When asked to describe his second and latest feature, Belgian director Philippe Van Leeuw said it was not so much a war film but a film about war.
That distinction is important if you're watching the lean and taut In Syria. There are no scenes of gun battles and explosions – they are instead hinted at, with the steady drumming of crackling rifle fire and screaming jets.
The Arabic film (with English subtitles) is also devoid of the carnage of war, with Van Leeuw choosing to focus on the psychological effects of war instead – the kind that linger long after the battle is over.
Taking place over the course of a day, the film is set in a middle-income apartment in a devastated Syrian neighbourhood. With the building empty of families who have fled the violence, the apartment is the last one occupied and is home to two families, spanning three generations.
The reason for their last stand is the bullish nature of the familial matriarch, Oum Yazan (Hiam Abbass) who, despite warnings from soldiers and militia, refuses to budge from her lodgings. “I was born without a home and I refuse to leave my home now,” she says.
She is joined by her father-in-law, the elder Abou Mounzer (Mohsen Abbas) and her three children. Also sharing the space is the young couple Halima (Diamand Bo Abboud), her husband Samir, and a toddler.
The day begins with Samir taking the risk of leaving the house to get his family affairs in order before fleeing to Beirut later that evening. But he only makes it a few steps before he is shot by a sniper.
Witnessing this from the window is the maid Delhani (Juliette Navis), who upon informing Oum Yazan is told to conceal the news from Halima.
As the day wears on and the fighting gets more intense, the two women struggle with the moral quandary of telling Halima about her husband’s fate. Will the news destroy whatever resilience Halima has left, or has the ongoing violence sufficiently desensitised her to accept the tragedy.
Meanwhile, soldiers – we don't know to what allegiance they are fighting for – keep returning to the apartment to see if it houses any enemy combatants, and the children act up from cabin fever.
With all the action taking place within the cramped apartment, Van Leeuw does a sterling job of creating nail-biting suspense without any physical action.
A cinematographer before turning his hand to directing, Van Leeuw infuses much of the film with a desolating blue light. When the soldiers arrive, he reverts to jerky, hand-held camera sequences to illustrate how tight the confines are.
The film does have one major flaw and that's in its plotting with the decision to ultimately withhold the information from Halima. As the screenwriter, Van Leeuw provides ample examples of how Oum Yazan is not one to sugarcoat the truth – for example, in response to her child's question as to whether she will die, her response is a curt "some day". It's therefore a stretch for the audience to believe she would withhold the truth about Halima's husband's death.
That said, Van Leeuw does a fine job in weaving in interesting themes such as the need to find order within chaos. With the family trapped in the home, their only escape is through maintaining a domestic household. That means the house is dusted daily, the kids clean their beds and lunch is eaten together.
The scenes of the students studying or singing Arabic pop tunes while sheltering in the bathroom during the mortar fire outside are heart-wrenching to witness.
With In Syria winning an award at the Berlin International Festival last year, it is now receiving a wider international release. And rightly so, because the film is a reminder of the nightmare that many ordinary Syrians have had to endure every day.