Trapped in a city under siege, Oum Yazan (Hiam Abbass), the mother of three struggles to keep her family and neighbors safe by converting her Damascus apartment into a barricaded shelter. However, with war raging outside and snipers preventing any means of escape, their situation becomes even perilous when armed bandits enter the building and begin to threaten them from within.
“In Syria” is a look at one family’s fight to survive told from the perspective of one family who refuses to leave a home they love. The conflict of massive becomes personal and intimate and is a unique look a troubling humanitarian crises that is happening right before our eyes. Directed and written by Philippe Van Leeuw, “In Syria” is a claustrophobic and suspenseful portrayal of one day in a modern family’s life in Damascus.
The action is confined to only a few rooms where suspense is created from the outset, when the family matriarch and maid witness an event that was so tragic that they knew they could not share what they saw in order to keep the peace. This quickly becomes difficult given the smallness of their enclosure and the threat of violence.
Dialogue is sparse and masterful performances from all the actors involved, many of which are Syrian refugees, mean that too much speech would seem extraneous. Hiam Abbass amazes as the lady of the house, conveying a quiet sense of horror and empathy despite the cruel decisions she is forced to make. Lebanese actress Diamand Bou Abboud as Halima carries the film’s most emotionally charged scenes without melodrama, and Juliette Navis does excellent work as the family’s foreign maid showing us an intensely moral and well-rounded character.
Cinematographer Virginie Surdej establishes a sense of terror and claustrophobia with only a few shots and makes excellent use of the restricted set. The camera fluidly follows the characters between rooms, all lit in a fashion that is both beautiful and eerie, providing an unnerving sense of being in the eye of the storm.
The film opens with an elderly man, Abou (Mohsen Abbas), smoking a cigarette as he stares out of the window of the apartment he currently shares with his daughter in-law, Oum and her extended family. His face suggests that he has a lot on his mind, but aside from the war and what is does, we’re given little insight into his troubles.
Oum and her family, along with Samir (Moustapha Al Kar) and Halima, a young couple from a neighboring apartment, are the last residents to remain in their apartment block, under siege from shelling and snipers, while they await the return of Oum’s husband.
When Samir leaves to meet with a reporter set to aid the couple’s planned flight from Syria, he is gunned down by a sniper. Keeping her husband’s shooting secret from Halima, Oum attempts to hold her family together for the day.
Politics do not exist here and there are no clues as to who exactly is responsible for the shelling and gunfire or which side of the civil war the intruders are on. The point of the film just might be that war is hell regardless of its politics.