In advance of the Shubbak screening of Round Trip on Thursday 4 July, Noreen Abu Oun from the Arab British Centre introduces the film and some of the themes it explores.
Sitting in the back of Walid's taxi, Suhair suggestively hitches her skirt up. Walid stops the car and tells her to get into the front passenger seat. They drive to a remote spot for a passionate kiss. They’re interrupted, and frustrated they drive off. Suhair tells Walid that her friend has invited her to visit Tehran. She asks him if he would like to accompany her.
Round Trip tells the story of Walid and Suhair, a young Syrian couple, and their attempts to be together romantically. Long story short, they’re not married and pre-marital sex is technically illegal in Syria so they make the decision to get on a train bound for Tehran.
The performances of Ammar Haj Ahmad (Walid) and Alexandra Kahwagi (Suhair) are captivating. Walid is serious; Ahmad has got the art of acting moody down to a T projecting an unlikeable character effectively. Suhair is flirty but there’s something innocent about Kahwagi’s performance; so much so, she won a special mention in the prestigious Dubai International Film Festival Muhr Arab feature category for her role in this film.
Giving us a subtle indication of the period in which this film is set is the sound of the TV news report playing in the background early on in the film. We hear about Mohammed Bouazizi whose self-immolation famously sparked the Tunisian uprisings that led to the fall of the former President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, which inspired the uprisings right across the Arab world, including Syria.
Round Trip is shot beautifully and we’re treated to some stunning scenes of Syria; both the rural and the metropolitan. Notably, there are the lingering shots of Aleppo Railway Station (aka Gare de Baghdad) one of Syria’s oldest railway stations. Even from the opening credits I felt as though the film was paying homage to Syria’s landscape; particularly apt considering the ongoing devastation across the country. Then there’s a poignant moment in the film when Suhair says:
A man asked his girlfriend:
‘do you like magic tricks?’
She said yes, she loves them.
So he slept with her and then disappeared.
Although she’s facing Walid when she says this, he can’t hear her. This moment resonated with me because it deals with the theme of love and relationships that transcend cultural differences.
During the Q&A on 4 July I will be sure to question why the works of two prominent Lebanese artists feature in Round Trip: Ayman Baalbaki, whose painting forms the background in the opening credits of the film, and Zeid Hamdan, who produced the soundtrack for the film. Given Syria’s extensive arts scene, it will be interesting to find out from the director why neighbouring artists were chosen instead.
I enjoyed Round Trip not least because it is refreshing to watch an Arabic language film that does not shy away from showing the intimacy in human relationships; it also succeeds in presenting these issues in a mature and sensitive way.
I’ll leave it to you to make up your mind at the screening. There’ll also be a chance to ask the director Meyar Al Roumi and actor Ammar Haj Ahmad your questions at the post-screening Q&A, which will be led by Brian Whitaker, journalist and former Middle East Editor for The Guardian.
The UK premiere of Round Trip is on Thursday 4 July at 7pm, preceeded by two short films: The Curse and Familial Fever. This screening is part of the Shubbak festival, celebrating the very best of contemporary culture from across the Arab world.