More than Refugees: Syria Film Festival Opens in Toronto
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More than Refugees: Syria Film Festival Opens in Toronto

A new festival of Syrian films lends context to an ongoing humanitarian crisis.

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The first annual Syria Film Festival makes its debut this weekend in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall Theatre. Co-presented by the Regent Park Film Festival, the festival also brings art and photo exhibits to audiences in order to try and capture the reality of what is taking place in Syria and in the lives of Syrians.

With more than four years passing since the start of the war in Syria, and more than four million people having fled the country so far, the displacement of the Syrian population had a direct impact on the programming of the festival.

Festival Co-ordinator, Maher Azem, had a difficult time locating filmmakers and films for the festival, often finding himself chasing filmmakers through social media and acquaintances.

“We wanted to focus on stories told by the people of Syria themselves,” said Azem, who, like many, has volunteered his time to bring the festival to fruition. What began as an Indiegogo project grew beyond the organizers’ expectations. Now, they’re hoping to take the festival across Canada.

The weekend-long festival brings together documentaries, full-length features and shorts, including the Academy Award shortlisted nominee for Best Documentary Short, 50 Feet From Syria, which follows Dr. Hisham Basmar’s return to his native Syria to try and help save people’s lives. The film is difficult to watch at times and quite raw in its portrayal of the humanitarian crisis. Premiering on Saturday night, both Dr. Basmar and the director of the film, Skye Fitzgerald, will be on-hand to answer questions following the screening.

The festival’s opening on Friday night includes the feature-length documentary, Queens of Syria, which depicts the lives of 50 Syrian women living in exile in Jordan as they get ready to mount Euripedes’s Greek tragedy, Trojan Women.

Toronto-based Afghan filmmaker, Aisha Jamal, who also acts as the festival’s program co-ordinator, made a point of programming films that focused on women and children.

“We were attracted to films that contextualize what is happening in Syria and there is a strong emphasis on films that focus on women and children, as they are usually the first victims of war,” said Jamal.

The closing film of the festival, Not Who We Are, is directed by Carol Mansour, arguably the most prominent documentary filmmaker in Lebanon today. Mansour’s film follows Syrian women as they try to rebuild their lives as refugees in neighbouring Lebanon.

“We want to inform and to swing the public discourse about Syria and hope this festival helps to humanize the people and the situation,” said Jamal.

Local MP Adam Vaughan, who attended an initial fundraiser for the festival in October, emphasized the universality of the situation in Syria.

“There’s no issue greater and more significant right now than refugees, and the Syrian crisis is at the forefront,” said Vaughan. “Canadians need to remember that we are a country of refugees and immigrants.”

Every film this weekend offers an intimately complex and diverse look at the individual lives of Syrians today and goes beyond the headlines and numbers of refugees offered in the news.

The festival runs from November 13-15. Tickets are only sold on-line. View the festival trailer here.