We hear about Syria a lot these days. Ravaged by ISIS, crushed by their own dictatorial leaders, the Syrian population is wildly displaced, with millions of refugees looking for new homes around the globe. But we don’t know a lot about the actual country. TIFF looks to fill that gap, with a week-long program of Syrian films called Syria Self-Portraits: Chronicles of Tyranny, Chronicles of War. Stars in Broad Daylight is one of the oldest in the program, from 1988, by Syria’s foremost filmmaker Ossama Mohammed. It’s a bleak comedy, an absurd look at the country’s longstanding oppression.
Opening as a rural double-wedding begins to go disastrously awry, the film is much less a comedy of manners and more a slow-boiling indictment of autocratic patriarchy. Two daughters are to be married in a small village, as arranged by their ambitious and high-strung older brother. Neither woman cares for her match, but the marriages will increase the family’s holdings and prestige. Before the night is over, one sister flees with another suitor, hopping on a bus never to be seen again. The daughter that remains refuses to go through with her own marriage, but her brother is most distraught that the fiancé’s land will slip through his fingers. Confused in the disintegrating chaos, he encourages his younger brother to beat his sister’s failed suitor, then pleads with her to take him back. The guy’s a peach.
He takes her to the city to try and salvage the match, using his position at the phone company to listen in on people’s calls. When that plan falls apart, he tries to pawn her off on a powerful friend, but she still refuses, even as the man creeps her in the middle of the night. Most pointedly, the awful brother bears a striking resemblance to Hafez al-Assad, Syria’s brutal dictator at the time. The film is a not so tongue in cheek satire of Assad’s cult of personality. Sometimes there is a slapstick quality to the proceedings: the older brother’s abuse of his deaf younger brother, or his constant preening and eager to please officiousness. But as his sister’s options disappear and he backs her ever tighter into a corner, the smiles get stretched pretty thin.
Stars in Broad Daylight was banned at home, and underwent torturous negotiations with government censors to get an international release. The film was acclaimed at Cannes in the year of its release and won prizes in Valencia and Rabat. It’s slow in the manner of many eighties art films, and fitfully amusing. Ultimately though, the tragedy of events proves inevitable, as inevitable as the country’s own current unraveling.
Syria Self-Portraits: Chronicles of Tyranny, Chronicles of War runs from Friday, August 26th to Sunday, September 4th. Ossama Mohammed was supposed to be present for the screenings of this and a few other of his films, but due to unforeseen circumstances he’s unable to attend. for more info on the program and tickets, see here.