‘Under the Sky of Damascus’ Review: A Shattering Peek at Life for Syrian Women

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A sense of foreboding haunts Under the Sky of Damascus, a sobering documentary directed by Syrian filmmakers Talal Derki, Heba Khaled and Ali Wajeeh.

The film opens with a vindicating interview: The Syrian actress Sabah Al-Salem takes a long drag of her cigarette before recounting how her refusal to sleep with a high-ranking military officer landed her in prison. She looks down at the dining room table as she answers the gentle prodding of her interviewers. “You must have heard of the problems I encountered,” she says in response to their inquiries. 

Under the Sky of Damascus

The Bottom Line

Raises important questions, but leaves you wanting answers.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Directors: Talal Derki, Heba Khaled, Ali Wajeeh

1 hour 18 minutes

The interviewers — Farah and Souhir — respond with nods. Yes, they have heard of the abuse Al-Salem faced. They know that she was abandoned by friends in the film industry and all but disappeared from public life. They also understand, on a personal level, how their deeply misogynistic country offers no recourse or salvation for women. When Al-Salem says “we are living through a dreadful experience,” a frank coda to her somber testimony, Farah and Souhir can only meet that admission with an understanding silence.

Along with their friends Eliana, Inana and Grace, Farah and Souhir have set out to write and stage a play about the experience of women in Syria. The actresses are collecting testimonies from in and around the capital city of Damascus, speaking with women about the abuses suffered at the hands of husbands, fathers, brothers and uncles. They hope these stories, which they will collate and organize into a production, will shed a sliver of light on the violence of the patriarchy.

Under the Sky of Damascus, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, chronicles the actresses’ process creating this play. It is the last of a Syrian trilogy created by Derki. The director’s previous two films, Return to Homs and Of Fathers and Sons, focused on the men of the war. Return to Homs followed the political transformation of Abdul Basset Saroot, a football star turned revolutionary, and Of Fathers and Sons observed the radicalization of young men. In Under the Sky of Damascus, Derki collaborates with his partner Khaled to center an often forgotten segment of the population.  

The five actresses anchor this documentary, which will have cross-cultural resonance because the patriarchy knows no borders. They meet weekly at an abandoned house that they have lovingly refurbished — clearing rubble from the corners, adding decorative rugs and chairs — to strategize. They brainstorm the kinds of interviews they’d like to include, debate narrative direction and vent about the pros and cons of undertaking this project. In a country where the rights of women are curtailed, there is danger in pursuing the truth.

Because Derki and Khaled are both exiled from Syria, they partnered with filmmakers in the country for on-the-ground footage. Khaled’s presence is felt through voiceover in which the director explains the purpose of the film and recounts her own experiences growing up in Syria. These interventions initially feel discordant — distracting, even — but as the documentary builds to its shocking turning point, their purpose becomes clearer. 

The Syrian crew trail our protagonists as they travel across the city and conduct interviews between workers’ shifts and in the shadows of buildings. Patterns emerge within the stories, which all expose instances of abuse, coercion and retaliation. The women communicate in whispers and furtive gazes. During these interviews, Under the Sky of Damascus moves at an unhurried pace. The punishing testimonies from the women — many of whom remain anonymous — are only briefly interrupted by glimpses into our protagonists’ lives. 

Even as Under the Sky of Damascus proceeds as an intimate observational doc for most of its runtime, an anxiety runs through the film. There’s a fear that the women in the collective have put themselves in harm’s way. There’s the worry that their subjects will be punished for speaking. Interviews are laden with the pressure of unwelcome discovery. That nagging concern balloons into a bigger, more unexpected feeling when a member of the collective abruptly quits.

She leaves a voicemail citing family problems, but the story doesn’t align with what these women — who have been friends for years — know about her. An investigation leads to a surprising revelation about abuses committed by a member of the film’s crew. Derki, Khaled and Wajeeh navigate the situation with as much grace as one can when production hits a troubling roadblock, but far more interesting are the implications. What happens when abstractions become a reality? 

Under the Sky of Damascus is invested in the questions it asks and the testimonies it spotlights. The play the women worked on seemed intended as a tool for awareness, and the limitations of this method become more apparent as the documentary shifts its focus from the play’s subjects to the five actresses’ experiences with sexual assault. The conversations we witness are emotionally intense, circular and, at times, defeating. The play gets derailed, and the dissolution of the group raises even more questions. The documentary, then, becomes both evidence of progress (these women feel empowered to speak up) and a testament to the work still left to be done. 

You’re left wondering about solutions on a granular level and wishing the doc had been more oriented around the big reveal. How should these women grapple with facing similar violence as the subjects of their plays? What networks — even underground — exist to support them and others? And how might we begin to use the lessons of Under the Sky of Damascus to fashion a future where recourse and justice don’t feel as distant as dreams?

Full credits

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Production companies: Real Lava, Jouzour Films
Directors: Talal Derki, Heba Khaled, Ali Wajeeh
Producers: Sigrid Dyekjær, Talal Derki, Heba Khaled, Beth Earl
Executive producers: Jenny Raskin, Kelsey Koenig, Maiken Baird, Philippe Levasseur, Roman Bessi, Ruba El-Khash
Cinematographer: Raed Sandeed
Editor: Marion Tuor
Music: Ari Jan
Sales: Submarine Entertainment
In Arabic

1 hour 18 minutes

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