Armed with a pen

SYRIA / A female cartoonist's courageous, spirited view of suffering in war-torn Idlib.

Amani Al-Ali, the only female cartoonist in Idlib, Syria – a city torn to pieces by Russian and Syrian bombing, neighbourhoods divided by warring gangs – dreams of fleeing after a decade of war. But how can this brave and talented woman leave her loved ones behind and the raw material of humour, suffering, and resilience that give her drawings such power?

Behind the Lines Alaa Amer, Alisar Hasan
Behind the Lines, a film by Alaa Amer, Alisar Hasan

Cartoonist

The answer, as Alaa Amer and Alisar Hasan’s film, Behind the Lines – shot by cameraman Abdo Fayyad, working remotely with the directors – shows, is that she cannot. Her young nice, Bisan – who suffers from alopecia brought on by the stress of living under frequent heavy bombardment – lives with Amani, her brothers and sisters and has forged a very close bond with her unmarried aunt. When Amani says she plans to leave, hoping to get to Europe via Turkey, the little girl with thinning hair and only one eyebrow withdraws into silence.

Amani, around which this sensitive and touching film revolves, has broken into what she terms the “male world” of caricature art. Her drawings challenge not only the cruelty of the destruction wrought upon the last unconquered anti-regime city but themes of female liberation and sexual freedom.

Bold and intense, once seen, the images stay on the retina like the after-print of a bright light: three women executed for indulging in ex-marital sexual relations – what the Islamist groups that control the city’s rubble-strewn streets call adultery – are seen standing with a giant hand showing a ‘thumbs down’ above them. Over a grave, the hand gives the ‘thumbs-up’.

Her drawings challenge not only the cruelty of the destruction wrought upon the last unconquered anti-regime city but themes of female liberation and sexual freedom.

Nods to the past

Other drawings nod to older art: a huge pile of skulls, with a bird named The World feeding on it, is redolent of the Russian artist Vasily Vereschagin’s famous mid-19th century oil, The Apotheosis of War. For those who know the painting – and the fact that it hangs to this day in Moscow’s Tretyakov Art Gallery – the irony will not be lost.

Russia’s role in supporting Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime over the past decade or so is a constant theme, both as references to bombing strikes as cameraman and cartoonist hurry down to the basement of their apartment in a relatively unscathed part of the city and Amani’s cartoons.

Behind the Lines Alaa Amer, Alisar Hasan
Behind the Lines, a film by Alaa Amer, Alisar Hasan

Draw for Change!

Part of the Draw for Change! series of films about female cartoonists using their drawings to empower women and fight for gender equality, curated by Vincent Coen and Guillaume Vandenberghe, Behind the Lines is a film about the suffering of war-torn Idlib that celebrates life. We hear fighter jets, explosions, and ambulance sirens; we see a young woman crying as she tells Amani she just wants to draw the faces of her parent. But we don’t see bombed-out streets, the dead, dying, and injured. Militia groups are only glimpsed in animated scenes that literally paint in some of Amani’s back story.

By dedicating her life to helping art express emotion – she runs classes for women and exhibits in the city (and Italy, where she joins by video link on her phone) – Amani shows us that the spirit of life is always greater than the shadow of death.

And – spoiler alert – she and cameraman Abdo fall in love and marry. And much to the delight of little Bisan, they stay in Idlib.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworthhttp://nickholdsworth.net/
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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