Syrian filmmaker Nabil Maleh epitomizes the figure of the artist-activist, the socially committed and politically engaged cultural producer. Over decades of production and across genres, his work has challenged artistic, cultural, and political regimes. Maleh often cites a defining moment of childhood resistance: the seven-year-old Nabil confronted a soldier who tried to keep him off a public park swing so that military officers` children could have free rein. In return for his defiance, the boy received a slap which, as Maleh puts it, echoed throughout his life.[i]
Maleh was born in 1936, the son of a high ranking army physician, and eldest of four siblings in an elite Damascene family. He studied law at Damascus University but harbored an interest in science and a passion for writing and painting. By chance he met the Czech cultural attaché, who encouraged him to follow his dream of studying physics in Prague. With no funding available, the seventeen-year-old sold one of his paintings to UNWRA, earning enough for his first few months in Czechoslovakia. An odd job as a film extra proved an epiphany; Maleh transferred from nuclear physics to the Prague Film School, joining a cohort that included Jiri Menzel and Milos Forman. While still in Czechoslovakia, his criticism of the Nasser regime controlling Syria under the United Arab Republic attracted attention from the Syrian intelligence services and earned him a reputation as a dissident that has remained a source of hardship and inspiration.
Returning to Syria upon graduation in 1964 as the country`s first European film school graduate, Maleh made experimental shorts and continued to paint, holding his first art exhibitions. He also wrote a screenplay based on Syrian author Haydar Haydar`s novel The Leopard (al-Fahd), a fictional depiction of Abu ‘Ali al-Shahin, legendary rebel of the 1940s. A week before shooting was scheduled to begin, the Ministry of Interior revoked permission, arguing that the film glorified a thug. In 1971 The Leopard was given official clearance, and this evocation of rural resistance became the NFO`s first Syrian feature-length film.
Released in 1972, The Leopard captivated Arab audiences and introduced Syrian cinema to the global stage. The film is set in 1946, as the French Mandate forces scaled back their presence, and local feudal landlords, aghas, took their place as oppressors. The Leopard opens with, and periodically returns to, a close-up of the protagonist`s scowling face set against a raging sea, as a haunting voice-over draws on Syrian folk ballads. In the second scene, shot in silhouette, Abu ‘Ali`s wife, Shafiqa, asks why he has acquired a gun, now that the French have gone. Abu ‘Ali avoids the question, but the answer quickly emerges: Syrian landlords, backed by soldiers, demand more tribute than the peasants can afford after a bad harvest. The hero resists, is arrested and beaten, but escapes to the hills, staging guerilla attacks against the new forces of tyranny. Comrades from his days fighting the French try to join him, but Abu ‘Ali turns them away. This is his fight alone.
The soldiers attempt to coerce the rebel`s surrender by harassing the villagers and stealing their food. After a gruesome military raid kills Abu ‘Ali`s nephew, the hero`s sister cries for her brother`s blood. His rebellion has led to this fierce retaliation. Shafiqa visits Abu ‘Ali in hiding, and assures him of the villagers` support, despite the agha`s brutality. Their passionate reunion against a craggy backdrop marks Arab cinema`s first partial nude scene, as the camera caresses the length of unclothed actress Ighra’ ("Seduction," née Nihad ‘Ala al-Din) underneath the amorous rebel. Shafiqa later joins her husband in defending his position against a well-armed platoon. As Cécile Boëx notes, this depiction of female resistance subverts commercial cinema conventions, as Shafiqa is no longer merely an object of male desire, but a rifle-bearing rebel for a collective cause (2011, 135).
The peasants` conditions worsen, and ‘Abd al-Rahim "the One-Armed" is murdered for feeding his fugitive friend. Outraged, a group of village men join Abu ‘Ali in a raid on a group of soldiers dining on the agha`s meat, steal their weapons, and set fire to the warlord`s warehouse. Shafiqa and her son ‘Ali are arrested in an attempt to lure the rebel out of hiding, but he surprises the guards and stages a rescue. He returns to his posse and tries to move them to safety, but they have grown battle-worn; Abu ‘Ali is again alone. He takes brief refuge with a village elder, who questions the violent tactics have created a bloody cycle of vengeance. "I couldn`t keep quiet," Abu ‘Ali argues. "But your gun didn`t speak well for you," the sage counters, noting that the soldiers, poor men trying to feed their families, are themselves oppressed.
The peasants accuse Abu ‘Ali of fighting an unwinnable battle—and bringing the village to ruin—yet evade the authorities` demands for the hero`s whereabouts. In the end, a weary Abu ‘Ali is betrayed by his uncle, whom the rebel strangles before the arresting soldiers can pull him away. The hero is tied up and dragged through the village, then shackled in a web of chains and beaten. The seaside refrain shot widens to reveal ‘Abu ‘Ali’s manacle-bound figure walking along the shore to the gallows, where the villagers, along with the agha and his henchmen, wait in glum silence. As Abu ‘Ali hangs, an aerial shot scans the countryside, and a hazy silhouette of revolting peasants emerges on the horizon.
