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A Leopard in Winter: An Interview with Syrian Director Nabil Maleh

[Nabil Maleh. Image from Alia Yunis] [Nabil Maleh. Image from Alia Yunis]

In early January, more than 1,500 people packed three nights of screenings in Dubai of Syrian director Nabil Maleh’s film The Road to Damascus (‘A al-Sham ‘A al-Sham, 2006), a filmic journey across Syria that includes stops at its historical ruins and economically strapped towns. The screenings were sponsored by the local Syrian Business Association to raise money for Syrian refugees, and Maleh was on hand to introduce the film. For many in the audience it was their first glimpse into his nearly fifty years of filmmaking. His films are not easy to find in the Middle East or beyond, but since the release of the landmark, The Leopard (Al Fahd, 1972), Maleh has been Syria’s most internationally recognized film director.   

Rocky Horror Picture Show aside, very few films can claim to have had a 30-year theatrical run. But that is the story of The Leopard.  The film is a narrative tale about Abu ‘Ali al-Shahin, a legendary Robin Hood figure of the 1940s and in keeping with Maleh’s own lifestyle, the story of a man fighting the world imposed on him. 

Like many of Maleh’s films, it was made despite and inevitably with the support of one Syrian regime or another. Maleh finished the screenplay in 1969 but a week before shooting was to begin, the government shut down production, saying it made a hero of thug. The next year, Hafez Assad came to power, and as is often the case in regime change, there was a reversal of decisions. The Leopard went into production in 1971 with a budget of $25,000, and when it was released in 1972 went on to play continuously theatrically in Syria for the next thirty years. It won the Locarno International Film Festival’s Special Leopard Prize and was declared in 2005 by South Korea’s Pusan International Film Festival as one of the “immortal masterpieces of Asian cinema.”

None of this would have happened without Assad green lighting the script, which would lead one to think Maleh had an affection for the late dictator. He did not, nor was he a supporter of his predecessor or any person that has ruled his country during his lifetime.

He sees himself as a natural born dissident. “You have to fight for the better always,” he says in his usual mix of joviality and intensity. “I’m always against the regime. I never believed in one party. For example, I consider that I was a Marxist but I hated the Communist Party. I believe in Marx’s justice for the common man, but not in one party rule as that inevitably leads to a Fascist/Nazi system.” 

We are chatting at an outdoor café in the Dubai Mall overlooking the famous dancing fountain and Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. He and his family—his wife and two adult daughters--have been here for over a year now, and it is very far from Syria or the rest of his known world. Maybe too far on some days. He continues to develop narrative and documentary projects and works on his poetry and painting. He’s even writing his first novel about the secret life of a dreamer. But he’s not shy about his restlessness with life in the UAE as he lights one cigarette after another. “Today I have no place to contain me,” he says. 

Born into a prominent upper middle class Damascus family, Maleh began writing political columns for local papers when he was fourteen. At sixteen, he went to Czech Republic to study nuclear physics. Then one day he was asked to be an extra in a film, and he was hooked. “I realized it was the only thing I could be,” he says.  He was accepted into the highly selective Prague Film School (FAMU), whose students then included Milos Foreman and Jiri Menzel.

 [Still image from The Leopard (1972) bu Nabil Maleh.]

While a student, his resonant voice and continuing political passions served him well: he was able to make a living working at the Arab Radio Transmission, an Arabic language Czech station aimed at the Middle East. But it was cultural life of Prague, not politics that captivated him during his studies.  

“In addition to the technical side and high artistic standards, FAMU created and developed a very sophisticated cultural base for the filmmaker. Culture was a part of daily life—a daily event—a new book, play, concert, an engaging debate. And everything was accessible. It is the only place I found where culture was free of charge. I lived for one month in Prague for what a concert with bad seats with would have cost in Paris.”

He found the FAMU sensibility a better approach to film school than his experiences teaching film production in the early 1980s at the University of Texas and UCLA as a Fulbright Scholar. “It’s a totally different way of film education,” he says. “The American schools didn’t expect the students to have a strong foundation in the arts. In Prague, we had to know the works of Joyce, Dostoyevsky, and so on. When I taught at UCLA, the students honestly didn’t know who Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams were.”

