Amiralay, Umar (1944–)

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Amiralay, Umar

Umar (Omar) Amiralay is a prominent Syrian filmmaker and producer as well as a civil rights activist. His distinctive and prolific body of work includes documentaries and feature films. Most of his films are potent critiques of the sociopolitical status quo in Syria and a few have been banned by that country's government. Amiralay has been an outspoken critic of dictatorship and the lack of basic freedoms in Syria and has been active in civil rights initiatives.


Amiralay was born in 1944 in Damascus to an ethnically diverse (Circassian, Kurdish, Arab) family. He grew up in Damascus, close to the tomb of the Sufi master Ibn Arabi. His father, a former Ottoman army officer, worked as a policeman and died when Amiralay was only six. His mother was Lebanese. Amiralay was a very inquisitive and precocious child. He credits his brother, a painter, with his early exposure to art and music. He attended college in Syria before leaving in 1965 for Paris, where he first studied drama at the Théâtre des Nations and later cinema at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (IDHEC), starting in 1967.

In 1970 Amiralay returned to Syria and launched his prolific career. His provocative and often controversial documentary films have made him a target of intimidation and harassment by the Syrian authorities. He was interrogated and briefly detained twice, in 2001 and most recently in 2006 after A Flood in Ba'th Country was shown on the al-Arabiyya satellite channel.


Unlike the great majority of Syrian filmmakers, Amiralay did not study in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union, but in Paris, during a politically tumultuous period that culminated in the 1968 student movement, in which he participated. Politically, Amiralay has always been and remains a Marxist. The loss of Palestine and the establishment of Israel in 1948 left an indelible mark on his formative years, which he explored in his 1997 film A Plate of Sardines. The Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights in 1967 and the destruction of the town of al-Qunaytara when Israel withdrew from it in 1974 were also monumental events for Amiralay.

Amiralay launched his career with a laudatory documentary film about the Asad Dam on the Euphrates, Nuhawwilu sadd al-Furat (1970; Essay on the Euphrates Dam). The film is a celebration of modernization and technology. This was followed by a second film in 1974, Al-Hayat al-yawmiya fi qaria Suriya (Daily Life in a Syrian Village), which was critical of the effects of the project on the lives of citizens in a nearby village. Amiralay revisited the region more than three decades later in 2002 to make A Flood in Ba'th Country, a potent critique of indoctrination and propaganda in the Syrian school system.

One of Amiralay's most memorable films is There Are Many Things Still to Talk About. The narrative revolves around a series of interviews with Syrian playwright Sa'dallah Wannus (1941–1997), who was dying of cancer. Juxtaposing images of the wars with Israel and the Palestinian struggle for self-determination, Wannus revisits the dreams, disillusionments, and defeat of a generation of intellectuals.

Among Amiralay's many controversial works is The Man with the Golden Shoes, a documentary about the Lebanese prime minister and billionaire rafiq hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. Although diametrically opposed to each other politically, a friendship ensued between the two. Following Hariri's assassination, Amiralay signed a declaration by Syrian intellectuals calling for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.


Amiralay is well regarded and respected as a filmmaker. In addition to praise from international critics and peers, he has been honored and celebrated in numerous international film festivals, with special retrospectives in Berlin, New York, and Paris. In 2001 the Cinéma du Réel International Documentary Film Festival in Paris honored him with a special career retrospective.


Amiralay will surely be considered one of the most important Syrian and Arab documentary filmmakers of the last few decades of the twentieth century. His work has provided a unique insight into Syrian society and politics under the Ba'th, and maintained high aesthetic standards. What will further distinguish his legacy is his political activism and courageous interventions as an outspoken critic of dictatorship.


Name: Umar Amiralay (Omar)

Birth: 1944, Damascus, Syria

Nationality: Syrian (dual Lebanese citizenship)

Education: Attended college in Syria; studied drama, Theatre des Nations; L'Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (IDHEC)


  • 1970: Releases first film, Nuhawwilu sadd al-Furat
  • 1976: Signs petition protesting Syria's entry into Lebanon
  • 2000: Signs manifesto by ninety-nine Syrian intellectuals demanding freedom and lifting of emergency measures
  • 2001: Honored with retrospective by Cinéma du Réel International Documentary Film Festival, Paris
  • 2001: Establishes Arab Film Institute
  • 2001: Arrested by Syrian authorities, interrogated for thirteen hours, released the same day; barred from leaving country
  • 2006: Interrogated for two days about A Flood In Ba'th Country


Boëx, Cécile. "Autonomous Spaces." Film Comment 42:3, 12-15.

Salti, Rasha. Insights into Syrian Cinema: Essays and Conversations with Contemporary Filmmakers. New York: Rattapallax Press, 2007.


Nuhawwilu sadd al-Furat (Essay on the Euphrates Dam), 1970

Al-Hayat al-yawmiya fi qaria Suriya (Daily Life in a Syrian Village), 1974

Al-dajaj (The Chickens), 1977

An al-thawra (On the Revolution), 1978

A Nation's Catastrophes, 1981

The Scent of Heaven, 1982

Love Buried Alive, 1983

Video on Sand, 1984

Intimate Enemy, 1986

To the Attention of Miss Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, 1988

A Teacher, 1992

On a Day of Ordinary Violence, My Friend Michel Seurat …, 1996

There are Many Things Still to Talk About, 1996

A Plate of Sardines, 1997

The Man with the Golden Shoes, 1999

A Flood In Ba'th Country, 2002

                                                  Sinan Antoon