazan who instructs Delhani no to say anything but keeping this secret in such cramped quarters simply adds to the already fraught tension.
Known primarily as a cinematographer with an impressive CV, van Leeuw steps into the director’s chair for only the second time in his career, following 2009’s The Day God Walked Away about the Rwandan genocide. This helps in some way to explain why a Belgian is making a film about Syrians rather than the Syrians themselves, presumably because Syria doesn’t have much of a film industry to begin with.
Regardless of this, Insyriated can boast plenty of authenticity with its Arabic speaking cast (some of whom are Syrian refugees) and proxy location of Beirut, a city with its own history of war atrocities. This is also reflected in the unnerving atmosphere created via the ominous silence that permeates through the singular setting of the apartment, punctuated by the chilling gunshot reminders of the conflict happening beyond their covered-up windows.
As the last remaining tenants in the apartment where the lines of communication have been largely cut off, Yazan and the others are practically on their own, hiding behind a boarded up front door which Yazan only opens for emergencies. Selim and Halima have been bombed out of their upstairs apartment so Yazan temporarily took them in, while Kareem is staying until it is safe to return home.
We have a range of disparate personalities cramped into one rather spacious apartment, from the stoic grandfather who sit around smoking (even around the baby – yuk!), to the juniors too young to understand the gravity of the horrors surrounding them; from Halima’s quiet hope at being able to leave soon with Selim, to Yazan’s matriarchal control over the running of the house and the safety of those within. Ordinarily something would have to give and in this scenario, the catalyst for that is decidedly grim.
Selim’s swift downing by a hidden sniper aside, everything violent and dangerous is kept off screen, with van Leeuw evoking the drama from the sound of a gunshot or the banging on the door. The latter begets arguably the most harrowing scene in the entire film when two men break into the apartment forcing everyone to hide in the kitchen, except Halima whose baby is in the bedroom.
Halima is caught by the men, verbally abused when she refuses to give the other away and then raped by one them, stopping only when the other finds the baby, which he wants to sell. Nothing explicit or prolonged is shown, just enough to delineate the level of humiliation and suffering Halima endures; the true horror is drive home by Yazan and the others stuck in the kitchen able to hear every scream, every raised voice and every slap, desperately silencing their own helpless cries of anguish at Halima’s ordeal.
It is a truly horrifying segment of unbridled, gnarly intensity, unmitigated in its appalling degradation, not just emphasising the many ways in which war makes monsters of men, but the sheer arrogance and lack of moral fibre to behave so mercilessly and selfishly in times of despair and uncertainty. Not even the barricaded doors and closed curtains can prevent evil from reaching this frightened collective.
The moral quandary that arises from this for Yazan sheds further questions about how selfless we really are in times of peril. By ordering everyone to say put while Halima is attacked Yazan is rightfully protecting her family from harm, the same protection she willingly offered Halima and Selim, which makes Halima’s sacrifice – especially in lieu of Yazan not telling her about Selim’s shooting – a vain gesture that could have been avoided.
With a handheld camera always on the move to capture the nervous claustrophobic energy of the apartment, it doesn’t feel as if the audience is an observer here; we are in the thick of the moment the arguing, the panic, the tears and the dread all palpable. The only detraction from this is the mawkish musical soundtrack that feels designed to dictate the viewer’s feelings when the visuals and otherwise pervasive silence are more than sufficient to provoke our emotions.
Being the equivalent of a single setting play, the small cast evokes the sense of an ensemble piece although most of the names may not be familiar, the possible exception being Hiam Abbass. As Yazan she is wonderfully indomitable yet her intrinsic vulnerability is never diminished, but it is Diamand Abou Abboud’s star making turn as the embattled Halima, so fragile yet quietly resolute, that proves the most memorable.
It is perhaps long overdue for a film to explore this side of the tragedies and vicissitudes of war, and while Insyriated has many stylistic and narrative parallels, van Leeuw can lay claim to trying something new with this needling and compellingly gravid work that haunts us long after the credits have rolled.