100 years of upheaval and resilience through the eyes of Syrian artists

Nigol Bezjian explores loss and art in his new film 'Broken Dinners, Postponed Kisses'

In ‘Broken Dinners, Postponed Kisses’, Abo Gabi plays snippets of songs he has recorded since moving to France. Courtesy Nigol Bezjian

Abo Gabi looks away from the camera as he tells the story of how he came to be a refugee living in Nantes, France. His great-grandparents were Egyptian, he explains, but they moved to Palestine in the early 20th century, settled there and had children. Then came 1948 and the Naqba. They fled ­Palestine, travelling not back to Egypt but with the Palestinian community to which they now belonged.  

They found a new home in Syria, in the Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus, where Gabi was born. But the conflict in Syria precipitated a third wave of migration and Gabi was displaced twice more, moving first to Lebanon and then to France.

The musician and singer's identity is complicated. He is Egyptian, Palestinian, ­Syrian. Soon, perhaps, he will be French. His personal and family history is one that is familiar to thousands of people across the Middle East. It is one of constant upheaval, of uprooting and adapting, of settling and surviving, of adopting new identities while retaining old memories.

A story that needs to be told

The events he describes form part of a new feature-length documentary, Broken Dinners, Postponed Kisses, directed by Aleppo-born Armenian filmmaker Nigol Bezjian. It tells the stories of six Syrian artists, all from different areas and backgrounds and all working in different media. Together, they convey the pain of loss, in many forms, and the strength that allows people to rebuild even in the most difficult of circumstances. Bezjian says he wanted to make a film that would stand the test of time.

“It’s a film you can watch 10 years from now – it has nothing to do with the war that’s going on today,” he says. “The inspiration and the initiative came from that, but in the film it’s a period of 100 years that
I cover … it’s about this situation of constant upheavals and wars in the region since forever, and how that is impacting our lives, our characters, our way of seeing the world, out art, our culture.”

Broken Dinners, Postponed Kisses, is structured as a series of individual vignettes based on interviews with the subjects. Each story builds on the one before it, creating a layered, overarching narrative exploring loss, adaptation and the expressive power of art.

Vartan Meguerditchian, an Armenian actor living in Beirut, is the first to appear in the film, playing the role of Bezjian, who also lives in the Lebanese capital. This opening sequence blends fact and fiction, as Meguerditchian shares the story of the filmmaker's grandparents who survived the Armenian Genocide, eventually settling in Aleppo.

Actor Vartan Meguerditchian in the role of the filmmaker. Courtesy Nigol Bezjian

Focusing on the diversity of Syrian society

The rest of the film is a straight documentary, featuring interviews with Gabi; Ayham Majid Agha, a playwright and actor living in Berlin; Yara Al Hasbani, a dancer in Paris; Diala Brisli, a painter and illustrator in Provence; and Ammar Abd Rabbo, a photographer in Beirut.

The subjects describe their experiences of exile, examining how it has affected their work as artists. Bezjian spent a long time searching for the right people to interview, choosing a selection he felt represented the diversity of Syrian society.

“I wanted to have Syrians with different accents, different languages, different backgrounds, because this is Syria,” he says. “We see how what they go through becomes part of their life, character, personality and way of thinking, and then, as creative people, how they process that and how that experience shows in their work.”

Agha’s interview is interspersed with scenes from a play he wrote and staged in Berlin about his journey from Syria and the struggle to adjust to a new culture. Gabi plays snippets of his music, explaining that since arriving in France he has found himself incapable of writing anything but sad songs.

'I don’t want to have any images of war'

The two women in the film, Al Hasbani and Brisli, both tell very personal stories of loss. Al Hasbani recalls her father, who supported her passion for dance, but lost his life during the conflict in Syria. Her moving memories are intercut with beautifully shot footage of her dancing in silence on the steps and in the alleyways of Paris, seeking solace in her art.

Brisli describes how, having grown up in Kuwait where her father had work, she felt like an outsider when she first moved to Damascus, repeating a familiar motif of cross-cultural ties and nomadic lives. She shares moving scenes from an animation she has made, based on the story of her brother, who was conscripted to fight in the Syrian army.

Ayham Majid Agha takes a call about a role in Berlin, where he works as an actor and playwright. Courtesy Nigol Bezjian 

“I decided that I don’t want to have any images of war, which we have seen exhaustively – only if it’s part of their work,” says Bezjian. “The simple way to explain art, for me, is that when you take reality and elevate it to something else, it becomes art.”

One of the main themes of the film is the power of memory. “As immigrants, refugees, people removed from your place, memory becomes an extremely important part of your mind and it grows,” explains Bezjian. “The filmmaker talks about how, as he is growing older, the childhood memories are growing bigger than him, as if they’re going to swallow him. But that memory is far removed from reality, in a way, because it takes on a life of its own.”

'The idea is loss'

Bookending the film are the stories of Bezjian himself, as told by Meguerditchian, and Abd Rabbo, who describes his nomadic childhood, growing up first in Syria, then Libya, then Lebanon, each time displaced by political problems or conflict. He is filmed wandering the beautiful rooms of the Sursock Museum in Beirut, before retreating to the library to unwrap the first copy of a book featuring photographs he took of the conflict in Aleppo.

Filmmaker Nigol Bezjian. Courtesy Nigol Bezjian

"The idea is loss," says Bezjian. "If you look at the first character, the filmmaker, it's loss of childhood innocence … then you have Ayham, who talks about the loss of friends, lovers and what he had in Deir Ezzor, where he left his family behind. Then you come to Gabi and you see how as Palestinians they lost their land and they went to Syria. Then it becomes more personal with Diala and Yara, and then you come to Ammar and the loss of his mother … I thought they were enough to give as examples [and show] how, despite that, they keep living."

Bezjian funded the film himself and consequently worked on a shoestring budget. Long periods passed between the filming of each segment, which helps to lend each narrative a distinct atmosphere and sense of place. Scenes of grey skies and snow in Berlin, where Agha is staging his play, give way to summer heat and colourful blossoms in Provence, where Brisli paints barefoot in a lush garden.

Further underlining the themes of displacement and constant motion are scenes that show each character in transit, moving through buildings and crossing streets, sitting in trains or on buses as scenery flashes by.

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The last scene of the film is the one Bezjian shot first: it shows pages of Abd Rabbo’s book flying off the printing press to land in a neat pile. A photograph of two children on a bombed and deserted street proliferates second by second, multiplying this single moment, frozen forever in time. This closing sequence is a metaphor for many of the film’s themes, echoing its power to fix stories into a lasting form and the uncertain futures of his subjects, whose lives, and therefore narratives, are unfinished.

“The film should not be finished when the lights come on in the cinema,” Bezjian says. “It should be finished in the minds of the audience, who take it with them.”