Prominent figures from the film world, including Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Danny Boyle and Kevin Spacey, have urged the Syrian government to release a film-maker detained in Damascus two weeks ago.
Orwa Nyrabia, director of the Damascus-based international documentary festival DoxBox, travelled to the Syrian capital on 23 August to catch a flight to Cairo. His family lost contact with him shortly after he arrived at the airport, and Egyptian authorities say he did not board the plane, indicating that he had been arrested by the Syrian authorities.
A letter signed by 51 directors, producers, writers and actors says no information has been forthcoming about where Nyrabia is being held, which security branch is holding him or why he has been detained.
“We, the undersigned members of the UK film community and international friends, implore the Syrian authorities to release Orwa Nyrabia immediately,” reads the letter, which also counts David Puttnam, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Colin Firth among its signatories.
“Orwa is a highly respected producer and festival promoter in Damascus who has been pivotal in starting a documentary renaissance in the Arab world,” it says. Copies of the letter have been passed to the UK foreign secretary, William Hague, and distributed in France and the US.
Rosalind Ereira, who has known Nyrabia for seven years and organised the letter, said: “We are very worried about his wellbeing.” She described Nyrabia as “incredibly kind, passionate about film, very funny in a very dry way”.
In 2002, Nyrabia and his wife, Diana el-Jeiroudi, started Proaction Film, the only independent documentary film outfit operating in Syria, focusing mainly on films tackling human rights, gender and social justice. In July at the Sarajevo film festival they were presented with the Katrin Cartlidge Foundation scholarship, recognising “independence, singularity and integrity of spirit”.
Nyrabia has been a member of the jury at film festivals including Tehran, Amsterdam, Leipzig and Copenhagen. He and his wife founded DoxBox in 2008, but last year they cancelled the festival to protest against the violence in Syria, according to the Sarajevo film festival website.
Activists say more than 20,000 people have been killed in a crackdown on opponents of the president, Bashar al-Assad. On 15 March this year, the first anniversary of the Syrian uprising, the couple held a Global Day for Syria, screening Syrian documentaries in 38 cities around the world.
Last week organisers of the Toronto international film festival expressed concern about Nyrabia’s fate. “We are extremely concerned by his arrest. Film-makers must be allowed to express themselves without fear of reprisal,” they said.
Thousands of people have gone missing since the start of the uprising against the Assad regime, according to activists. On International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances last month, Amnesty International said that the Syrian authorities’ “heavy-handed response to the popular uprising, characterised by an utter disregard for human rights, has led to a dramatic rise in cases of enforced disappearance”.