A Syrian Love Story ★★★★

Some people have an aversion to documentaries where the documentarian is an on-screen presence. They're missing a lot, and this new film by Sean McAllister is a shining example of a film that couldn't be told - or couldn't be as satisfying - if it was made in any other way. At first, McAllister appears to be setting himself up as a Nick Broomfield-esque comic investigator, travelling to Syria at a time when its chinless dictator Bashar al-Assad was still hailed as a great friend of freedom by Western media. Judging by the opening five minutes, he initially spent his time getting up Syrians' noses by trying to hunt out a story worth filming.

But this is misdirection. Once McAllister finds his story, the film seems to be moving in more of a triumph-over-adversity direction, the story of a man and his children keeping vigil for his imprisoned dissident wife. And then, just when you're getting used to that, this strand comes to a premature end. Every time I felt like I was getting a read on McAllister's film it kept on turning off in a different direction, but not in the outrageous, stranger-than-fiction manner of a film like Tabloid or The Impostor. Rather, A Syrian Love Story keeps on getting more complex, more painful, more challenging, harder to see in terms of good and bad - rather like the horrifyingly murky civil war it documents.

Rather than have me describe these twists, you should experience the skill of McAllister's narrative construction for yourself. Talking about a documentary in terms of storytelling can sometimes give people the impression that you're saying it's fabricated - but McAllister's narrative strategies are based on an honest response to the knots and whorls of the story he's filming, and his presence on screen allows you to see how he tried to navigate these events as they happened. It's hard to imagine how a film could be more transparent than this.

It's 75 minutes long, which you can view in two ways. One is that McAllister's film is laudably free of self-indulgent, particularly considering the amount of footage he must have shot. The other is that it feels a bit too slight to do justice to the events covered. I have some sympathy with the latter view but I'm not sure how McAllister could have given the film a greater sense of closure. I fear it will be a long time before it's possible to tell a close-ended story about the Syrian conflict.

Available on BBC iPlayer for the next 22 days, so catch it while you can.

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