Syrian director tackles social issues, without the veil of history

Drama set in modern-day Damascus focusing on class and social issues is risky and scary, says director, whose work has been lauded and condemned.

Najdat Anzour, leading Syrian film producer, outside his basement office, 22 August 2010. His latest work, Those Whom You Own, has ignited controversy for its portrayal of social problems in modern Damascus

DAMASCUS // In the dark basement flat in Damascus that serves as his editing studio, Najdat Anzour, one of Syria's foremost film directors, is nervously eyeing stacks of paper, printed reviews and e-mails either complaining about or supporting his controversial new drama serial.

Even before broadcasting began this month, Those Whom You Own had been criticised in conservative religious circles and, now half way through the 30-part series, Anzour is worried the campaign against his work is gaining ground. "In the Friday sermons in some of the mosques they were talking against the serial," he said, explaining he had not expected his opponents to go that far. "It's risky, it's a scary situation. Before we made this serial I thought we faced a problem in our society but I've only now discovered how big that problem is."

Anzour, 56, is renowned for his fearless attitude when it comes to tackling difficult social issues. With this latest project, however, he sought to push the boundaries even further than usual. Rather than stage the drama in an historical setting, as he has previously, Those Whom You Own takes place in modern Damascus, and unflinchingly looks at the struggles of its people. The title is taken from the Quran.

Set around the stories of three young women, it exposes the increasing gap between rich and poor, the immorality associated with great wealth and power and the savageness of extreme religious intolerance. The overriding theme, according to Anzour, is that women, regardless of social background, have little chance in a world that views them as the property of men. "We knew this would be sensitive but we wanted above all to talk about women in the Middle East, people in Syria," Anzour said. "I'm not saying Muslims deal with women as slaves, I'm saying that we, all men, treat women like they are slaves."

One of his characters, a young Iraqi, is forced to work as a prostitute to support her family. Another, a middle class, well-educated Syrian girl, struggles to fend off unwanted sexual interest from the rich businessmen she goes to in search of a job. In what Anzour calls the strongest component of the whole series, a religious fanatic beats his sister and cuts the throat of her would-be lover after catching them alone together, despite himself having made a schoolgirl pregnant.

A long, traumatic scene follows in which the woman, dragged into her brother's car, presses her bloodied hands against the rear window, uselessly pleading for help as they drive through the city. It is made all the more dramatic because that city is so recognisably Damascus today, and those ignoring her cries are her fellow Syrians. "Most of my work is historical but it's so much more powerful when it's modern, it touches people, it cannot be ignored or dismissed," Anzour said. "Especially women, it can reach women because they are the main viewers."

That realism and immediacy has given Those Whom You Own a cutting edge that other serials, also shown during the crucial Ramadan drama season, struggle to compete with. "What Najdat has done with this is to photocopy Damascus and present it on screen," said Najib Nasir, a Syrian cultural critic and dramatist. "It's very courageous, we need this type of drama series." Because it is being broadcast on state-run television, the show has support from the authorities, although the religious establishment has been trenchantly opposed to it.

Saeed Ramadan al Bouti, an influential Syrian Islamic scholar, called the work "cancerous" and in a newspaper article accused it of mocking God. He urged people to boycott the serial in order to safeguard their morals. That particular criticism outraged Anzour because, he said, it was made without Mr al Bouti having seen the drama. "After he wrote that article we met," Anzour explained, saying they had amicably discussed the issue. "He admitted he'd not watched it. I said to him, 'why don't you reserve your judgement until you have' and he agreed he ought to do that."

The passion and anger with which those opposed to the show have reacted caught Anzour by surprise, as did what he believes was an attempt by clerics to have the show banned from domestic television. Although he'd anticipated controversy, he said he had not imagined critical sermons would be made in mosques - a time honoured method of influencing street-level opinion - especially given Syria's secular and religiously tolerant reputation.

"There is a struggle here between the hard conservatives and the liberal people who just want to live their lives," Anzour said. "It's a struggle I think we can win, perhaps we are winning for now, we are making our point, but it's difficult." In another episode, the same extremist who beat his sister - he becomes a member of a militant group fighting in Iraq - is shown taking money from suited members of the Syrian parliament, indicating a connection between influential officials and radicalism that typically goes unmentioned here.

"It is showing that those extremists have powerful friends," Anzour said. "It is these 'powerful friends' that are against my series. We will see if next year it's possible to broadcast something like this. If they start to refuse such shows here, it means there is a huge fight, a fight for culture between the conservatives and the rest of us. I expect problems."