War is a harrowing experience. It changes people - on the front line, there is no shortage to the kinds of trauma that soldiers are exposed to, but it's also the civilians caught on the crossfire who must adapt, either fleeing their home and leaving everything from the life they knew, or hardening up and enduring the conflict. The latter forms the story for 'Insyriated', an affecting and oftentimes horrific film as seen through the eyes of those who witness war directly.
Damascus is a dangerous place to be - the streets are full of gunfire and bodies, and the only chance of survival now is to stay indoors. Matriarch Oum Yazan (Hiam Abbass, 'Exodus: Gods and Kings') commands the flat which houses her family and neighbours, and over the space of a day, we see the pressure they are under and the dangers they face. As a war rages on outside, they must live their everyday lives and carry out even the most mediocre tasks with the utmost caution - and yet, as the fighting closes in, the threat inevitably comes to them.
Walking the line between sanctuary and jail cell, the entirety of the film is set within Oum Yazan's apartment. This builds a huge amount of tension, its claustrophobic conditions closing in around those it protects. Outside, we constantly hear gunfire and explosions, yet worse still are footsteps in the supposedly deserted apartment above. Adding to the unease is the use of handheld camerawork and long, extensive shots - the mise en scène as we follow the family around shows just how trapped the family really are.
This film belongs to Hiam Abbass, whose incredible performance gives weight to everything which occurs in this story. Her command of the family is, on the surface, a tough and uncompromising but necessary position, and yet underneath she is someone struggling to keep her family safe and together, and in moments of quiet or extreme distress we see the truth emerging through the cracks in her resilient persona. Also superb is Diamand Bou Abboud, whose performance as a neighbour whose misfortune and suffering is severe and ceaseless is devastatingly heartbreaking.
This film belongs to Hiam Abbass.
For a film that exists inside such a small setting, 'Insyriated' is a big film. There isn't a final resolution or happily ever after in this story - because the truth is, the war rages on with no sign of any such ending. This film left me uncomfortable, having witnessed these atrocities occurring to completely innocent people with no control over their situation. As disturbing as it may be, it's remarkably powerful and a strong piece of work from director/writer Philippe Van Leeuw.