The convoy of vehicles bearing Chinese flags zigzagged through the rubble-strewn streets of a Syrian town as plumes of smoke rose in the distance. Men dressed in military fatigues and tribal head coverings hid behind sandbags, the sound of shelling audible in the background.
The bombed-out town of Hajar al-Aswad is real but the scene is faked. It is a clip from a new Chinese action film being shot there that dramatises the 2015 evacuation of hundreds of Chinese citizens and other foreigners from war-torn Yemen.
That operation was the first time China’s military helped other countries to evacuate their citizens during a crisis, with the producers behind Home Operation, including Hong Kong film star Jackie Chan, keen to highlight the bravery of the Beijing diplomats who led the escape.
But the filming, which began last month, has sparked resentment among former residents of Hajar al-Aswad — a one-time anti-regime stronghold later levelled during Syria’s brutal civil war — who question the ethics of using their destroyed homes as the backdrop for a blockbuster production.
“It’s painful to see them freely walk around my town when I want nothing more than to return,” said Abdallah, 25, a former resident.
Diplomatic relations between Beijing and Damascus hint at why the film, directed by Song Yinxi, is filmed in Syria. Although Bashar al-Assad’s regime has been largely isolated for the past decade, China is among the few that maintain ties.
Yinxi’s production company recently opened an office in the United Arab Emirates, which has been pushing to rehabilitate Assad despite the widespread crimes committed against Syria’s people during the 11-year civil war.
Hailed as the first joint China-Emirati project, the UAE’s ambassador to China helped announce the project in October and said it would involve “film sectors” from both countries.
But rights activists have warned that the production is helping to normalise a regime that reduced Hajar al-Aswad and vast areas of Syria to rubble.
“[The film] is contributing to the whitewashing of abuses by the Assad regime and the erasure of the historical record of what really happened in Hajar al-Aswad,” said Hiba Zayadin, senior Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Key to this is the narrative promoted by Damascus that Syria is safe for returning civilians, a notion rejected by foreign diplomats, rights groups and analysts.
Millions of Syrians have been displaced, some many times over, during the war. Whether inside Syria or in neighbouring countries, many still face the risk of detention, disappearance or death if they returned home.
Home Operation’s filmmakers have said it was “safer” to film in Syria than in Yemen, also gripped by an intractable civil war. “To promote Syria as safer than Yemen, as safe enough to film in, is a dangerous thing,” said Zayadin. “Syria hasn’t begun to recover from the destruction inflicted upon it — it’s still actively engaged in conflict.”
Hajar al-Aswad, just south of Damascus, has long been marginalised. It was home to Syrians who fled there after Israel seized the Golan Heights in 1967. “We’ve been poor and displaced for generations,” Abdallah said.
The town became a bastion of resistance to Assad in the early days of the Syrian uprisings, before being overrun by Islamic State militants. They governed there until 2018, when regime forces retook it, laying waste to the town in the process — exactly what appealed to the filmmakers.
“The war-ravaged areas in Syria have turned into a movie studio,” Rawad Shahin, the film’s Syrian executive director, told AFP. “Building studios similar to these areas is very expensive, so these areas are considered as low-cost studios.”
Footage and photographs show a set comfortably nestled in the rubble: cast and crew milling about, rehearsing scenes and taking selfies under the scorching July sun. The day the set was inaugurated last month, China’s ambassador to Syria attended and a banner was hoisted above the crowd that read “Peace and Love”.
The jarring scene is reminiscent of the one last month when Assad took his family for a stroll among the rubble of old Aleppo, which his forces also once pummelled with relentless air strikes.
Although it was recaptured several years ago, like Hajar al-Aswad, parts of the city remain under rubble, highlighting a policy from Damascus not to rebuild former rebel enclaves.
Home Operation is not the first international production to use blighted Syrian backdrops. A Lebanese film shot in ruined Zabadani won a top film prize in Venice in 2019.
The same year, dozens of Syrian filmmakers condemned the use of the country’s destroyed and displaced cities as film locations, accusing those who did so of “cinematic looting”.
“These neighbourhoods . . . become sets for a wide range of filmmakers who burst with their film crews into those places with their cameras, ignoring the raw recent memories of a place; the sanctity of homes; the stories, lives and memories of their inhabitants,” they wrote in a letter. These are “not only places where war crimes have been freshly committed . . . They are also the site of ongoing crimes against humanity.”
Journalist and film-maker Zaher Omareen, who was one of the signatories, said the same applied to the new Chinese production, with Chan’s involvement making it palpably worse.
“Jackie Chan is a huge international name,” Omareen said by phone from his London base. “Did he think at all about the Syrians — especially those displaced who cannot go home — who are going to see his movie?”