A Syrian Love Story

A heartbreaking film revealing the humanity absent from headlines

This month, award-winning director Sean McAllister, known for his intimate films celebrating the lives of ordinary people in extraordinary situations, releases his latest film, A Syrian Love Story.

Described by The Independent as “Heartbreaking”, A Syrian Love Story follows comrades and lovers Amer and Raghda, who met in a Syrian prison cell 15 years before the start of filming. When McAllister first met the family in 2009, Raghda was back in prison leaving Amer to look after their four boys alone. Then, as the ‘Arab Spring’ sweeps the region, the family’s fate shifts irrevocably. Filmed over five years, this affecting documentary charts their incredible odyssey to political freedom.

Elhum Shakerifar, who produced the film, is not only a long-time supporter of Dost, having been both a Trustee and Assistant Director, she also still volunteers regularly. In addition to her work as a lecturer at the Free University of Berlin and a research fellow of the Department of Anthropology at Goldsmiths University, Elhum is also Co-Founder and Director of Postcode Films.

Elhum found time to have a chat with us about her work on this unfiltered story of love and war, through the lens of a family simply trying to survive.

Tell us a bit about how you got involved in the production of this film
I’ve been working with Sean for six years now, this is the second film I’ve produced with him.

What’s your relationship with Amer and his family?
I met Amer, Raghda and their family through the process of making the film. I’ve known them for the past five years through Sean’s lens and throughout filming I’ve spoken to them on the phone sporadically when Sean was filming with them. Sometimes we talked via Skype during the editing process but we only met for the first time at a festival a few months ago. It was incredible to spend time with them all – they’re a wonderful, warm and loving family. It’s such a privilege to have had access to their story and to get to know them through the course of making the film.

Can you tell us a bit about how your background informs your approach?
I studied Persian literature and then visual anthropology, so my academic background was very mixed but I think those influences are present in my work in that the main thread for me is always strong storytelling, alongside thinking about representation and understanding a situation before thinking of representing it. As a producer, I only work on subjects that I really believe in – it’s necessary to do things this way when you work over such long periods independently, with small teams and often piecemeal funding in place.

How long have you been working with young refugees and did your experience impact on your approach to this film?
I began working with young refugees at Dost and have been connected to the organisation for a decade. Having worked with young migrants and unaccompanied minors gives you a real sense of perspective and understanding of what seeking asylum means, the procedures and dehumanised institutions and legal frameworks that young people have to go through and deal with as well as how much immigration, asylum and refugee matters are vilified and misunderstood.

When we began making this film though, we didn’t know that it would become a refugee story. Seeing the unexpected turn of events unfold over five years is what makes it incredibly poignant – you cannot help but understand and relate to Amer, Raghda and their family. The film’s release this month is strangely timely because both Syria and refugees are top of the news agenda and at the forefront of people’s minds, but it transcends the short-term newsbite and I hope it will reach a broad audience.

What was the most affecting moment for you, from the film?
There have been many, many affecting moments over the past five years while making this film. I was gripped and incredibly moved by some of the first scenes Sean sent over to me (in particular the phone call Raghda makes from prison, which you can see in the trailer) and continued to be over the years as footage came back from various twists and turns. I won’t go into detail so as to not give too much away before you see it but we did spend a year editing it, trying to find the best way to tell the story.

There were many levels to the footage: The personal, the political, contextualising the situation in Syria, seeing the family grow up. It was a tricky balance getting it right. The family goes through an epic shift in the film so watching it takes you on a huge emotional rollercoaster as well – there are scenes that still make me cry, although I know them so well I can quote them word for word. It’s not in the film but the most emotional moment for me, was the first time I met the family and watched the film with them. Eight-year old Bob, who we see growing up as he was just three when we started filming, was too small for the cinema seats and sat on my lap in one screening so he could see the screen and the watch film of his family unfolding – that has to be one of the most affecting moments in this incredible journey.

What response would you like to see as a result of people seeing this film?
Sean always says that he makes films for his mates in Hull, so he looks for characters that will be relatable to them. What I like about his approach is that he sets out to find out about the world, rather than to tell the world what he thinks and that honesty and rawness comes through in his work. That not only makes it relatable but also unforgettable. The result, I hope, is that people understand something that they wouldn’t get from a newsbite around the ‘refugee crisis’ or recent news coverage of Syria.

A Syrian Love Story was released on Friday 18 September and there are screenings being held across the country. If you can’t make it to any of these, it’s now available to rent on the BFI player.

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