'Insyriated': Film Review | Berlin 2017

Insyriated Still - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Berlinale
Gripping from start to finish.

Hiam Abbass holds together a household under siege in Philippe Van Leeuw's drama about ordinary people in wartime Syria.

A chilling, fast-moving study of a Syrian household under siege, Insyriated brings the everyday horror home with the kind of realism associated with the most gripping war films. Belgian cinematographer-turned-director Philippe Van Leeuw, who also wrote the screenplay, has the entire story unfold in one day inside a spacious middle-class apartment where falling bombs keep everyone on edge and snipers pick off anyone who ventures out the door. It sounds highly theatrical, but far from being a recipe for boredom, the huis-clos situation created by the claustrophobic space and limited time frame heightens the drama enormously.

Playing the lady of the house, Hiam Abbass delivers an edge-of-seat performance, supported by a career-changing turn by Lebanese actress Diamand Bou Abboud as a young mother who undergoes a horrible ordeal. By focusing on these two women, the film underlines the courage under fire of ordinary Syrians who find themselves caught in the midst of an all-out war while they sit in their living room. It’s harrowing just to watch this film, and the audience at its Berlin Panorama premiere trooped out mutely after the screening, too stunned to talk.

This is Van Leeuw’s second feature as a director after his 2008 The Day God Walked Away about a young Tutsi woman during the genocide in Rwanda. Insyriated again approaches a complex social and political situation through the eyes and hearts of a normal family. The careworn face of Oum Yazan (Abbass) doesn’t keep her from running the house like a commander-in-chief after her husband goes out early in the morning to work, presumably as a medic or a soldier. The curtains are drawn across the picture windows and the front door is locked and bolted with heavy wooden bars. On her watch is her elderly father-in-law, her young son, two daughters and a teenage friend, a housemaid, and a young couple with a baby. 

The couple plans to leave for Lebanon that night, but the first turning point occurs early in the story when the husband goes out to make the final arrangements. Oum Yazan and the maid (a spot-on Juliette Navis) are forced to hide what they know about his whereabouts from his wife Halima (Bou Abboud). When armed men come to the door, the family barricade themselves in the kitchen. Only Halima and her baby are left to face the men.

Even though all the violence takes place off screen, Van Leeuw pulls no punches showing its effects in close-ups, where the acting expresses the unspeakable horror. Virginie Surdej’s lighting gives an eerie limbo glow to the locked but all-too-penetrable apartment and highlights the lined faces and scarred bodies. In the background is a constant soundtrack of low-flying helicopters, gunfire and exploding shells, sometimes distant, sometimes very close at hand.

Production companies: Altitude 100 Production, Liaison Cinematographique
Cast:  Hiam Abbass, Diamand Bou Abboud, Juliette Navis, Mohsen Abbas, Moustapha Al Kar, Alissar Kaghadou, Ninar Halabi, Mohammad Jihad Sleik
Director-screenwriter: Philippe Van Leeuw
Producers: Guillaume Malandrin, Serge Zeitoun
Director of photography: Virginie Surdej
Production designer: Kathy Lebrun
Costume designers: Claire Dubien
Editor: Gladys Joujou
Music: Jean-Luc Fafchamps
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)
Sales: Films Boutique

85 minutes