The documentary “The Syrian Cosmonaut” (2022) opens with an animated scene showing Muhammed Faris jumping across the screen as if he were on the moon instead of being chased in Istanbul by assassins. Faris, the real-life astronaut, dressed in black, is then seen staring at the camera saying, “This is Syria’s story, not just mine.”
Faris became a Syrian national hero when he participated in the Interkosmos program in July 1987, becoming the first Syrian in space. Syrian President Hafez al-Assad had crushed a major Muslim Brotherhood insurgency in Hama a few years earlier and wanted to reassert Syria on the world stage through the Soviet-Syrian space expedition.
The 13-minute documentary directed by Charles Emir Richards traces the personal story of Faris as a child in Aleppo, where on summer nights he slept on his roof gazing at the stars and wondering how he could reach them . He later became a fighter pilot in the Syrian army and became interested in space travel after hearing about Yuri Gagarin’s pioneering journey beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
Faris spoke to Al-Monitor about the selection process for him to participate in the space program. Fifty Syrian Air Force pilots were selected and selected by a Soviet committee, four of whom were flown to Moscow and the Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan for training. After rigorous preparation, Faris was chosen to fly in the Soyuz TM-3 in 1987, the third crewed spaceflight to the Soviet space station Mir.
Faris had to practice for hours in a rotating chair he invented “The Nightmare” in order to get used to floating in space. “At the beginning, the challenge was to fulfill my dream of going into space. After being selected, the hard work started because all the preparatory training was in Russian,” he said. Unfortunately, he couldn’t bring any Syrian food, but he tried to consume the tastiest dry space food. However, more than Syrian food, he missed his family and his country during the training and the week-long mission.
“Every time we passed over Syria, my whole body was shaking. He looked so small. I missed my country and still miss me. This is where my hopes and dreams lie,” he noted. Everything changed when he saw Earth from space. “After I came back, I realized that all I knew was just a little speck called Syria. The big picture: all humans live on the same planet and share life there,” a- he said.Upon his return, he received various titles including “Hero of the Soviet Union” and later the “Order of Lenin”.
Richards told Al-Monitor what first interested him in making ‘The Syrian Cosmonaut’, saying, “One of my film students mentioned Faris in class. I thought it was so amazing that he was at the pinnacle of human technology; he was going to outer space, then he found himself taking refuge in Istanbul with assassins in pursuit.
The documentary bends and mixes genres, using first-person interviews, original NASA footage, Arabic miniature illustrations/art, Ottoman-era shadow puppets and a cosmic soundtrack to show the preparations of Faris to travel in space, return to Earth and his eventual relocation.
Richards also saw that Faris could help audiences see space programs in a different light. “We always see outer space as the United States versus Russia. You never hear of anybody else in the space program,” he said. Faris, for example, brought the first terrestrial dirt recorded in space, carrying a vial of Damascene earth.
Faris left the Syrian Air Force in 2012 and joined the opposition. He eventually fled to Istanbul where he was later appointed Defense Minister of the Syrian Interim Government. He was considered a traitor and the Syrian government removed his past scientific contributions from Syrian museums and textbooks. In Turkey, he participates in conferences, teaches students and advises the Turkish space program. He said he hopes space exploration will move away from its primarily military purpose and highlights, for example, “the tens of thousands of satellites that keep the sun from reaching Earth.”
The documentary recently screened at the Golden Orange Film Festival in Antalya and the Bosphorus Film Festival in Istanbul, and will premiere at the Izmir Film Festival later this month. With anti-Syrian rhetoric and hate crimes on the rise in Turkey, the documentary touring the country comes at a sensitive but important time.
“We expected a backlash,” Richards said. “Not another refugee film.” Yet during the Antalya festival, Richards recalled an audience member saying he had had a lot of animosity towards Syrians in Turkey. “But the documentary had really confused him in what he thought he knew,” recalls Richards. “He seems to be at least breaking the ice.”
At the end of the documentary, Faris considers aloud: “If there are extraterrestrials, I think they would wonder why humans have this beautiful Earth with all the pleasures of life and yet they continue to intertwine. -kill.”
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