Eight years on from his directorial debut in the hard hitting The Day God Walked Away, Philippe Van Leeuw turns his hand to another violent environment in his fictional film about life in contemporary Syria.
It is a subject ripe for scrutiny and yet also a road laced with peril for an outsider; with the potential for accusations of tacky voyeurism (or worse). With this in mind, the fruits of Van Leeuw’s labour has resulted in Insyriated: a serious and sober work that views hostilities through the prism of a family (and others) living in necessary, self-imposed containment in the heart of war-torn Damascus.
Cooped up in said apartment, a young couple nurse their infant child. Meanwhile, a middle-aged woman, Oum Yazan (Hiam Abbass), presides over all as the matriarch-in-residence. With the assistance of a helper, she takes care of her elderly father, her own children and ensures that the house can function in as much of an orderly a way as possible. Outside the walls of this mini-society, however, lies a coldblooded gunman.
Early in the morning, a conversation takes place between the young couple. Their talk touches upon a secret plan to elope at dusk and leave the ravaged city behind. Before this, the man must leave to undertake an errand. His departure is greeted by a stray sniper’s bullet and his body lies inert on the floor. His partner is unaware of his fate, but other members of the house are aware and they take the decision not to inform her.
From here, Van Leeuw raises a plethora of interesting questions about truth, loyalty, hierarchy and the nature of interpersonal relationships, as well as the operation of decency in a climate of unbridled violence and fear. He concocts a febrile and chaotic asylum that is punctuated by outsiders who have removed the shackles of morality to exploit the chaos of a society without structure for their own personal gain.
The directorial imprint evokes similarities to Christian Mungiu’s Four Months Three Weeks Two Days (despite charting a very different topic) and Iranian director Asghar Farhadi is a stylistic touch-point too. The queasiness induced by a particularly dark centrepiece deserves special mention, as it serves as a terrifying cry to the senses and offers suitably uncomfortable viewing.
When all is said and done, Insyriated demands that audiences think about the nature of the vicarious thrill. As with the most potent of works, it not only speaks of an urgent contemporary issue, but broader topics regarding humanity too. Philippe Van Leeuw depicts the ugly and the beautiful aspects of our nature in a taut, urgent and thoroughly compelling film.
Insyriated is released on September 8th.