'Food, language and fear of war' unify Arabs, as can Muhammad Malas's movies

The legendary Syrian director changed Abu Dhabi-based Nezar Andary’s outlook on identity

Muhammad Malas was the director of the first Syrian movie to be screened at the New York Film Festival. Nezar Andary
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It was in October 1993 that academic and filmmaker Nezar Andary first saw a movie by esteemed Syrian director Muhammad Malas. The film, Al Leil (The Night), was being screened at the New York Film Festival that year – the first Syrian film to be played at the prestigious event.

In the end, there is something of a family in how we're raised with the same language, food, music and fear of war. Stuff like that reverberates in Malas's films.

Set in Quneitra, Syria, in the late 1930s and 1940s, it portrays a tribal society struggling to become a nation, in the face of European colonialism and Zionist settlers in Palestine. This story is told through the eyes of a boy, Omar Malas, the director's alter ego.

Andary arrived at New York's Alice Tully Hall, a concert venue in the Lincoln Centre where the festival was held, as a man of 20 grappling with identity issues. It was three weeks after the signing of the Oslo Accords.  

Now, almost 25 years later, Andary's documentary feature on Malas, Unlocking Doors of Cinema: Muhammad Malas, has its world premiere on Saturday, November 23 at the Cairo International Film Festival and is being screened again in the Egyptian capital on Sunday, November 24. It is an honour that Andary is rightly proud of.

The son of an American woman and a Lebanese man, Andary grew up in Saudi Arabia. The ­family's plan to move to Lebanon in 1982 was thwarted by the Israeli invasion that summer. When Andary was at university in the US and trying to work out who he was, listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's Qawwalis on his Walkman and carrying Edward Said's writings on Joseph Conrad in his bag. Andary was experiencing "double consciousness", a term describing the internal conflict when a person's identity is divided into several facets.

"It was good to see different Arab films at the time because it created solidarity with other Arabs," recalls Andary. "The film showed the differences and also the places of solidarity. I remember relating the emotions back to my own experience because, in the end, there is something of a family in how we're raised with the same language, food, music and fear of war. Stuff like that reverberates in Malas's films."

Andary says he felt he was connecting more with artists than with professors in his political science course. He ­subsequently signed up to a film course delivered by James Schamus, who later worked with Ang Lee as a producer on films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. "I was starting to discover that I either wanted to write books, make films or be an academic."

Muhammad Malas has praised the documentary. Nezar Andary

These are all careers Malas pursued. Born in 1943, he worked as a teacher before moving to Moscow in 1968 to study filmmaking at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography. The film school was once the training ground for many of the great auteurs from the Middle East, including Syrian Ossama Mohammed, who co-wrote the script for Al Lail and was an assistant director on Malas's arresting debut film, Ahlam Al Madina (Dreams of the City) in 1984. The latter, about a boy called Deeb who is forced to work and simultaneously attend school by his strict grandfather, was partly an autobiography of Malas. It is considered one of the great Arab films of the era.

In 1995, Andary won a Fulbright Scholarship, which covered maintenance costs for study abroad, and he used it to go to Syria and take a class given by Malas at the Soviet Cultural Club. It was an appropriate location as it was from there that Malas and another Syrian filmmaker, Omar Amiralay, "borrowed" movie projectors to show films on a garden wall at the Damascus Cinema Club. They founded the cultural organisation to clandestinely show work by filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, movies that were frowned upon by the regime. 

For Andary, it was an opportunity to learn from the director who inspired him. Andary says his memory of Malas as a professor is slightly hazy. "I think he was the same as you might see him in my documentary. He was passionate, really intense about what cinema means."

Alongside his film, Andary has also co-written a book utilising the eight hours of interviews he recorded with Malas, called The Cinema of Muhammad Malas: Visions of a Syrian Auteur.

In the two decades between attending that course and putting together the film and book, Andary fulfilled several personal ambitions. He became an associate professor at Zayed University, teaching film courses, as well as the editor of a book series about Arab film for Palgrave MacMillan. He also founded Documentary Theatre Abu Dhabi, which puts on plays fusing factual content and expressionism.

Director and academic Nezar Andary

Andary, who lives in Abu Dhabi, was awarded a small grant from Zayed University to interview Malas, a discussion that he filmed. "I had a small grant and the reason it took a long time to make the film was that I was saving money to make it," says Andary. "I went crazy writing a shot list, putting together everything connected to his films and having crazy ideas. I loved it. My wife, Hana Makki, is a producer and really helped with scheduling the shots over two days."

The result is a one-hour film that serves as a stimulating introduction to the oeuvre of Malas. Filmed in a house in the mountains of Lebanon, Malas is taken aback with how much it reminds him of his former home in Damascus. He discusses his films, giving a quick but incisive appraisal of each.

During the interview, scenes from Malas's works are projected on to the walls, an effect reminiscent of the Damascus Cinema Club. "The idea of the film is that this is the house of cinema," Andary says. "The goal is to introduce him as a Syrian intellectual and an author."

However, the biggest compliment Andary could receive came after Malas watched the film. Andary says the filmmaker told him that "you should stand up in Cairo and realise that you're not just an academic, but you're a great filmmaker".

"That really moved me," Andary says. "Trust me, I was in fear, trepidation, all the words that exist for anxiety, that he was going to trash everything."

The Cairo International Film Festival runs until Friday, November 29. More information about the event is available at www.ciff.org.eg