His time in the US was part of continuous pattern in Maleh’s life of being in and out of Syria, mostly because of his disagreements with the government. When he returned home after film school in 1964, he lasted a year before leaving again. Then in 1968, he came back and made Crown of Thorns about Palestine. He says the 45-minute film was the first serious film about Palestine. “It was drama within a documentary,” he explains. “Critics called it the gateway to alternative Arab cinema. One image, one shot, was in color and the rest was in black and white, and this unprecedented artistic choice made quite a sensation in Europe.” 

Since then, Maleh has written, directed and/or produced scores of narrative and documentary films, a mixed filmography of banned and unbanned films, notable among them Fragments (Baqaya Suwar, 1979), based on an autobiographical novel by Hanna Mina, in which a downtrodden man in 1920s Syria tries to reclaim his land from the Turks, and the three-part The Road to Damascus (‘A al-Sham ‘A al-Sham). The road to Damascus was completed in 2006, but immediately banned.

“In early 2012 I put the English subtitles and made an international premier in Malmo FF Sweden - out of the festival,” he says.  “Then it was invited for a seminar about it by Lund University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

Last year, The Road to Damascus made its international premiere at the Malmo Film Festival in Sweden. But today he seems most excited to talk about his 90-second experimental film, made in 1970. Called Napalm, it compares the US interference in the Vietnam War to the Israeli occupation. It played throughout the world and won first prize at the Toulon Film Festival.   

You ask him if you can see it, and he shrugs. “I heard someone in Chicago might have a print.” This is the sad fate of many of his works. Neither he nor the Syrian government adequately preserved his films. “We made seven hundred copies of Napalm from a single negative,” he recalls. “That’s just not heard of. The government through the National Film Organization does have a lot of my films, but they are mostly very badly damaged.”

The Leopard and several of Maleh’s other films are children of Maleh—and the National Film Organization (NFO), a Syrian film collective formed in the 1960s, which was essentially the first managed effort to develop an Arab cinema that broke away from the creative limitations of mainstream movies, mostly made in studios in Egypt.  The NFO invited Maleh, the country’s first graduate of a European film school, to write and direct the film, based on a novel by Haydar Haydar. 

The NFO also brought into production his most controversial film, 1994’s The Extras (al-Kompars), one of the few Maleh films still easily accessible. The intentionally claustrophobic film, set mostly in a cramped Damascus apartment, is the story of two minor actors trying to have a love affair. The fear and paranoia of Big Brother, and the psychological and literal impotence it leads to, are far from subtle. “Everyone wonders how it got made.” He smiles. “I knew the Syrian government would censor it, so I went to make it in Egypt. When I came home after writing the screenplay, the head of the NFO asked if I had anything that could go into production. I told him I only had this script. They needed me. In the 1980s Syria hadn’t produced much, at least by way of important films.”

His established international reputation led to the script’s approval, but a week before it was to premier at the Damascus Film Festival, it was banned by the censorship committee and taken out of competition. However, the other Arab filmmakers coming to the festival demanded to see it.  

“So the festival played it on Friday morning at 10 a.m., a time they thought no one would come. But the theater was packed-- people were fighting to get in. It was almost like a demonstration,” he said. “It was the first time a film had been so outspoken about life in Syria.”

Maleh recalls the film playing in Damascus for the next four months to nearly sold out theatres. It also went on to win the Cairo International Film Festival. As he is telling this story, we’re interrupted several times by Al Jazeera calling to get his opinion of the decision of this year’s Cairo festival to pull out the film of a Syrian director who has publically stated he supports Bashar Assad and to comment on a film by Hala Abdullah, an anti-regime filmmaker. They persist about Abdullah’s film, and Maleh keeps insisting that there isn’t much he can say about a film he hasn’t actually seen. But he promises them that he’ll talk about what he feels knowledgeable about.

There is no doubt that he’s not happy about what Assad (and some of the opposition) is doing in Syria, but he doesn’t believe in repressing any artist, no matter whose side they are on. He’s not coy about his politics, and he is even less subtle when it comes to Arab cinema.

“What unifies Arab cinema today are the same things that unify Arab politics—the limitation of economics and expression—this doesn’t allow for a personality,” he says. “It is due to the limitations of the capital, not the cultural and artistic limitations. Arab filmmakers have always been the victims of fascist regimes and primitive producers. I feel extremely sad and insulted because I know how many dreams were thrown away.”

