Taht Al-Sakif opens with blue-hued shots of a damp ceiling. Bulbuous drops dislodge one by one and land, disappearing into nothing but a wet blot on an upturned palm. As the camera slowly pans out, the audience is welcomed to an apartment cramped to the ceiling with books, a home video playing on television and the remnants of a gathering - coffee-stained cups and leftover meals. Like the ceiling and the damp that presses upon the inhabitants of the old Damascus apartment, the film's protagonist Marwan (Rami Hanna) is a character struggling to keep under check, any emotion that threatens to bleed out of its well-defined boundaries.
A videographer and aspiring filmmaker, he documents gatherings, re-plays memories and recalls his family's migration as refugees from one fractured country in the Middle East to another. Names and dates, though specified, do not matter. Political chronology merely serves as the needle to weave together the disparate threads that make up Marwan's close circle of compatriots and friends. But that pattern comes undone when Marwan's best friend, housemate and larger than life mentor Ahmad (Fares Helou) dies the morning after their drunken revelry.
After Marwan wakes up, he makes coffee and re-plays the video footage of their singing and dancing. Ahmad on the video speaks, quotes poetry, wobbles and tumbles - swimming with alcohol. But Ahmad - the man lying on the bed - doesn't move and Marwan realises another life has been extinguished.
The juxtaposition - a life captured as footage, as document versus the body that used to be animated by that spirit - is telling and sets the tone for the remainder of the film: documented memories are easier to handle because they can be edited, spliced and recast in a way best suited to personal proclivities. But a real person with an ever-shifting present and future spells more ambiguous possibilities.
With Ahmad's death then, Marwan's political and poetic anchor ceases to exist and the buried feelings that Ahmad's considerably younger wife Lina and Marwan share for each other, forces its way to the surface, leaking beyond damp outlines: towels chucked up towards the ceiling to stop the drip won't do and buckets are overflowing. It's an image al-Dibs repeatedly uses and it is a metaphor that the entire film is built upon.
As if Lina and Marwan's emotions are contagious, their community of friends and family members begin to weave in and out of the narrative and literally in and out of each other's homes. Linearity is abandoned and replaced by awkward silences, arguments and words awkwardly strung together, as characters wrestle with their relationships.
While critics have praised the debut effort by the Moscow's VIGIK film school-trained al-Dibs, some have criticised the film for its segues and tangential, overly moody quality. It takes away, say critics, focus and direction in the film.
It's not an unfair observation, but as al-Dibs revealed in an interview during the 19th Singapore International Film Festival in April this year, where his film was in competition for the Silver Screen Awards, along with other Asian films, introspection is lacking in both the cinematic oeuvre and the very culture of his contemporaries.
The reflective, angst-ridden and perhaps even indulgent tendencies of his characters are, it seems, a necessary process. Call it growing pains, or catharsis, but confusion is a part of the package. In that regard, however, al-Dibs is not alone. Along with his contemporaries like Jocelyne Saab and Mani Haghighi from Lebanon and Iran respectively, al-Dibs wants to direct his cinematic gaze towards the prohibited, the thus far unspoken issues of the day for people in the Middle East. And whereas Saab's Kiss Me Not on the Eyes (2005) and Haghighi's latest film Men At Work (2006) which tackle sexual identity and being/nothingness respectively, al-Dibs wants to start from square one: how do I even say what I feel?
Q: What are the most pressing issues for you right now, as a Syrian and as a filmmaker?
A: I think the misconception of the Arab world by outsiders and the miscommunication or misunderstanding we're seeing is a big issue. I've noticed that in particular in the last few years when I've travelled to international film festivals around the world. When I encounter such things, it seems like the history of the Arab world only started 10 years ago! And even then, if that's all you know, more has happened in the last 10 years than people seem to be aware of. What most people know is the actions of a small minority, of factions in society. For example, in the last 20 years, Iraq has always been a very important cultural centre for Arabs. We always thought of it as one of the most secular centres or cities. The current western concept of this country is very different from what it is and what it was.
Q: How does that present obstacles and challenges for you as an Arab intellectual?
A: The problem is that we want to show Syria as it really is, as we know it but for example, people watch my films and feel it's unrealistic, or that it's fantasy. This isn't so much the audience's fault or the filmmaker's. It's a direct result of how the mainstream media has perpetuated a certain impression of the Arab world or of Syria in my case.
In this era, the media has managed to use and abuse the medium to express only their views of things.
Q: What problems are you facing as a filmmaker in terms of distribution, support for cinema and so on?
A: Arab filmmakers face the problem of having very little support internally. So they seek that financial support or otherwise from the west but face the problem of misconceptions about the Arab world. So when they offer support, it can come with expectations and conditions of what the end product should be like. So you either compromise what you want to do, or do it alone without funding. Either way, it's hard!
