In 2014 I wrote a short piece for this blog on Syrian animation and the changes the form had undergone during a time of civil unrest and war. With this new piece, I would like to delve deeper into one of the films I mentioned, The Jasmine Birds (2009) by Sulafa Hijazi. I will specifically discuss the film’s treatment and character development of birds. The Jasmine Birds tells the story of Gaith, a young bird who saves his family from extinction. It is set in an environment dominated by not only a powerful political enemy but also a deadly virus. While The Jasmine Birds was made before the Syrian war and the Coronavirus pandemic, it feels incredibly pertinent to be revisiting this film at this moment in time.
The Jasmine Birds was the second feature-length animated film made in Syria – the first one, The Thread of Life (2005), having been made by Razam Hijazi, Sulafa’s sister. As these two works show, radical improvements in the animation industry and in the private sector arrived just before the uprising and civil war. And the same was true for the public sector: in the early 2000s the NFO (the government-run National Film Organisation) started to show an interest in animation. As a result, several co-productions between state and independent studios saw the light of day.
As a 2D low-budget production, with The Jasmine Birds, Hijazi was able to take a few risks by attempting tentative political criticism. The story focuses on a settlement of so-called jasmine birds, and the look of the birds is based on the common sparrow, a species pervasive in Damascus. The birds’ fictional species, as jasmine birds, is a direct reference to the past glory and beauty of Damascus, known as the jasmine city. As a common sparrow and an orphan, Gaith represents the everyman, the common people, whose lives and preoccupations are of no concern to those in power.
Indeed, on his quest Gaith comes across a bevy of sparrowhawks, whose society of 7 citizens is run by 700 ministers, reflecting Syria’s proclivity for bureaucracy, empty political discourse, and a lack of interest in its citizens. Under normal circumstances, a sparrowhawk is a solitary creature, so there is a satirical element in having 700 ministers. Moreover, hawks predate sparrows, but in this case, the 700 ministers are far too busy plotting their next political move to even really notice the sparrows. Instead, it is the huge bright red ibis – the national bird of Syria and representative of the threatening dictatorship of the Bashar family – that is their most powerful and menacing enemy. Ibis thwarts Gaith’s attempts to find the cure for the virus. Like an evil overlord, he guffaws as he throws his head back for a loud evil laugh.
Gaith wants to complete his father’s quest to find a cure for his family’s mysterious virus. The birds are dying at increasingly alarming rates and a cure remains elusive. The young bird gets help from other young birds and together they save the family. Gaith learns in the process that because his father’s legacy lives on in him, he need not feel truly orphaned. At first glance, the film is thus typical children’s edutainment, with lessons about family values and the heroism of the underdog. But this film uses its animal characters, fictional animated form, and intended young audience as allegories for something much more complex. Animated birds in a Syrian children’s film become ‘safety valves’ that manage to bypass the censor.[i]
Visually, the birds are small and multi-colored. They live in beautifully designed spiral-branched trees and fly with tiny wings and elegant tails. Their small bodies, large heads with an elegantly manicured quiff and comparatively huge eyes, give them the universal look of cuteness and innocence. In contrast, the sparrow hawks are largely sedentary, occupied as they are with their political humbug and climbing the literal levels of power on the mountain they live on. They are of a dull greyish-blue color and have huge feet. The ibis’ red color and huge crest are intimidating and contrast with the dull greys of the ministers. It is clear, then, that these characterizations parallel the perceptions of powerless citizens, useless politicians, and a threatening autocrat respectively.
In an interview I conducted with her in September 2020, on the character design of her protagonists, Hijazi told me that she and her team decided the birds had to be recognizable as local and Arab, for her young Syrian audience.[ii] She emphasizes typical Arab physical characteristics such as thick brows for the male characters, while mascara and kohl eyeliner are used on the female characters’ eyes. She also employs geometric, Islamic design as inspiration for her decorations, and the texture of the backgrounds is calligraphic. Fauna and flora are inspired by patterns known from Fatima’s Hand, which is an inclusive and universally recognizable symbol for Arabs everywhere.[iii] This sensitivity towards the diversity in meaning of the symbols and signs used in her animated film reveals a concern with local identity formation, and displays the subtle impact designs have upon their narrative power.
In Arab cinema in general, and in a lot of Syrian films in particular, there is often a symbolic use of birds in the city. Common birds such as sparrows, pigeons and swallows or crows are often shown in full flight, with a sweeping camera movement following their circular or Arabesque flight patterns above the rooftops. These moments offer an interlude in what is often very difficult viewing, and it represents a moment of internal reflection, of freedom. With a sparrow’s symbolic meaning being one of community strength, spiritual connection, and love, The Jasmine Birds emphasizes an absolutely critical recovery of the Syrian people’s health and safety.
Stefanie van de Peer is Lecturer in Film & Media at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh and has published on Arab and African cinema. Her edited collection on animation in the Middle East was published with IB Tauris in 2017. She also regularly programs animation for film festivals, among others, the Africa in Motion film festival (www.africa-in-motion.org.uk).
[i] Wedeen, L. 2011. “Tolerated Parodies of Politics in Syrian Cinema”, in: Gugler, J. (ed.) Film in the Middle East and North Africa: Creative Dissidence. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, pp. 104–112.
[ii] Personal communication between author and Sulafa Hijazi, September 2020.
[iii] Hijazi said: The Shia people see it as the representation of the Prophet’s daughter, the Sunni Muslims see Fatma’s hand as a religious symbol and the Maghreb Berbers see Fatima’s Hand as the representation of the Goddess of the Moon.