The Leopard represents his first sustained effort to explore, through narrative example, what has gone wrong in, and continues to plague, Syrians` revolutionary endeavors. Politics enhances rather than overwhelms film`s form. Maleh identifies with his protagonist, a lone and often lonely rebel fighting for true independence, "motivated by dignity, self-esteem and the will to go to the limit, carrying his own cross with no regret." In telling Abu ‘Ali`s story, as in his other efforts, Maleh strives for a new cinematic language, and claims no affiliation to schools of cinematic style:
I`ve never felt that there is a school that I can follow, but rather try to find my own methods. Sometimes I`m successful; but an unfolding of what we don`t know about ourselves seems to me more important than following a cinematic movement . . . there are no forms to be resurrected, only forms to be created and discovered. I avoided pre-established schools and tendencies.
Yet The Leopard employs techniques of neorealism, including themes of poverty and oppression, the use of non-professional actors, and location filming in black-and-white. The film arguably set the stylistic tone for the following decades of Syrian fictional media production. The Leopard reflects a dark aesthetic that has become the hallmark of Syrian visual style; the current uprising`s dissident cultural producers draw, wittingly or not, on a gloomy aesthetic introduced in The Leopard (Salamandra 2012; 2015).
Lovingly framed shots of the countryside and its traditional stone houses reflect careful attention to authenticity of décor and clothing. Maleh sees the film as part cultural documentation, a form of salvage anthropology, tracing what remained of "the real environment of the countryside." Scenes of rural harvest show everyday practice under the soldiers` threatening watch. Maleh describes the motivation behind his realist techniques:
The harsh environment demanded harsh solutions. I hated and still hate pretension. Color, for me at that time, felt like a false bleeding over the originality of things, characters and emotions. With The Leopard, I scouted for locations and people. The authenticity of both [in Syria`s coastal region] amazed me and corresponded exactly to my conception of the film. I even rejected makeup. I told everyone that the sunrays were the best makeup artist. Working with people from those villages who had never been to a cinema brought me an ecstatic joy.
The film`s rich local authenticity stops at language; dialogue is delivered in generic Syrian idiom. This, Maleh argues, reflects the political ethos of its era; films of the 1980s and television dramas of the 1990s onward employ local dialects—with their attendant sectarian and regional associations--often to controversial effect (Salamandra 2004). Yet the late 1970s still carried the hope of Arab unity: "I didn`t give particular attention to the dialect, because for me The Leopard was a pan-Syrian or even a pan-Arab symbol. At that time, the dialect of the Syrian coast didn`t have the same political or social connotations that it does today. I didn`t predict the apparent transition from a dialect to a position."[ii]
The Leopard was awarded the Locarno International Film Festival`s Special Leopard Prize in 1972, a level of European recognition that few Arab filmmakers have achieved. The film also enjoyed unusual local success. In the paradox-ridden Syrian film industry, most productions financed by the NFO are either banned from or simply fail to achieve distribution within country (Salti 2006). The Leopard screened in cinemas throughout Syria despite its implicit message: foreign colonialism is dead, but oppression lives on. The film and its maker occupy a privileged place in the Syrian artistic community’s collective memory, inspiring generations of media makers. Cherif Kiwan, a member of the Abu Naddara collective of dissident filmmakers, cites Ighra`’s love scene as formative: "Seeing the body of a woman on film was my first feeling of freedom, of having crossed boundaries. It influenced me more than anything directly political."[iii]
The film is remembered beyond the Middle East: South Korea`s Pusan International Film Festival of 2005 chose The Leopard as one of the "immortal masterpieces of Asian cinema."
Maleh embodies the Syrian cinema paradox: despite receiving NFO financing, the filmmaker is often treated as a dissident, a distinction he bears with honor. State funding has enabled him to forego foreign sources, permitting, he believes, a greater local authenticity. Unusually for an Arab film, The Leopard, like Maleh`s other major work The Extras, is both internationally acclaimed and locally popular. Screened in more than twenty Syrian theaters for over three months, the work established its creator`s formidable reputation in the Arab world and beyond.
Despite sporadic interference from the state representatives who, as Maleh puts it "acted more like mukhabarat (intelligence) agents than owners and administrators of cultural projects," the 1970s proved fruitful for a nascent Syrian industry. In 1972, Damascus held its first annual international film festival, promoting an alternative Arab cinema. During this time Maleh produced numerous experimental shorts, including the ninety-second Napalm, linking the Vietnam War to the Israeli Occupation inspired by wars in Palestine and Vietnam, and winning first prize at the Toulon Film Festival, and Rocks (Sakhr) exposing the perilous labor conditions of Syrian quarry workers. He also directed Labor (al-Makhad) the first third of Men under the Sun, a triptych exploring the Palestinian situation released in 1970. His privately financed spoof, Ghawar James Bond, brought Durayd Lahham`s comical television character to the big screen in 1974. Mr. Progressive (al-Sayyid al-Taqaddumi) of 1975 follows an investigative journalist`s attempts to expose middle-class corruption. For its negative portrayal of a regime figure the film was banned in Syria.