He credits Syria’s regionally popular television production with helping provide at least an avenue for creative expression for filmmakers. While he says he doesn’t enjoying watching or working in the TV series mode, he believes that his influence and perhaps that of other NFO pioneers, allowed Syrian TV directors to explore ways to build credible drama, using the moving camera to create a sense of real life, people, places and atmosphere. “I have always avoided the false atmosphere of the studio,” he explains. “When I started filming in real places, that was a novelty for most Arab cinema. And that moved Syrian TV directors to do so also. We know that the actor is part of an environment and he becomes more credible within the story with genuine and real surroundings. This is why the Syrian drama conquered the Egyptian drama across the Middle East.”

Syrian television has been such a domineering force in the Arab satellite universe that is discussed in drama classes at universities in Europe and even the topic of academic research. He nods. “Syrian TV drama has proven to have value--and it can cross many borders without censorship. It can penetrate the walls of censorship and still keep its integrity.”

While not a fan of television, there are stories he has enjoyed bringing to it, most notably penning the script for the 2008 miniseries Asmahan, about the iconic Syrian born Egyptian chanteuse whose complicated life ended in a mysterious car crash when she was 27.

“In Asmahan—her personality, her epic story--I found an inspiration to my ever provocative question about women. Asmahan was for me all women because in the women who I knew, starting from my mother to my love affairs, they have been so rich, like crystals with so many shining sides,” he says. “A woman can be weak, strong, passionate, cruel. I like these multiple faces of a woman. I hate the linear way that conventional traditional films deal with women. I love women as an abstract concept.”

Maleh is happy for Syrian TV directors but mourns the film directors. “How many filmmakers have died without scratching the shape of their artistic dream,” he says. “But that is a pan Arab case.” He agrees there are individuals who have been able to break through the barriers, like Nadine Labaki, but they are phenomena, not daily reality.

In 2006, Maleh was honored by the Dubai International Film Festival, along with Oliver Stone and Shah Rukh Khan, for his filmic achievements. “I thought it was my entrance after all my years of rejecting working with the Gulf states,” he says. “I had the illusion that this could be something. But in my year here I have found so many contradictions that have surprised and disappointed me. There is a huge cultural gap between this place and me. I look around and think what a loss of time, energy and money because of the hidden feeling of inferiority. On one hand, I have 100 percent respect for the monumental achievements regarding the urban life with its complicated infrastructure. Quite admirable. So they have surpassed their inferiority complex by creating highly developed surroundings mostly made of stone, cement and glass. On the other hand, they are catching up with culture (art, intellectual pursuits) by importing it, primarily from the West. I can’t blame them. They are doing what they can but it is schizophrenic on one hand. If I were them, I would subdue the Western culture, especially its false or commercial faces, and think of themselves as incubators for Arab thinking and creativity. Culture is an amalgamation of minds without complexes of inferiority and superiority.”

He gets most worked up about funding. “Americans come here seeking money for their films. They don’t need it. It is a scam,” he says. “An Arab film can be produced for half the money. But the Arab is not carrying the right citizenship.

When Arab organizations support an Arab film, it feels like zakat. Meanwhile, they are begging for Western involvement. This is humiliating and insulting—they do not own the rights to these Western films they give money to, they have no input in them.”

Sometime during our conversation, the Dubai Mall’s fountain begins its dancing for the evening, Arabic pop music blaring across the manmade lake. Maleh joins the rest of the crowd gathering at railing and starts filming the fountain with his iPhone.

“Okay, that’s enough of that for today,” he says with a smile as he sits back down. He too is admittedly schizophrenic about the city, being drawn to what works and repelled by what he feels is missing in the Gulf. 

In a few days, he is traveling to Qatar to work with Enana, a Syrian dance troupe that will perform in Doha. Like for the group’s show, Saladin, in 2010, this will be a combination of stage and screen, “a salute to knowledge,” and Maleh will be creating the filmic background. Later this winter, he will do a residency at the prestigious MacDowell Colony in the US.

“When people ask me how are you, I usually say “I don’t know.” A day is good if I have written a little something or a click of an idea came to me or I discovered a funny story,” he says. “There must be an addition to that day. Otherwise it is not a good day. I think in extracts more than a whole. My screenplays are extracts of the day, my feelings, events that played a role in my life, my friends’ lives or the country. I have to have something to express. Otherwise, I start hating the world. Our lives equal what we express.”

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