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Lens on Syria: Thirty Years of Contemporary Cinema - PRESS

 

Discovering Syrian Cinema: The Half-Meter Incident
wbai.org | Tuesday, 16 May 2006
By Prairie Miller
WBAI Arts Magazine

It has been said about the film industry in the US, that it's a business whose commercial product just happens to be movies. Which brings up a far more intriguing question, namely what is the nature of the motivations and self-expression of filmmakers in countries where creative profiteering is not sanctioned and the move industry is state sponsored.

As might be anticipated, such filmmakers are primarily focused on existential issues and their manifestation in the social realm. That is, as opposed to an obsession with the box office, and dazzling the public with an ever increasing bag of magic tricks to lure them in, hopefully in ever massive body counts. What the viewers receive in return is another matter, an inevitably soulless and extravagant, ultimately barren rather than enlightening or enriching experience for both the artist and audience.
A state sponsored film industry as exists in Syria may seem to limit the material possibilities existing in private movie enterprises. The filmmaker, on the other hand, is allowed freedom from the shackles of the imperatives of the marketplace, and instead the privacy and space to pursue personal visions without the intrusion of factors that have little to do with art.

Samir Zikra's The Half-Meter Incident is a case in point. A special presentation of the current series at the Walter Reade Theater, The Road To Damascus: Discovering Syrian Cinema, the historically rooted film takes its time in gracefully unraveling the journey of a tale of frustrated romantic yearning, as it unfolds with both sadness and great affection for its characters in a workingclass urban neighborhood.
In The Half-Meter Incident, a man in his thirties has become a creature of tedious habit, and still lives with his mother, despite her nagging that he find someone to marry and go about changing his life. A reluctant but hopeless slave to routine, he toils at a dreary job juggling math figures at a government financial office.
One day he meets a young female college student on a bus, who has in fact been yearning for his attention for some time - just a half-meter away from his body every day on the bus, on her way to the local university. They have a potent if at first repressed attraction to one another, but the romance is soon strained and beset with conflicts. His allegiance to stringent conservative patriarchal attitudes towards women and a brittle sense of dedication to existing social expectations of men, clashes often and bitterly with her more liberated behavior and passionate political activism, in particular in defense of the Palestinian struggle. When the 1967 war with Israel breaks out with the ensuing disheartening defeat of Syria, moral confusion and despondency in a kind of mass post-traumatic stress syndrome spreads, and any hope for the couple's relationship to flower is concurrently doomed.

Based on a story by Egyptian novelist Sabri Moussa, The Half-Meter Incident is a solemn, Pan-Arab mood piece. The narrative elements are nearly secondary, as the fear and isolation experienced by besieged Mideastern countries like Syria, as they ward off the persistent predatory beast of USA imperialism and its accomplices thirsting for oil and other resources to plunder, seeps palpably into the spirits of its people.

Exacerbating this social and emotional disorientation, are the unresolved contradictions between inflexible orthodox religious tradition and the newly introduced socialist secularism of the public sector that is allowed little elbow room to truly flourish. As such, that 'half-meter' presents itself finally as an enormous abyss across centuries of time and that ironically immeasurable space, physically and ideologically, existing infinitesimally between these colliding human beings.
The Road To Damascus: Discovering Syrian Cinema is being presented through May 18th at the Walter Reade Theater in NYC. More information is online at www.filmlinc.com. A complete schedule of the film series as it tours around the US, stopping along the way at the Pacific Archives in Berkeley in conjunction with the San Francisco Arab Film Festival, is at www.arteeast.org.

Prairie Miller
WBAI Arts Magazine
[email protected]