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Step by Step (Khutwa, Khutwa)

[Still from Step by Step, directed by Usama Mohammad. Image from Berlinale.] [Still from Step by Step, directed by Usama Mohammad. Image from Berlinale.]

Title: Step by Step (Khutwa, Khutwa)
Filmmaker: Ousamma Mohammad
Date: 1979
Country: Syria
Duration: 22 min
Other recommended films: Stars in Broad Daylight (1988) and Sacrifices (2002) 

When the food is ready just call me
Stretched out in my hut
Greater than me O Hafez (x2)
Bless your father and his dad (x2)
Greater than me O Hafez (x2)
Three roses for a fine lad
You’re the master, I’m your slave x2
Here’s my handkerchief and a wave
God willing we are one people
One single Arab nation 

(Translated by Multiversity)

Shot in the muddy, mountainous Syrian coastal village of Rama in 1976-77, Step by Step tells the story of a tobacco-producing community whose youth are demeaned in school and whose families endure marked economic hardships. As a result, many bored and disillusioned male teenagers joined the army or migrated to the city.

The film explores how, at the outset, the Baath party consolidated its rule by capitalizing on the poverty and despair of the marginalized Alawi minority living in the mountains. Muhammad’s film aptly captures those transformative years, during which his characters internalize the soclialist and pan-Arab rhetoric promoted by the Baath party and develop an unconditional support for the regime.

In a memorable scene, a father tells his son that he has two choices in life: “You either study or go to the field.” In this constraining dilemma, a job in the army or in the city becomes the only door for achieving upward mobility--two straightforward choices intimately tied to the militarization of the state and to the support of a booming, exploitative elite. 

Ousamma Mohammad produced this short film for his graduation project at the Geramasov Institute of cinematography in Moscow. Like some of his fellow Syrian filmmakers, he went on to study cinema through a Syrian-state funded scholarship program in the Soviet Union. This marked the beginning of a modest filmmaking career, in which he developed a unique subversive style exploring the interplay between power structures and individuals’ agency.

In an important piece published by the Danish Institute of Cinema, entitled Critical Nationals: The Paradoxes of Syrian Cinema, Rasha Salti reflects on the idea that “there is no Syrian cinema, only Syrian films and Syrian filmmakers.” In part, she is referring to the censorship that Syrian artists have historically faced, which placed constraints on cultural production. This did not prevent the emergence of cinema d’auteurs, such as Muhammad’s, who managed to navigate those constraints and offer profound critiques during the regime’s more coercive years. 

Through the use of an eclectic array of cinematic devices, as well as through the themes he addresses, Muhammad discards the sensationalistic aspects of a police state and its brutality. Instead, he threads a more complex narrative in which the state-engineered militarization is internalized and endorsed by ordinary people in the village. 

Muhammad navigates this symbolic violence using various cinematic devices. He contrasts the discourse of socialism with the villagers’ miserable lives by repeating shots of children being slapped in the face by their instructors, and of urban workers carrying construction material on their backs. At other times, these rhythmic scenes are juxtaposed to peaceful, mesmerizing landscapes, and insistent close-ups. In the city, he reveals the monotony and chronic collective exhaustion by capturing awkward stares of lethargic city workers painfully pulling on their cigarettes in between their construction tasks.

While the film contains few dialogues, Muhammad intervenes in two scenes, leaving audio-visual traces of his presence at major junctures. In one instance, he asks a contractor driving by about his income and employment practices. Near the end of the documentary, we hear his inquisitive voice questioning the soldiers on their loyalty to the state. Only used in these two crucial turning points, his presence bluntly endorses the film’s trajectory.

Finally, the choice to place soldiers’ testimonies about their irrational loyalty to the state at the end is an editorial choice worth noting. At that point, the preceding scenes challenged the audience to rethink what could have been initially discarded as blind nationalistic devotion. The modest glimpse into the lives of the people in Rama captures a more complex story about of the dilemma lived by Syrians in 1970-80 Baathist Syria, and provides a window into the dynamics of the country today. 

“If you hear me young people, you who believe in God
whoever believes in this Party
and there ain’t nothing better than this Party in the world
nothing nicer, no siree, after God there’s the Party
God’s blessing on the people and the party’s people
you live in this homeland, you wear this uniform
you serve this State!”

Step By Step, by Ousamma Mohamed

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Vox Populi features popular artistic and aesthetic expressions that emanate from the Middle East. It seeks to highlight silenced, underrepresented, and/or subversive cultural forms and conduits while challenging hegemonic and mainstream cultural production and narratives about the region. This is accomplished by exploring the actual conditions of reception and consumption of cultural products among popular cultures in the Middle East as they relate to questions of inequality, power, and difference. In addition to showcasing the independent work of ordinary citizens and groups, the page aims to capture new and changing forms, spaces, and avenues of political and social transformations. Through interviews, analysis, individual and institutional profiles, video snippets, films, music videos, and visual and street art, Vox Populi communicates and showcases important trends about/from the region that are often left out in what is otherwise serious analytical treatments.

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