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Civil war splits Syria's artists

Wednesday - 12/12/2012, 2:01pm  ET

Associated Press

BEIRUT (AP) - Syrian filmmaker Joud Said was planning to attend the world premiere of his latest work at the Dubai International Film Festival when the bad news came: his movie had been yanked from the program.

"I knew right away it was for political reasons," he said.

The film wasn't overtly political, but it was produced with help from the regime of Bashar Assad, drawing protests by opposition artists that got it thrown out. Two other Syrian offerings at the festival suffered the same fate.

Syria's civil war has driven wedges through many parts of society, with violence that has killed more than 40,000 people exacerbating differences in class, ideology and religion.

Reflecting how deep these divisions run is the near complete split of Syria's artists into pro- and anti-regime camps. Although Syria's writers, musicians and filmmakers fight with sharply worded statements instead of guns and tanks, their mutual animosity bodes ill for reconciliation should Assad fall.

After 20 months of conflict, many can no longer tolerate their former friends and colleagues with opposing views.

For decades, the Syrian government has supported artists with state funds while strictly monitoring their output to make sure it remained acceptable to the regimes of Assad and his father and predecessor, Hafez.

Surprisingly, this produced very little art that was straight government propaganda, said Rebecca Joubin, a scholar of Syrian culture at Davidson College. Instead, artists worked inside the system, often criticizing the regime indirectly or showing the painful effects of its policies in ways that didn't run afoul of the censors.

All seemed to accept this as the only way to work.

This changed with the outbreak of the anti-Assad uprising in March 2011 and the country's descent into civil war. A number of prominent artists, like singer George Wassouf and actor Duraid Lahham, have stood by the president. Many consider him an essential symbol of the nation, support his anti-Israel positions or fear that the mostly Sunni Muslim rebels will replace his secular regime with a conservative, religious one.

Some who joined the uprising paid a high price. Political cartoonist Ali Ferzat had his hands smashed by masked gunmen last year for drawings critical of Assad's family. At least two filmmakers were killed, one while teaching activists how to make better videos. Others were detained or fled the country.

As the violence grew, opposition artists lost patience with those who didn't publicly break with the government.

"Before the uprising, a lot of Syrian intellectuals were more understanding that there is a game they have to play to survive," Joubin said. "But right now when so many writers, artists and directors _ so many Syrians _ have paid with their lives, people no longer accept this."

This split has been especially harsh in the film community, driven in part by old grievances over who received approval and scarce government funding, Joubin said.

Early last year, a group of filmmakers launched an online petition condemning Assad's regime and soliciting signatures in "solidarity with the Syrian people and with their dreams of justice, equality and freedom."

Soon after, more than 100 directors, actors and musicians posted a statement echoing the government line that foreign meddling fueled the uprising and calling for "steps toward reform and change" under Assad's leadership.

The statement also pointed out that Israeli filmmakers had signed the opposition petition _ implying collaboration with the enemy, a capital offense in Syria.

The opposition considered the statement a betrayal and worried that Assad's intelligence services would target those who didn't sign.

"When you are in these circumstances and making ideological attacks on people and calling them traitors, in a way you are calling for their death," said opposition filmmaker Meyar AL-Roumi, who lives in France.

Meanwhile, filmmakers on both sides continued to submit their work for competition, and eight Syrian films were scheduled to be screened at the prestigious Dubai International Film Festival, which opened Dec. 9 and runs through Dec. 16.

But when the lineup was announced, opposition filmmakers were horrified that three of the works had been made through the Syrian government's film association by directors who had signed the pro-Assad statement. The other films were made with private, mostly European funds.

"They made their films with money from a state that is killing its people," said AL-Roumi, whose film "Round Trip" is being shown in Dubai. "It was like they were inviting Bashar Assad to the festival."

So he and others complained to festival organizers, who canceled the films.

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