Despite its clunky title, Belgium writer-director Philippe Van Leeuw’s Insyriated takes us powerfully past the drawn-windows and barricaded door of a ruined Damascus apartment and locks us into the societal deterioration that has unfolded across Syria during the civil war.
On one day, with one family unit, we come to witness the slow, creeping devastation that changes their lives’ irrevocably. The claustrophobic atmosphere that permeates Van Leeuw’s film is not only heightened through the intense confinement he places us into but also in being so close to the hopes, fears and despair of those residing inside. Insyriated is a taut, elegiac piece of cinema, that handles its subject matter with uncompromising, painful honesty.
Oum Yazan (Hiam Abbass) protects her family and neighbours from the ravages of the civil war that is taking place outside the balcony and beyond the door sealed with two sturdy planks of wood. Gun shots that clatter distantly in the background, helicopters swooping noisily overhead, limited water and a queue for the bathroom have become the daily lives of these individuals. Despite the clear decline in her standard of living, Oum attempts to keep control over her family and live-in maid Delhani (Juliette Navin-Bardin). However when neighbour Samir (Moustapha Al Kar) is shot by a sniper trying to cross the courtyard, which is witnessed by Delhani and relayed to Oum, the matriarch decides to keep this secret from Samir’s wife Halima (Diamond Abou Abboud), who has a baby son. Her decision has lasting consequences, as the secret threatens to come out and the wider, unspoken truth begins to dawn on all of those sealed within. War is soon banging at the door and the lives they once knew are over.
Despite the dramatic contrivance that initiates the film’s action and closes it, Van Leeuw’s portrayal of this family under siege never wavers from its increasingly disturbing realism and sense of inevitable fall-out. From the nuanced, fragile performances of its ensemble to a truly traumatising sequence in which two looters manage to enter the apartment, Van Leeuw gives us an intimacy with the impact of war on ordinary civilians that I have never seen in cinema before nor felt so evocatively. Often its in the finer details- sweaty closeness between the characters; Delphine pouring water from a container while gazing exhaustedly out of the window as explosions echo far away (she doesn’t even flinch); Halima trying to care for her baby in a cramped room. Yet the greater internal costs the war is reaping is also accentuated in elderly Abou Monzer (Mohsen Abbas) chain-smoking, weary un-fallen tears in his eyes, staring at a bookcase filled with Syrian literature. It is embodied further when Oum lies upon her family dining-room table in the darkness, clinging to the unseen: the memory of her family, gatherings now gone. These images have stayed with me, hauntingly, since I saw the film- this urge for normalcy, safety and memory while the world outside collapses. Virginie Surdej’s cinematography breaks from its suffocating, at times agonising, closeness to a graceful tracking that feels mournful. While Jean-Luc Fafchamp’s piano score might seem uninspired, it does bear the emotional tone that turns the drama from a brutal Aristotelean chamber-piece to a family and a country’s requiem.
There is little piety here, however. Each character faces the ethical dilemmas that the war brings down upon them. Despite the controlled environment of Oum’s home, almost unblemished by the war, the morally dubious actions of the characters confront us with the possibility that any of us could and would make venal, cowardly negotiations and choices in these circumstances. Here, Van Leeuw offers no platitudes, easy answers or contrived solutions that elevate these people. It is a rare, difficult honesty that will admit ‘at least its not me’ when hearing horrors from relative safety. There are some small acts of merciful humour, mostly concentrated around the difficulties of living in confinement (‘You don’t want to go toilet after Grandpa’ one of Oum’s children jokes) and burgeoning teenager romance (‘Why are you naked?’ Oum sternly observes of her daughter, then later her boy friend who is sleeping on the sofa). This is delivered by a committed ensemble of actors that feel believable as a unit thrown together in their trepidations and barely spoken hopes. Abbass’ tense central performance balances a commanding presence with the terrifying fears and loneliness she holds inside and this comes masterfully to the surface in the third act. Joined by Navin-Bardin’s reserved, yet sympathetic Delphine and shy, yet unbelievably tough Abboud’s Hamila, these women are the trinity that hold our focus throughout, at times unbearably.
‘Don’t worry about the world outside. It’s not worth it any more’ Abou tells Oum, though he is speaking more to himself. Van Leeuw’s film remains somewhat bipartisan, not taking sides within the conflict- these people are caught between and the context remains obscure. Insyriated doesn’t end with a conclusion, it is only a more difficult beginning that awaits them. Of course, its topicality reminded me of Matthew Heineman’s recent documentary City of Ghosts (perhaps a similar title would have served for the UK/US market- it feels far more apt a metaphor than immolation) but also John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, for its emotional and thematic resonance. For anyone who doesn’t understand what happens when ordinary lives are totally stripped by war- this is a necessary, confronting watch.