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Jalal Maghout: "With one leg I stand in Berlin, with the other in Syria"

Jalal Maghout: "With one leg I stand in Berlin, with the other in Syria"
Photo: © Jalal Maghout

Cute, talking animals, the fairytale princess and her dream prince and the obligatory happy ending: Jalal Maghout proves that animated film is more than its cliché promises. The Syrian filmmaker came to Berlin from Damascus in 2013 to do his master's degree in animation direction. In this interview, he tells us about the animation film industry, why he prefers to make short films rather than feature-length films and reports on the situation of artists in Syria.

Interview Ann-Kathrin Liedtke


In March 2011 the civil war broke out in Syria. The UN estimated the number of victims at 250,000 in 2015, while the Syrian Center for Policy Resarch (SCPR) now estimates that there will be over 470,000 victims. A total of about ten million Syrians are on the run - almost half of the population of Syria. Above all, cultural and creative workers are fleeing from the country where culture has almost completely been destroyed by the war. Jalal Maghout (29) is one of them. He came to Berlin in 2013 to do his master's degree in animation direction at the Film University Babelsberg. He studied visual communication in Damascus and since then has been producing animation films, for which he has already been awarded "Best Independent Short Film" by the ANIMAYO Festival or the jury prize of the War On Screen Festival. His films have been shown at numerous festivals around the world: in France, Croatia, Italy, Sweden, and Mexico.

CCB Magazine:Hello, Jalal. What are you currently working on as a filmmaker?

Jalal:Right now I'm doing my graduation film for the Master in Animation Direction. The film should be finished in September 2017, the preparation of the production of the film and the development of the material took about one year. Next I will start with the animation. Although a year sounds like a lot of time, it's still a challenge because the film will be twelve minutes long - which is relatively long compared to the other graduation films. The animation technique also takes a lot of time.

CCB Magazine:What kind of animation do you do?

Jalal:I do classical animation. Hand drawn. For this I need more or less only my drawing material, a computer and a scanner. With other animation techniques you need much more material, but the hardest part of classical animation is the manual work. Sometimes I draw a figure 1,000 times - quite different from the layering animation I used in my second film. There I draw the figures only once and animate them digitally later.

CCB Magazine:What is your graduation film about?

Jalal:The film is called "Have A Nice Dog!" and is a psychodrama. It's about a man who lives in Damascus. Damascus is still a comparatively safe city in Syria today. The people there try to lead a normal everyday life, the markets, restaurants, cafés and schools are still open. At the same time, the sounds of battle can be constantly heard and seen. The protagonist in my film suffers from the situation. Almost all his friends have already fled. He is alone. In the film he undergoes a two-way escape: the physical escape and the escape into himself. I visualize the man's feelings through a dog that is the protagonist's companion: it's the display of all those feelings that the man actually tries to hide.

CCB Magazine:The story has some parallels to your own life. Is the protagonist your alter ego?

Jalal:Probably not. Well, maybe 50 percent (laughs). I have lived in Damascus myself and that has naturally shaped me. Every little detail in everyday life was very important to me during this time, because there was always the possibility that I might die or flee in the next moment. When I met someone, this one thought came to me: this could be the last time I see him. The permanent fear is suppressed by most people, because life must go on. An animal, however, does not hide its feelings. Like the dog that lived with my parents. My mom called him "Baroud" - "gunpowder". We lived in a safe district, but the helicopters and military jets flew over our house every day and bombed the surrounding areas. It was constantly loud. Baroud was always scared. That dog and Damascus were formative. Just two or three kilometers away, people are bombing their homes, while at the same moment in Damascus, you can be sitting in a café. A surreal situation. I wondered whether the people of this city, who are actually safe, are psychologically "normal".

CCB Magazine:Have you already found an answer?

Jalal:Ja. They are not normal (laughs) - not normal at all. I can see that in myself: I did not suffer physically from the war. My loss was not as bad as that of so many other millions of Syrians. My life has changed a lot because of the war - these five, six years - nevertheless. I look at things differently now. I have become a different person.

I do not know a single artist who is still in Syria

CCB Magazine:What is the situation for artists in Syria? Is there still something like a cultural life in the country?

Jalal:No. From my circle of acquaintances I do not know a single artist who is still in Syria. Most of them have meanwhile fled to Lebanon or Turkey. And very many artists actually come to Berlin. Political art is particularly delicate - you can't express anything critical. However, there is an art scene of propaganda: art that corresponds to the ideas of the government. This was already the case before the war, but not to such an extreme. One can perhaps compare the situation for artists and journalists in Syria quite well with the GDR in Germany - there, too, artists who expressed criticism could not work freely.

CCB Magazine:Do you still have friends or family in Syria?

Jalal:One brother is in Lebanon and one in Turkey, they work there. But my mother, my father and my sister are still in Damascus. I think about them every day. It's as if I have one leg in Germany and the other in Syria. Of course I tried to convince them to leave the country, but life in Damascus is still going on as usual, so they don't want to leave. I don't know yet whether I will return myself. I could imagine that one day I would help to rebuild the country. I'm thinking especially of the new generation of Syrians. It has been war for almost six years now. The children who were born during this time hardly had the opportunity to go to school. They know nothing else but war.


"I am a different person now": Selfie Attempt, Dir.: Jalal Maghout

CCB Magazine:In Germany you are already committed to helping fugitive children and young people.

Jalal:Exactly, in Berlin or even in Leipzig I have already supervised workshops for refugees between 7 and 18 years of age together with the visual artist Diana Abdulkarim. Most of the participants were Syrians. In an animation workshop, the children learn how to do laying animation. They take part in the complete film process: from the idea to the development of the story to the realization. They should tell their own little story without being influenced.

