Berlinale 2023 Review: A Show Must Go On in Talal Derki and Heba Khaled’s “Under the Sky of Damascus”

Issues of transmission are at the heart of “Under the Sky of Damascus,” right down to the very fabric of how Talal Derki and Heba Khaled had to proceed with their latest doc, filmed in Syria yet without the directors there. As Khaled explains shortly after the film begins, the two had to flee their homeland as a result of the ongoing civil war and have resettled in Berlin, yet it hasn’t stopped the duo from telling stories out of the region as their previous feature “Of Fathers and Sons” would attest, remarkably getting a camera into the camp where al-Qaeda radicalizes young men to fight for their cause. Along with co-director Ali Wajeeh, they come up with a novel deal in their follow-up, striking an agreement with a group of women still living in Damascus who are as committed to showing what life there really is like in their plans to stage a play dramatizing the experience of women who have suffered an all-too sadly predictable yet undercovered aspect of the endless war, subject to even greater abuses at the hands of men within their families and outside who feel they can act with impunity when any structures that could hold them in check have been essentially decimated.

The filmmakers agree to finance the production of the play, requiring the rental of a building with an open courtyard in the middle of town to act as a makeshift stage and rehearsal space, and in return, the women behind the play will arrange for the entire process to be filmed, an arrangement that somewhat ensures the women that the amateur playwrights interview will be heard when their testimony is recorded for the purposes of the film. This point becomes important in “Under the Sky of Damascus” when the point of the project for both sides can be achieved even when things don’t go according to plan, despite the good intentions of all involved, and Derki, Khaled and Wajeeh are forced to reckon with whether or not they are one more part of a system that’s been compromised and corrupted by the war.

Although Khaled takes the lead on “Damascus,” providing an intimate, searching voiceover that is far less interested in providing answers than raising questions, the parallels to “Of Fathers and Sons” where only Derki was allowed into the camps with the ultra-conservative jihadists, are striking when it was impossible to see women on screen, but the violence against them was understood in the horrific stories told by their husbands or sons and their diminishment could be seen in how their children’s attitudes were being shaped. Women are front and center in “Damascus,” though it’s telling how they appear on screen, with generally older women who likely feel they have nothing left to lose openly telling the women staging the play in their research about the horrific harassment and attacks they’ve endured while cinematographer Reed Sandeed shrewdly devises arresting compositions for those less likely to want to be identified, presenting them in silhouette as if they were at the end of a dark alley, using their surroundings be it a cloth factory or a mental health facility to frame them.

The ability of the filmmakers to bring the story to the screen with amazing clarity is in intriguing contrast with the women who plan to stage the play, constantly questioning themselves whether they are doing justice to the stories they’re being entrusted with from their interviews. With none being professionally trained, doubts creep in and the gradual erosion of the initial seven who come together is a cause for concern. When one abruptly departs for reasons that seem wildly out of character, the issues no longer appear to have to do with their natural self-confidence but inhibitions that borne out of living in an aggressively male-dominated society and it isn’t just the potential implosion of the project that has you at the edge of your seat, but the recognition that as difficult as it will be to rebuild infrastructure in Syria, rebuilding trust is bound to be even more challenging when the rot runs deep.

However, in asking for accountability even from themselves, Derki, Khaled and Wajeeh offer as strong as foundation as any to start a dialogue and when so many conversations in “Under the Sky of Damascus” continue to ring around in your head well after it ends, little doubt is left that it will reverberate in the places it matters as well.

“Under the Sky of Damascus” will screen at Berlinale on February 21st at 7 pm at Cubix 5, February 22nd at 9:45 pm at Cubix 8, February 24th at 7 pm at Zoo Palast 2 and February 26th at 1 pm at International.

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