In Syria, the government completely controls the culture. The repression isn't just secret policemen and soldiers in the street. It is near total domination of all forms of art and communication. Filmmaking receives special oversight. Ironically, Syria has produced a small but significant body of important films, often shown in international festivals and all financed by the government, but they are rarely seen in Syria itself, because of the regime's fear of public gatherings. Twenty years ago, there were a hundred and twenty cinemas in Syria; when I was there for The New Yorker in 2006, only six were functioning.
I had the good fortune at the time to meet Orwa Nyrabia (also transcribed Nairabiya). He is a big, ironic, bold spirit, whose jolly nature seemed perversely at odds with the grimly repressive atmosphere inside that country. With another producer, Diana el-Jeiroudi, Orwa started Proaction Film, the only independent documentary-film company in Syria. The two of them also created Dox Box, the largest documentary-film festival in the Arab world.
Orwa was one man who quietly stood against the Syrian police state. He was not a revolutionary but he was an independent filmmaker, which inevitably placed him in jeopardy. In this brutalized society, he was also a person who still held onto joy and hope, qualities that are hunted down in Syria by forces dedicated to suffocating the best in human nature.
Last Thursday, Orwa was abducted before boarding a flight from Damascus to Cairo. His disappearance follows the death of another young Syrian filmmaker, Bassel Chehade, who was shot down in the city of Homs in May. Chehade had been studying film at Syracuse University before deciding to return to his country to document the conflict.
So many have died in Syria already–more than thirty thousand, according to U.N. figures. More than two hundred thousand refugees have fled into neighboring countries. I wish that Orwa were among them. Instead, he is likely one of the tens of thousands who have been detained by the regime–including four hundred children who were tortured, according to UNICEF. A report in the New York Times earlier this year said that more than six hundred people had died under torture since the uprisings began, last year. That was in January; who knows how many have died since.
Orwa's abduction comes during a government crackdown on artists and intellectuals. Syria will have a future after this catastrophic civil war, but it will be much darker without creative, independent voices like Orwa Nyrabia.
Photograph by Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images.