CCB Magazine:You came to Germany in 2013. Why did you just want to come here?

Jalal:I made the decision to come to Germany years before the war. I was here for the first time in 2008 and decided directly to do my master's degree in Germany. The trip was made possible by the Goethe Institute in Damascus. I received an award from them, which included a trip to Berlin, Leipzig and Hamburg. I immediately fell in love with the German language. All my friends, even the German ones, actually find it funny that I find the sound so beautiful. When I finally came to Berlin, I was surprised how people speak here. It was totally different from what I learned in the books.

Should I really make another film about Syria?

CCB Magazine:Many fugitives now have very little chance of obtaining visas. What did the situation look like for you three years ago?

Jalal:This was not easy, even though it was even easier to get a visa in 2013. At that time the so-called "refugee crisis" did not exist. Nevertheless, I had to wait three years before I could come to Germany after my Bachelor's degree in Damascus. In the meantime I was teaching at the university in Damascus. Today, in 2016, it has become almost impossible to get to Germany or the EU legally or to get a visa - even if you actually meet all the requirements.

CCB Magazine:And why did you just come to Berlin?

Jalal:I already knew then how active this city is in the field of art. What museums and galleries there are. I think it's great that so many creative people live here. That inspires. I have already shown my films in Berlin at various events and festivals. Soon also in the competition of interfilm. But no matter whether it's a big or small event: at every screening there are great talks and discussions.

"Sometimes I draw a figure 1,000 times - quite different from the laying animation, where I draw the figures only once and later animate them digitally": Canvas On Mixed Media (2013), Dir.: Jalal Maghout.

CCB Magazine:Are you also confronted with prejudices in such conversations? Certain thematic expectations are often placed on Syrian film in particular.

Jalal:I know these prejudices. An artist from a country like Syria is seen within a certain framework. One expects motives like: war, terror, destruction. Of course, one reason for this is that art is always a reaction to the reality in which one lives. I don't think it's right to judge an artist only by the content and not by the artistic realization. However, these stereotypes exist almost everywhere: one expects a French film about love, for example. But it is the artist's task to fight these stereotypes.

As long as there is war, there will also be art that deals with it

CCB Magazine:Yet your work also corresponds to this stereotype of Syrian film.

Jalal:I've already thought a lot about this: Should I really make another film about Syria? But I just can't deal with a different topic. I am shaped by this situation. That doesn't mean that in the future I want to be seen as the director of anti-war films. It's also possible that I will make a love story next year. But the war still rules. And as long as it exists, there will also be art that deals with war.

CCB Magazine:Even today, animated films still adhere to the cliché that they are only aimed at children, which may also be due to the abundance of anthropomorphic animals.  Why do you associate animation with the rather genre-untypical theme of war?

Jalal:The easiest answer is: animation is simply my medium. No matter what topic I'm dealing with. My last film, for example, was documentary. The basis was a four-hour audio interview with a real-life Syrian activist. That was totally exciting, but as an artist I would never make a real documentary. In an animated documentary, on the other hand, I have the opportunity to depict not only reality, but also my own subjective perception. That is fascinating.

Is the everyday life of war normal?: "Have A Nice Dog!" (2017), Dir.: Jalal Maghout.

CCB Magazine:This procedure is reminiscent of films like "Waltz With Bashir" by Ari Folman about the Sabra and Schatlia massacre in Beirut. He also combined real interviews with animation.

Jalal:Exactly. Such films show that animated film is more diverse than its reputation. It can also deal with difficult subjects. There are many ways to depict surreal situations, dreams or traumas. War is not only what you see in reality, but also what happens in people's heads.

CCB Magazine:In contrast to Folman, however, you have chosen the medium of short films. Why don't you make long films?

Jalal:Producing a feature film is much more expensive. You have to work with a team, you need a studio. I could imagine making a feature-length film in the future, but I don't see short films as an exercise for that, like some other short film directors. They are an art form with which I can realize my art as a filmmaker and visual artist.

Animation is my medium. No matter what topic I deal with

CCB Magazine:In Germany, short films are almost exclusively shown at film festivals and rarely at the cinema. The commercial aspect often plays a subordinate role. How do you finance yourself and your films?

Jalal:I have won a few prizes, but of course you can't count on that. For my first two films I had no financing at all and produced them completely on my own. This is also due to my background as a visual artist: like art, filmmaking for me is a work I do on my own. I treated my films like my paintings. In my third film, "Suleima" (2014), I worked together with others and therefore needed financing. In Germany I first approached the Robert Bosch Stiftung with "Have A Nice Dog!" We submitted the project, were nominated, but unfortunately did not receive the funding. At the moment we are still waiting for the results from foundations in Lebanon and Canada. We have also received a production grant of 15,000 euros from the German government. Compared to other countries in the EU or the USA, it's not so easy to produce short films and especially animated films in Germany. Nevertheless, I think there are few, but very good possibilities to finance films.

CCB Magazine:What else do you want to achieve as an artist and filmmaker?

Jalal: To be honest: when I'm working on something, I don't think about the prizes I'll win with it or the big festivals where the film might run. To achieve something like that is of course great, but the biggest goal is actually that I can always continue my work. And that I always have the inspiration to make new projects. In four or five years I might even want to produce my first feature film. I just feel the need to make films.

CCB Magazine:Jalal, good luck!

Profile of Jalal Maghout on Creative City Berlin

Category: When I moved to Berlin


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