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TORONTO (AFP) – Filmmaker Mohamad Malas unveiled at the Toronto film festival this week a movie shot in his Syrian homeland, as conflict raged all around him.

Malas said in an interview with AFP that he wrote and got government approval to film his “Ladder to Damascus” (Soullam ila Dimashq) prior to the eruption of violence that has gripped Syria since 2011.

After the start of the insurgency, the Syrian writer-filmmaker adapted his script to reflect unrest that has claimed more than 100,000 lives.

The film started as a love story about a young woman who moves to Damascus and meets an aspiring film director.

It opens what one festival organizer called “a captivating window into the psyche of ordinary Syrians grappling with a historic upheaval.”

In the film, 12 young Syrians pursuing jobs and studies are brought together as boarders at the same century-old home in the Syrian capital, even as violence fills the streets of Damascus.

Malas’s script is populated with Syrians of various religions and backgrounds, each describing personal experiences as the fighting closes in on them.

The film also aims through allegory to confront the role of cinema in times of turmoil, Malas said.

“It was impossible to ignore the goings-on around us,” the filmmaker said through an interpreter.

“I didn’t want to wait for the revolution to end to talk about it.”

He calls the movie “his own personal form of protest” for democracy and freedom of expression, adding that at 68, he is too old to march and wave placards in the streets.

Malas encouraged his actors to improvise dialogue throughout the film and to speak in their own words about what was happening in Syria.

“I had them tell their own stories,” he said, adding that it is “difficult to call the film fiction.”

At the same time, he decries labels such as “docudrama,” saying the film does not fictionalize actual events, but instead offers commentaries on the way war disrupts daily life.

Filming under a shroud of secrecy and danger to his crew in Damascus was “very difficult and complicated,” he said.

He said he was never sure if his crew and cast would show up for filming, and at the end of each day, he worried about whether they would get safely home.

The film, which premiered here on September 8, is the only Syrian production being shown at the Toronto festival this year.

“I don’t think I will be able to show the film in Syria until after the end of the conflict,” Malas said.

Syrian cinema has been in a downward spiral for decades, he lamented, noting that there were once 130 movie theaters in Syria. Malas said there now are fewer than 20, and most those have projectors in poor repair.

Speaking about the conflict that has shattered his country, Malas said he believes that what started as a fight between Islamists and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has become a proxy war, “an international conflict” between world and regional powers, among others.

The director said he opposes international intervention in Syria, including a possible U.S. strike.

After the Toronto film festival, which runs through to September 15, Malas said in English that he hopes to return to Syria “to be with my people, with my family in this tragic moment.”

Photo Credit: AFP/Larry Busacca

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