Omar Amiralay: he should be here to see this

Some of the best stories are the ones you stumble across as you’re researching something entirely different. The internet is an amazing tool and – providing you don’t end up getting sucked into a vortex of web links – it has opened up an endless sea of possibilities for learning something new when you least expect it.

This week I have been doing background research on Syria’s electricity production – not the sexiest topic but an interesting and important one, especially for the people who have been enduring power blackouts for the past eighteen months. It was while I was reading up on this that I came across a reference to Omar Amiralay, a Syrian documentary film-maker who produced a trilogy of films centred around the country’s network of hydroelectric dams.

Amiralay was born in Damascus in 1944 and went to study film in Paris at the age of 20. When he returned to his home country in 1970 he was very taken indeed with the modernising instincts of newly installed dictator Hafez al-Assad and the ruling Ba’ath Party. So taken, in fact, that his first film was effectively a twelve-minute love letter to Euphrates Dam, the biggest Ba’athist construction project of the twentieth century.

Film Essay on the Euphrates Dam, released in 1970, sounds like a tremendous specimen of Soviet style film-making, complete with an orchestral soundtrack and happy looking workers. Frustratingly I can’t find the film available to view anywhere online, so if you have more luck than me please do post a link to it in the comments section.

By 1974, when Amiralay released his second film about Syria’s dams, he’d had a spectacular change of heart. Everyday Life in a Syrian Village focused on the village of Al-Machi, which lies downstream from the Dam and relies on the Euphrates as its life source. Amiralay presented Al-Machi as a microcosm of Syrian society, showing the effects that the Dam, and Ba’athist policies more widely, had had on the ordinary people of the country. He made no political commentary in the film but the content was damning enough in itself; it was instantly banned upon its release, and has never had a public screening in Syria.

The film sealed Amiralay’s fate in Syria and for the next thirty years he worked overseas. His back catalogue spans a vast range of subjects, from the Socialist Revolution in Yemen, to Egyptian feminism, to political personalities such as Rafik Hariri and Benazir Bhutto. And he remained a staunch critic of the Assad regime: in 2000, after the dictator’s crown had been passed down to Hafez’s son Bashar, Amiralay was one of ninety-nine Syrian intellectuals who signed a manifesto calling for the end of the 1963 Emergency Law that banned public protests and criticism of the government.

But in 2003 Amiralay turned his film-maker’s eye back towards Syria once again. In A Flood in Ba’ath Country – the final part of his unofficial dam trilogy – he examined the aftermath of the collapse of the Zayzun Dam. The disaster killed scores of people and stripped countless more of their livelihoods, and, crucially, a secret official report written years earlier had predicted that it would happen. Amiralay’s film is visually beautiful and politically biting, referring back to his admiration for the Ba’athists in 1970, and cataloguing his disillusionment at the way it all turned out.

It was Amiralay’s last film. He died in February 2011, tragically young at 66 and just six weeks before the start of the uprising that he had predicted and hoped for for so many years.

Fittingly, Syria’s dams have become a flashpoint of the conflict between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the opposition forces. All three dams in Al-Raqqa Province – including the mighty Euphrates Dam – have been captured by rebel groups led by the Al Qaeda backed Jabhat al-Nusra. In this video shot just after the battle for the Dam Jabhat al-Nusra fighters stroll around the vast turbine hall swinging their Kalashnikovs as hapless engineers plough on with their work:

It’s a shame that Amiralay isn’t around to document this strange chapter in the Dam’s history. Had he been alive to witness what has happened in his country over the past two years he would undoubtedly have had much to say about it, and would have said it in his stunning and distinctive visual style.

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