Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Taht Al-Sakif (Under the Ceiling), Syria, 2005

Nidal Al-Dibs has taken the risk of making an introsespective film with Taht Al-Sakif or Under the Ceiling. It would be presumptuous to think that Syrians by nature are introspective, and that there is a touch of wistful sadness to the Syrian way of life. Though that is what Nidal's film conveys. It is about Marwan, who loses his poet-friend, Ahmed, at the beginning of the film. The rest of the narrative is about coming to terms with the death of his friend, and the women in his life.
Though there is not much overt action, and the film gives the impression of a brooding memoir, Nidal uses the brooding mode to show that Ahmed, who was a rousing political poet and the centre of Marwan's circle, was merely indulging in youthful rebellion, full of emotional high and rhetoric, and that there was no action. It is a difficult idea to put across, and that is what Nidal does. It is a fine achievement.
Nidal said after the screening of the film that he was the first to make a critical comment about the earlier period in Syria's politics. And that comment clarifies the film as nothing else does. Everything falls in place.
Marwavn slowly tries to come out of the magic spell of his dead friend, make a tourist film about Damascus, accept the young girl whom his nephew loves but who loves him instead, look on with sadness at the woman and her child -- who is his own son -- who have been neighbours in the small house he had been living in ever since the family came to Damascus in 1967. The date has a political signficance. Marwan reveals through a voiceover that his father wanted to name him Jamal -- in admiration for Jamal Abdel Nasser -- but found that the Syrian authorities did not any more favour Nasser. So he ends up naming his son after the official. The film is replete with indirect political comments of such significance.
But the real movement shows how the dead poet's muse and mistress, who also loves Marwan, pushes Marwan to accept the great limitations of Ahmed, their common friend. Marwan finds it difficult to pull away, but he does by the end of the film.
Taht Al-Sakif is not as absorbing as Banat Wist El Balad. It is different, slightly puzzling to the outsider. But the film succeeds in indirectly showing the changes happening in Syria at the moment. Young people are shown to be turning away from politics, and looking to making their careers. But the past casts a shadow over them, alright. Taht Al-Sakif turns out to be a subtle barometer of changes in the political and cultural spheres.

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