The Long Night, which had its premiere at the Middle East International Film Festival on Sunday, touches on a subject that is both very important and very sensitive not only in Syria — where it is based — but also across the Arab world and beyond.
Director Hatem Ali and screenwriter-producer Haitham Hakki have approached the controversial topic of people being thrown into jail — mainly for political reasons — by "speaking softly but carrying a large stick", as the saying goes.
The story deals with four friends who were imprisoned for over 20 years; three are set to be released within the course of the same day, while one is left behind.
As soon as their families learn of the good news, they begin frantically preparing for their loved ones' return. Favourite foods are prepared, furniture is rearranged, and in the case of the husband and wife living in Paris, tickets for the next flight to their home country are purchased.
However, what should have been a happy welcoming turns into a nightmare, as the hours drag slowly by until dawn and the families lose hope.
The film has put a human face on the thousands of people who are waiting for their loved ones to return home from imprisonment and helps to raise awareness of the issue in the rest of the world.
Because of the controversial choice of subject for the film, The Long Night has been banned from being shown in Syria. But that didn't stop the director from screening it in many international film festivals where it has won critical acclaim and prizes.
"This movie has a very important aspect — it is completely independent. In Syria, the government usually controls all aspects of film production, however, we managed to finance this project all on our own so nothing shown [here] has been influenced by outside parties," Ali explained. As the movie progresses, the audience are given hints as to why the four protagonists were imprisoned in the first place, and how each family left behind has suffered.
"As we saw in the film, this is a tough subject to discuss in the Arab world, so we searched for a way to raise this issue differently. We wanted to touch on the Arab aspect, the human aspect, of this political issue," Ali said.
The film's pessimistic approach towards these situations may cause viewers to wonder if there is a larger message hidden within the overall plotline.
"Well, the situation in the Arab world would push people towards pessimism. But in the film, through pessimism, emotions are translated, transmitted, to give people hope, which is the point of the movie," the director said.
"Of course the film talks about tragedies. It helps to show the human aspect of these situations in a special way. When audiences experience this pessimism on purpose, it pushes them towards the more positive aspect of life," Hakki said.
"Hopefully it will cause them to think about ways to ensure that this doesn't happen in the future," he added.
Critically acclaimed Syrian actor Gassan Masoud caused gasps of excitement at the premiere of The Long Night. Masoud has also appeared in the Hollywood movie roles including the character Saladin in The Kingdom of Heaven.
Is this your first time at the Middle East International Film Festival?
No, I was here last year as well.
What do you think about this year's line up?
It's good... The great thing about it is that not only are different films from around the world being shown here, but it also gives a chance for Arab talent to be showcased. That is a valuable step in getting international peers to acknowledge the talent we have in the region. There are many who aren't really aware of what is being achieved in this part of the world, so the festival is a great way for people of this industry to meet.
What do think of the film industry in the Middle East compared to places such as the US?
I think that there is an opportunity for great potential to be discovered, whether it be an actor, actress, director, or anyone involved in the industry.
In the West, there are both big budget movies and small independent ones, sometimes the big budget ones flop and the independent ones become hits. It's not just about who has the most money to shoot a film, or the latest equipment, but rather being able to combine all the elements needed to make a successful story.
If at some point in the future, you were told to choose between theatre (his main passion) and cinema, which would you choose and why?
Both! Why should I limit myself? Scratch that, I would do television, cinema and theatre. A true actor would be able to handle anything thrown his way.
Are you currently working on any projects?
I am in the process of filming an independent movie called Stray. But I can't reveal more about it at this point.