It was 10 AM in Los Angeles when I arrived at the screening for Under the Sky of Damascus, a documentary directed by Heba Khaled, Talal Derki, and Ali Wajeeh. I went into the theater not knowing what to expect, and came out feeling like I just watched a very familiar glimpse of life in the Middle East post-Arab Spring.
While the film is incredible in its own right, it especially hit home for me – so much so that I have been struggling to write about it. I experienced the Arab Spring and its aftermath firsthand in Egypt. My upbringing occurred in a society full of contradiction and hypocrisy. Under The Sky Of Damascus examines the same constant clash between a societal desire to be “European” or “Westernized” and the backwards, conservative values of traditional religious extremism that gave me whiplash growing up. Much like the women in this film, the ever present undertones of machismo, misogyny, and sexual oppression in society have left me scarred, confused, and unsure of my place in the world.
I recognize my privilege in being able to write this article from the United States, and being able to have the distance needed to heal – a privilege that the subjects of Under The Sky Of Damascus do not have. This is why this film is too urgent to ignore, too dire not to write about.
Under The Sky Of Damascus examines gender dynamics in post-war Syria, where the Arab Spring hit hardest and left the country in a decade-long war that was recently declared “over.” The country, and those within it, now grapple with the aftermath of the conflict, which has led to massive emigration, brain drain, and left those still standing in a terrifying, mafia-like dynamic of oppressor and oppressed.
As you may have already guessed, women are not on the winning side of this equation. The direness of the situation is embodied by the fact that Heba Khaled, the creator of the film, could not even be on site for filming due to being banned from entering her own country.
We begin by following a group of Syrian women who are on a mission to create a testimony-based play that highlights the sexual violence faced by women in the country. The group conducts various interviews with women from different echelons of Syrian society. While the specifics of each testimony are different, the underlying message remains the same: women in Syria are more oppressed than ever, and exploitation by men in power is rampant and without consequence.
While the specifics of each testimony are different, the underlying message remains the same: women in Syria are more oppressed than ever, and exploitation by men in power is rampant and without consequence.
For example, one woman was able to leave her abusive marriage, but is now condemned to work at a scrapyard and is forbidden from seeing her children, who still live with their father and his family. Another woman, a student at a center for the deaf, recounts how a group of men took advantage of her disability to attack and assault her. As now-disenfranchised actress and interview subject Sabah Al-Salem put it, “women are more enslaved than ever.
The film slowly and poignantly depicts different interviewees’ experiences with sexual abuse. Many of the victims choose to remain anonymous, and their voices are superimposed on images of derelict interiors and empty, haunting spaces. The creators accentuate the bleakness of daily life in Syria by using lights going out as a motif, perhaps mirroring the disappearance of light in Syrian women’s eyes after years of abuse have chipped away at their dignity and their right to exist and move freely within society.
The shots of power going out, whether in a room or in a whole neighborhood, add an extra layer of darkness to an already difficult existence. They serve as a reminder of the consequences of the war, of the fact that the country is no longer willing or able to tend to its citizens’ needs, leaving them to fend for themselves in an anarchist state governed by criminals hungry for power.
The mercilessness of the sexual exploitation truly bubbles to the surface when the subject of abuse no longer becomes reserved for the interviewees, but plagues the cast of the film itself. One of the members of the group, Eliana, suddenly calls the rest of the group and informs them she no longer wishes to be involved.
After some investigation, it is later found that she herself was being exploited by a member of the crew, Adel, who blackmailed her into pulling out of the project. This unexpected turn of events truly shows the depth of the problem in Syria, and the lack of protections available for women across the board.
Sexual exploitation cannot be explained away by religion, conservatism, or social status.
Sexual exploitation cannot be explained away by religion, conservatism, or social status. It is a plague that has rooted itself within all areas of Syrian (and Middle Eastern) society, and is often hidden under layers of corruption and a hush-hush mentality. Even within the more “open” circles of acting and media, this remains a problem.
Men like Adel may hide under friendliness and supposed openness and Westernized views, but they are no different than their more conservative counterparts. It is important to approach this film, and the situation in Syria, as a microcosm of the Middle East, where men are often left to treat women as they please with little-to-no consequence.
Truthfully, I do not know how to end this as I feel there is so much to say. Under The Sky Of Damascus is a must-see, an effective call to action for a region whose problems are often not discussed. I hope to see this film continue to make its way to festivals, industry executives, and larger audiences. I urge every reader to watch this film – as it is only through telling these stories that anything will change.
© Farah Elattar (03/08/23) — FF2 Media®
Watch a preview of Under The Sky Of Damascus.
Watch a trailer of Heba Khaled and Talal Derki’s Oscar-nominated documentary about jihadism and terrorist recruitment in Syria, Of Fathers And Sons.
Read more about Talal Derki’s Return To Homs, a documentary that explores Syria’s initial taste of freedom in the Arab Spring, followed by the violence that ensues.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Raed Sandid / Berlin International Film Festival.
Bottom Photo: The cast of Under The Sky Of Damascus cleaning the rubble out of their new apartment. Photo courtesy of Fusion Entertainment on behalf of Under The Sky Of Damascus.