Nabil Maleh, Giant of Syrian Cinema, Dies at 79


The Syrian film director Nabil Maleh in Damascus in 2007.

Imad al-Tawashy

Nabil Maleh, who used social realism to challenge authority and became, in many critics’ estimation, the father of Syrian cinema, died on Feb. 24 in Dubai. He was 79.

His death was confirmed by his daughter Ebla Maleh, who said he had recently learned he had lung cancer.

Mr. Maleh’s 1972 film, “The Leopard,” based on a novel by the Syrian author Haydar Haydar, was the first feature film released by the state-run National Film Organization and won first prize at the Locarno Film Festival that year. It tells the story of a lone rebel who defends his village against corrupt local authorities.

The Dubai International Film Festival honored Mr. Maleh with a lifetime achievement award in 2006, calling him “one of the first Arab filmmakers to use experimental techniques, which paved the way for a new cinematographic language.”

He left Syria in 2011, as a government crackdown on mostly peaceful protests was intensifying. He never returned to his homeland, which was the subject and setting of almost all his films.

Besides “The Leopard,” his other best-known film is “The Extras” (1993), the story of a young couple trying to keep their affair a secret. It was shot entirely in a small Damascus apartment. In that film, Mr. Maleh used the themes of surveillance and claustrophobia in a society rigidly controlled by both the government and strict social mores to make a larger statement about life in an authoritarian state.

“He made films that were always accessible even if they were profound,” said Christa Salamandra, an anthropologist at the City University of New York who specializes in Syrian media and has written about Mr. Maleh.

Mr. Maleh made about 150 films, both shorts and features. He also worked in television, wrote screenplays and articles, and painted.

His 2006 documentary “The Road to Damascus” was prescient in examining conditions that led to the 2011 uprising. In it, Mr. Maleh’s crew travels around the country interviewing ordinary Syrians, who discuss the poverty and corruption that had resulted in an exodus from rural Syria to Damascus, with job seekers and their families settling in ramshackle housing on the city’s outskirts. The film was never shown in Syria.

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