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Farewell, Amiralay

أميرالاي بعدسة جود كوراني  

On the fifth of February, 2011, we missed a friend, a mentor and a partner. Omar Amiralay was the pioneer who

planted the seed we are cherishing today. A seed of appreciation and respect to the great art of documentary cinema.

Omar made more than 20 films between 1970 and 2004, he made films in Syria, Lebanon, France, Egypt, Pakistan, Yemen and Kuwait. His films constitute an outstanding record of life in Syria and the Lebanese civil war, among other vital topics.

Omar’s role in developing the documentary industry in the Arab world was exceptional, he was a co-founder and the president of the Arab Institute of Film, he closely advised and supported countless young filmmakers around the region, and he was a close and important advisor to DOX BOX since its very beginning.

With his absence, we miss him, and we continue the journey.

Omar Amiralay


Amiralay was born in Damascus in 1944 and studied painting in Syria before heading to Paris in 1965 to pursue studies in drama and theater. Gradually he began to lean towards cinema and enrolled at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques, or IDHEC in 1967. When the 1968 student revolt erupted, he began to make documentary films. He returned to Damascus to instigate a new documentary cinema. He has mostly made documentaries that explore the Arab world. Between 1970 and 2003, he made some eighteen documentaries all of which were shown & awarded in International Film Festivals. Amiralay is frequently referred to being the most prominent Arab World documentary filmmaker.

His work, as writer Taher Ben Jelloun has put it, has produced images of symbolic force: "If there was one single image to lay at the threshold of the crisis that is shaking the Arab world and its culture, it would be the image of a man who, dispossessed, humiliated, consumed with anger and despair, tears off his shirt in a fit of ancestral rage and throws what he has on his back to the ground with such wild fury as if he were tossing a hand grenade to free himself and avenge those closest to him. This image exists. It is the leitmotif of Omar Amiralay's film The Ordinary Life of a Syrian Village… a document with greater impact than any fiction".

On his film 'Chickens' 1978, Serge Daney wrote in Cahiers du Cinema "Here's a film that can be read on multiple levels, all of which are accessible, none of the regular coding filmmakers usually use to avoid censors. It is a film which confirms the stature of Amiralay as a high standard filmmaker, in the line of great filmmakers like Bunuel or Ferreri."

On his last film, The Flood, the DokFest Munchen 2005 Jury wrote: "A film like a surgical incision, each cut is calculated, sequences are precisely composed, its characters step silently to and fro, everything has its exact place on the dissecting table. Under the knife: Syria, a country which only a subjected person wishes to know, and calls for love. The eternally identical slogans and symbols, the ever present, ubiquitous portraits of the great state helmsman, all these things make up a desolate elegy of Orwellian characteristics. In The Flood, Omar Amiralay clears the decks of the holiest principles of the documentary one after the other. There’s someone working here who’s read his Brecht, and won’t hide what he knows. Amiralay is not seeking the Arabesque, People in front of his camera are for him bearers of a rôle, and therefore, logically they play these rôles themselves, and with such brilliance. Superficially, nothing is authentic here. Although the people are not actually the main characters of his film, much more so it is the language itself, which speaks through the people throughout... demanding and lyrical, rhythmic and enlisting. This film is like an experimental instruction, which understands how to provoke, and calls for disgust and laughter at the same time. One could argue and dispute about this film, one must argue about it. The jury did just this for a long time, and also about what the current documentary film should and can be... so, it is a necessary film, you can’t say better than that!"

In an interview with M. Darraj, Amiralay described his work saying: "I have always attempted to find a cinematic language involving characters. In fact, my films occupy the borderline between documentary and fiction. To put it more precisely, my films are not entirely documentaries, for if they were, they would be "mechanical" representations of reality. Nor are they fiction films, since they render reality. It is a rendition that is controlled by imagination, yet at the same time it is not at variance with reality; it hovers very close to it."


Film Essay on the Euphrates (1971) The Daily Life in a Syrian Village (1974) The Chicken (1977) About a Revolution (1981) The Smell of Paradise (1982) The Misfortune of Some (1982) The Love Sarcophagus(1983) Video on the Sand (1984) The Intimate Enemy (1985) The Lady of Schibam (1987) To the Attention of her Excellency the Prime Minister Bénazir Butho (1989) Light and Shadows (1991) Moudarres (1992) In a Day of Ordinary Violence, My Friend Michel Seurat… (1995) There are Many Other Things One Can Say… (1997) The Plate of Sardines (1997) The Man with Golden Sole (2000) The Flood (2004)

Selected Festivals:

Berlinale / Locarno / Tribeca / Rotterdam IFF / Cinéma du Réel / Popoli / Lussas / Nantes / Montpellier / RIDM / Biarritz / Lisboa / Biennale du Cinema Arabe / Carthage / Damas / Oberhausen / DokLeipzig / Krakow / Ayyam Beirut…

Selected Awards:

Berlinale - Interfilm Award - Otto Dibelius Film Award/ Grand Prix at the Biennale des Cinémas Arabes, Paris / Prix CMCA / Best Film at Oberhausen IFF / Special Mention at the Locarno IFF / Best Film at the Ecofilms festival (Greece) / Golden Hawk at the Arab Film Fest Rotterdam / Best Documentary at the Damascus IFF

Selected Retrospectives:

Lincoln Center (USA) / Cinema du Reel (France) / The Flaherty Seminar (USA) /
Mardin IFF, (Turkey) / Images of The Middle East (Denmark) / Iran Doc Fest (Iran) / Musee Jeu du Pomme (France) / Al Kassabah Theater (Palestine) / Caravan of Arab-European Cinema (Egypt) / Sanfic IFF (Chile)