Q: What about the ways in which politics meshes and affects film or art in general? We're talking a little bit here about how the Arab world's history has been reduced to what has happened in the last 10 years and worse still, to ideas of Islamic fundamentalism, as if this is all that the Arab world stands for. Can you say more about that?
A: That's actually a bigger problem we face...I know we face it in Syria because there is such a strong correlation between film, culture and politics. Because of the political situation in our region, it is a part of our everyday life, so our creativity is constantly affected by it. It's not really a choice. We just get affected. The main issue in the film (Under the Ceiling) is to ask, how can you pull yourself away from politics? The film tries to show how difficult it is to be detached from the political reality that surrounds us. There is this whole generation in Syria that has taken on politics as an integral part of their lives and their everyday existence, but then, the problem is that they are lost without it.
So Under the Ceiling is about a segment of this generation that wants to let go of all that. They want to look inside themselves, look at themselves as individuals. But they find it a struggle to even do that.
I remember I was having a conversation with my wife once and we got into an argument. I told her: see, our big problems have made us forget our smaller problems and she became angrier because I referred to our relationship and our issues as the "smaller" problem. So in a way, that's what the film deals with. When the poet Ahmed, the politicised character in the film, dies, the others have to deal with each other and their emotions. That s hard for them.
Q: So do you have a similar struggle as a filmmaker trying to extricate the political issues from your creative projects and engage in work that will look inwards rather than acting only as political commentary?
A: Before I came into filmmaking, I used to draw political posters and after that, I started painting mostly abstract art. I never exhibited my abstract works because I sensed people weren't ready for it. When I finally did exhibit all my works, I had to show the political posters separately from the abstract works. The two couldn t be shown together. That's just an example of what our challenges are.
For a lot of people in this region, abstract art isn't seen positively because it's almost an indication that you can't connect with reality, because they think it's too elegant or disconnected from what is "real". That's a story for you, of what it's like...how we think about things...about what is real and what is not.
Even my mother used to keep a diary of significant political dates or events. So people's marriages, or deaths and births were remembered according to historical events. The main character, Marwan (in the film) asks his mother "what colour were my eyes when I was born?" But she can't remember. She remembers he was born when the alliance between Egypt and Syria was broken, she remembers the details of that event. But nothing much about giving birth to her son...even now in Syria, you see couples deciding marriage dates around significant political events. That is how it is here.
Q: So then, is the audience ready for the kind of cinema you have brought to them?
A: Not at all. Since politics is the catalyst for identity and binds people here, you always start everything with the "we", not the "I". So the public are not even accustomed to someone onscreen saying "I". They are not used to seeing that kind of individuality. When you start speaking as an individual, you are forced to understand and know yourself. That puts the audience in an uncomfortable position, because they feel exposed by the film, because it exposes their feelings. As far as the Syrian audience goes, they either hated it or loved it, there was very little in between.
Q: So then do you feel like a cinema that forces an individual to look into himself or herself, that acts as a catalyst for that introspection, is important in the Syrian context, which is the one you know and work in?
A: Absolutely. The industry needs it. We need to put forward a cinema that has not been influenced by the authorities or the expectations of the western media. To make a film that will talk about our community, as we know ourselves. But then, who am I making my films for? The censorship board dislikes it, the public doesn't like it and the west may not understand it. So then who is it for? That's our dilemma.
Q: Has the media in Syria written about the film?
A: It was shown 5 months ago in Syria and it's only now that I see critics or the media writing about it. There were a lot of interviews initially, but nothing was published. Even reporters in our country can't write about it because it is an expression of their personal views on a film that is very personal. And they are not used to that.
Q: What direction would you like to see life for Syrians go in, in terms of politics, culture and filmmaking? Even life for Arabs as a whole?
A: The situation is very complex. Political life is not just internal in terms of how we feel or think about it. There are external factors. A large part of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine are under occupation in one way or another. So the one thing that has to happen is to return occupied land and let us settle down, let us get on with our lives. That has to happen.
My dream or wish is to be able to wake up and drink coffee in the morning and not read about the death count in Iraq or Palestine in the papers everyday. If that's how we start our day, where do we go from there? News like this ruins all individual feelings. If you were thinking of meeting with your lover or your wife or husband later in the day, you no longer have the stomach for it. It affects us that much. Also, the phenomenon of stating or hearing political slogans has become a part of our culture and there's nothing wrong with that. But we shouldn't forget our folklore, our old songs that our mums sang to us every night as we fell asleep.
The writer would like to thank Mr Philip Cheah, SIFF Festival Programmer for arranging the interview and Dr Ameen Talib for acting as a translator. April 2006