It’s not often that films shoot in the Occupied Golan Heights, Israel’s contested border territory with Syria and Lebanon.
Characterized by sloping mountains and the ruins of more than 100 Syrian villages, destroyed (by Israel) after the Six Day War in 1967, it makes for an atmospheric filming location. This can be seen in “The Stranger” (Al Garib), a drama making its world premiere in the Venice Critics’ Week section on Monday.
The Arab and German crew shot in rough conditions, including dense fog that hugged the mountain villages that are now reduced to rubble. Slush washed over the empty roads leading to the Syrian border, and heavy snow falls cut off Majdal Shams, the biggest town in the area, from the rest of the world, to create a shadowy darkness in this post-Christmas shoot in 2019 by first-time feature director Ameer Fakher Eldin.
Eldin directed from his own script. He was born to Syrian parents from the Golan Heights and grew up in Majdal Shams, where the story unfolds. He’s now based in Hamburg.
“The story is simple but the film is wider than the story. What inspired me was a character study of a stranger in his own society,” says Eldin.
“This idea is valid, unfortunately, these days in the Arab world: To be a black sheep or the unwanted seed. That’s the story. The main character (played by Ashraf Barhoum) is in an existential crisis from the Syrian war. But this experience could happen in different dimensions in different worlds,” he adds.
“It’s about your grandfather. Your father. Who is going to be you. It’s about the inability to change. To inherit. The inheritance of monotony. When someone tries to behave differently, he’s a black sheep,” says Eldin.
Shooting in circa 20 locations was eventful. Under the watchful eye of the Israeli tanks patrolling the border, the team, at one point, broke out into an Arab folk dance. A discarded sofa created a rest area for the German crew in a remote location. They were dropped off each night, cold and wet, to sleep in the local hospital, which provided beds to support the production.
“The village people were very helpful and also hosted some of the crew,” says Eldin.
An abandoned mosque with water dripping through the roof gave shelter for one rainy shoot near the destroyed village of Hushniya. Cinematographer Niklas Lindschau (“Strawberry Bubblegums”) used the misty backdrop to create compelling images.
“Near Hushniya, on Route 87 in the eastern Golan, there is a large abandoned mosque, partially destroyed, whose minaret is still visible. The large, impressive building is now daubed with Hebrew and Arabic graffiti, and signs of gunfire are clearly visible,” says Eldin.
The film stars Palestine’s Barhoum (“The Kingdom,” “Paradise Now”) playing a doctor working illegally. His life takes a turn for the worse when he encounters a man returned from the Syrian War.
Speaking on location near Majdal Shams, Barhoum told Variety: “It’s a privilege to be part of a project that is opening doors, and leading cinema talents and ideas that could follow after this project to the Golan Heights. It is establishing a new stage, so to speak, in the Golan Heights with a script writer and director like Ameer because it doesn’t really exist here. There are many stories here. It’s rich with layers and I think Ameer did a bold and courageous thing that will affect other ideas and enterprises here in a positive way.”
Barhoum also appeared in “The Syrian Bride,” which filmed in the Golan Heights.
The film is a Syria, Palestine, Germany, Qatar production, made with support from MOIN Filmförderung Hamburg Schleswig-Holstein; the Doha Film Institute; the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture; and Culture Resource (Al Mawred – Al Thaqafy).
The producers are Palestine’s Fresco Films (Tony and Girius Copti), Red Balloon Film in Germany, with Gwen Wynne and Carol Ann Shine executive producing for Apricot Films in Los Angeles. The co-producer is Metafora Production.