A Ladder to Damascus – A film review

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by Leandra Hildbrand and Larissa Spescha

“A ladder to Damascus” is a 2013 drama directed by the Syrian filmmaker Mohamed Malas. It was screened at the “International Oriental Film Festival of Geneva” which took place from 4th to 13th of April.

The film begins when young Fouad, who has a strong passion for cinema and is never leaving his house without a camera, meets Ghalia for the first time. Ghalia’s ambiguity fascinates him right away: the young woman is inhabited by the soul of Zeina, a girl who drowned herself because her father was imprisoned the day Ghalia was born. When Ghalia wants to move to Damascus in order to study acting and to find out more about Zeina, Fouad helps her to find a room in his building, full of young intellectuals and artists. From then on the viewer takes part in the daily lives of the inhabitants and experiences the effects the on-going revolution in Syria has on them, without actually seeing any violence. One time, for example, we see the housekeeper returning back home completely in shock after what she has experienced on the street. Another time we learn that a woman’s boyfriend has been arrested and we see her desperate reaction. The revolution has an impact on everyone of them.

The whole film is marked by a strong duality. The director plays with images and symbols, so that the viewer sometimes cannot tell whether it is reality and or fiction. The film is underlined by flashbacks into Zeina’s life and by Fouad’s film projections onto the walls of the house.

Throughout the film, there is a strong tension between the outside – the surface and the appearance – and the inside, the reality. The artists live in a peaceful house where they are apparently safe from the events of the revolution on the streets. However, they are in a way imprisoned because they cannot live the way they want to. For instance, Fouad cannot film what is happening without risking his life. Another woman, Lara, says how much she would love to go and drink a glass of wine in a street café. Even though they don’t fight on the streets physically and live in a peaceful house, a fight takes place inside them. Being imprisoned and isolated in their building, not being able to express themselves freely and live the life young people would want to live has effects on all of them. The viewer experiences their mental struggle: they only have the choice between staying at home and suffer mentally, and leaving the house, living the life they want, but risking their lives by doing so.

With “A Ladder to Damascus”, Mohamed Malas shares an interesting perspective on the revolution in Syria. He does not show the usual images of street fights, death, and violence as it is normally done in the media. “A Ladder to Damascus” is a powerful and poetic film that allows the audience to take part in the lives of young people who have to deal with an extremely difficult situation.

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