By the end of the 1970s, Syria faced rising tensions, with militant challenges from Islamists, culminating in the brutal suppression of the Hama uprising in 1982. The Ba‘thist state consolidated its control of creative expression. Maleh "collided with a cultural environment ossified in false slogans of progress,” but continued working. The year 1979 saw the release of his second masterpiece, Fragments (Baqaya Suwar), a realist treatment of the autobiographical novel by Hanna Mina, acclaimed chronicler of social life in rural Syria.[iv] Maleh was attracted to Mina`s richly drawn characters and feel for his rural environment, one evoking a "fragile human existence and search for life with dignity." Shot in color and set at the end of the 1920s, the film recounts the hard-drinking Abu Salim`s struggle to reclaim his wife`s land—usurped by a Turk—and his foiled efforts to sustain his impoverished family. A grounded sailor reduced to odd jobs in a coastal village, Abu Salim regales his neighbors with tales of seafaring exploits—"Oh Egypt, the women!"—and botches the menial work he is offered. Life on land suits him poorly; he turns to smuggling but is hijacked. His wife, Umm Salim (actress and theater director Naila al-Atrash), forages for food and begs from neighbors, including the beautiful widow (Samar Sami) with whom her husband is having an affair. Hunger sets in; the couple`s three children are forbidden to eat until the afternoon shade hits a certain rock.
The family moves to the mountains, where Umm Salim`s Uncle Barhum finds Abu Salim work with a village leader (mukhtar), a pernickety miser who washes his own clothes. But the seaman quickly tires of working the land. Peddling proves equality disastrous. The couple`s eldest daughter, barely a teen, is forced to join the mukhtar`s household as a servant to help support her family. Sericulture promises salvation; joyous scenes show villagers coddling silkworms on mulberry leaves. But India floods the international textile market with cheaper synthetics. The family`s debt to the mukhtar, who controls the village food supply, grows, and a younger daughter is sent to work in the house of an agha in the plains near the Turkish border. The family joins her after Uncle Barhum has the eldest daughter released from the mukhtar`s service.
The village is in turmoil, as the ahga`s warehouse has been robbed. No one seems to know, or care, about Abu Salim`s promised job and housing. The family witnesses a confrontation between the lord`s men and the cowering villagers. The fearless Zanuba (a triumphant Muna Wassif), named for Syria`s ancient warrior queen, strides in with a bitter laugh, accusing the village mukhtar of stealing the grain on the agha`s behalf. "You`re a dog," she taunts, "wag your tail for the agha and he`ll give you a bone." Abu Salim approaches the lord but is rebuffed. ‘Abdu, a soldier supporting the agha, recognizes his cousin Abu Salim and finds the seaman a job guarding the lord`s warehouse. He is given a rifle, earning the suspicion of his new neighbors, except for the marginal Zanuba, who befriends the family. She takes the hungry son Salim on lengthy journeys to the local version of a soup kitchen, and bathes the little boy`s infected eyes in the sea.
‘Abdu tries to attack Zanuba, but Abu Salim protects her. Tensions between the two men emerge over the over the soldier`s attitude toward the peasants, who, he argues, "don`t come out to work unless threatened with a rifle." They escalate after the hungry farmers are accused of stealing food from the agha, and the cousins find themselves on opposing sides of a battle between villagers and soldiers. The sharecroppers gather to storm the warehouse to "take what`s rightfully ours," the soldiers try to stop them, and an exchange of gunfire ensues. The outraged sailor kills his cousin. Zanuba, laughing wildly, sets fire to the lord`s warehouse, and is shot off the roof. A wounded Abu Salim delivers the film`s final line, in earshot of his terrified son: "A wasted life."
The film plays on shifts of weakness and power. Though a secondary character, it is the tall, strong, justice-seeking Barhum, rather than Abu Salim, who embodies the heroic masculine ideal. Zanuba emasculates villagers and soldiers alike with her aggression. The film widens the novel`s intimate domestic landscape to emphasize themes of domination and oppression. Maleh transforms Mina`s Abu Salim—a dissolute, womanizing drunkard—into a thwarted but dignified romantic: "Honestly, I didn`t like the idea of an alcoholic. Abu Salim had something noble and honest about him, and sought dignified existence. I could not let that go. I didn`t like the experience of the author, so I opted for what I love in people: that hardship and poverty create nobility."
[This article is a condensed version of “Nabil Maleh: Syria’s Leopard,” in Ten Arab Directors, edited by Josef Gugler (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015).]
[ii] Maleh here refers to the association of costal dialects with the ‘Alawi dominated regime, and a growing sectarianism and regionalism in Syria more generally. Syria’s Arab nationalists long held the use of dialect in literature, and the teaching of the colloquial to foreigners, as divisive practices. See Salamandra 2004 on the intersection of social, political, and religious distinctions in Syria.