The virtues of a ‘difficult watch’

Philippe Van Leeuw's film is a raw and engrossing account of war

The Price of Subtle Pleasures

We make a deal every night, consciously or not, with some unseen force that when we go to sleep, the world is going be there when we wake up. Maybe we’re making a deal just to wake up in the first place but it’s in line with the Kafka-esque thought that sleep is one of the most dangerous things that you can do because you don’t know how you’ll find yourself in the morning.

This isn’t the only deal that we make, consciously or unconsciously, in life. We do our best in our everyday lives to avoid pain and risk and things that generally make us uncomfortable. That’s a human thing to do but perhaps it’s not entirely in our best interests. There’s a Nietzsche quote I’m quite drawn to that is somewhat applicable to this scenario;

You have the choice: either as little displeasure as possible, painlessness in brief … or as much displeasure as possible as the price for the growth of an abundance of subtle pleasures and joys that have rarely been relished yet? If you decide for the former and desire to diminish and lower the level of human pain, you also have to diminish and lower the level of their capacity for joy.

One could could easily take this train of thought and decide to get run over by a car or get shot in the leg because it will build character; and that down the line you’ll really appreciate how much better it is not to get run over by a car or shot in the leg.

The Difficult Watch

All of which brings us to Insyriated, a film by Belgian writer-director Philippe Van Leeuw about life in war ravaged Damascus. Classed by some as a ‘difficult’ watch, I’ve found the reaction in describing this film to others to be rather telling: namely that they’re not in the mood for this type of film or they want to consume something a little lighter.

I understand this reaction and it is after all why Marvel and Star Wars films exist: It’s easier to contemplate an intergalactic war than the real ones that are happening right here, right now on planet Earth.

Taking place almost entirely in a single apartment housing two families and over the space of one day, we follow matriarch Oum Yazan (played by Hiam Abbass) as she tries to maintain a level of normality for her children and her other house guests as war loudly and harshly encroaches on their lives.

We don’t see the destruction of the bombs outside but we see the looks on the characters’ faces as whatever semblance of quotidian normality becomes subsumed by the reality of an obtrusive and oppressive war.

The sound design of Insyriated, where every thud or knock on the door rings in an almost Hitchcockian level of tension, is almost as impressive as the performance of Hiam Abbass. Her face, so tired and worn from just surviving, brilliantly conveys the look of a woman close to breaking point. It is a truly powerhouse performance, one that transcends the screen to hit you right in the face where you feel every gut wrenching decision that she’s forced to make throughout the film.

Inflected Horror at its Finest

Insyriated pulls no punches and it is a tense, nail-biting 80 plus minutes of cinema. Tense and nail-biting should draw an audience (any audience for that matter) in, but unlike say the nail-biting tension of seeing Jason Bourne avoid CIA agents in Waterloo station, this hits an uncomfortable spot in our psyche because this is real life and likely actually happening somewhere in Syria right now.

Make no mistake about it, Insyriated is a horror film; a horror film that plays with the eerie isolation oft found in the zombie apocalypse genre combined with the sickening, domestic horror of a home invasion film. But this isn’t a film to be garishly enjoyed like you would 28 Days Later or You’re Next, this is a film to be endured with very few pauses for breath. It feels too real at times.

Around the halfway mark, there is an absolutely harrowing sequence (and for those who are triggered by such things, there is a depiction of sexual assault) that will make your stomach churn not only because of the actions depicted on screen but because of the moral quandary the situation presents for the other characters. In lesser hands this would’ve been an exploitative sequence played for cheap tension and even though it is deftly handled, it is absolutely and utterly horrible. Truth be told, you’ll likely leave the cinema with a knot in your stomach.

And why should you put yourself through this cold shower of a film? Because it’s a valuable experience and it creates one of the most powerful and trans-formative things we can experience as humans: Empathy.

A Passport to Another World

Cinema is an especially good delivery device for empathy and we can watch war on the news and experience it intellectually but there’s a world of difference when you can experience something in a tangible way. Granted we can’t physically touch the characters but we get to live in their skin for a little while and feel an approximation of their reality.

At its best, cinema is a passport to another world; Insyriated isn’t necessarily a destination we would want to be taken to but it is one we need to be taken to because enlightenment rarely comes without sacrifice or pain.

And that is the other hushed, nocturnal deal that we don’t so much make as have to acknowledge, there is no growth or enlightenment without pain. Insyriated will leave a mark but it’s a mark that should be made because you’ll look at the world a little differently afterwards; you’ll feel the world a little differently afterwards and there’s hope in that acknowledgement.

Written by Gavin Moriarty
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