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Berlin panorama doc ‘Damascus’ documents the silent war against women in Syria

3 min read

While the world has watched — often in silence — as a decade-long civil war has torn Syria apart, exiled filmmakers Talal Derki (“Of Fathers and Sons”) and Heba Khaled say an equally brutal but less visible war is still raging.

In “Under the Sky of Damascus,” which premieres Feb. 20 at the Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama strand, the pair shift the lens to the silent majority of Syrian women who routinely face sexual harassment, violence and abuse in their patriarchal society.

The film follows a tight-knit group of young Syrian women who embark on a radical project to produce a play that exposes the culture of mistreatment and sexual abuse that has blighted women’s lives in their country for generations.

Across the war-weary Syrian capital, they record the testimonies of stay-at-home mothers from actresses to factory workers, revealing how women across Syrian society share the same horror stories of abuse, blackmail and even imprisonment at the hands of men. Those who wield unchecked power in the ruins of post-war Syria.

“I’m a survivor myself,” says first-time director Khaled, who grew up in a deeply conservative Muslim family in Damascus and left Syria in 2014. Documentary film [since the start of the war]. It’s been something we’ve wanted for a long time, and now is the time to do it.”

It was by no means an easy feat to pull off. Derki, whose previous, critically acclaimed documentaries explored Syria’s brutal civil war through the stories of men fighting on the front lines, has been blacklisted by the regime of the country’s strongman President Bashar al-Assad; Both he and Khaled, his wife, who met as journalists covering the early years of the conflict, said returning to Syria would be a virtual death sentence.

Instead, they enlisted the help of Damascus-based co-director Ali Wajih, who followed the five actresses as they recorded heartbreaking accounts of the women’s abuse at the hands of their husbands, fathers, brothers, employers and other men—a situation that became even more critical after the war. “Become,” Derke said.

“Under the Sky of Damascus” is produced by Real Lava and Jujur in association with Rustic Canyon Pictures and Sama Art in association with Impact Partners and Daraz. The film received a post-production grant from the Doha Film Institute and was supported by a grant from the Catapult Film Fund.

Derrick’s follow-up to the acclaimed “Return to Homes” and the Oscar-nominated “Of Fathers and Sons” is in some ways a response to those films. The directors decided they needed to find new ways to shed light on life in post-Syria, choosing to focus the documentary on the women who are now bearing the burden of rebuilding the country, even though power remains frustratingly out of reach.

“The minority of men who have control — they’re like 25% of the whole society — are still exercising and exercising their power, their masculinity, in countries like Syria,” Derky said. “Women don’t have a voice,” added Khaled.

Many find that voice in film. “Under the Sky of Damascus” is a testament to the courage of the women on camera — at tremendous personal risk — to share their stories of abuse. Actresses seeking to bring those stories to the stage also do so with potentially disastrous personal and professional consequences.

The film takes a shocking turn when the women realize that the issues they’re exploring hit much closer to home than meets the eye, nearly derailing the project and forcing them to confront — in painfully intimate terms — the exploitation they’ve been documenting.

The actresses and the filmmakers realized that they had to see the project through to the end. Khaled said, “I hope women see this film and decide to change their lives. “I fought and struggled for it. And I will not give up. It’s a long journey, but it will happen eventually.”

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