What is Arab cinema? The distinguished documentarian Omar Amiralay, speaking in a French as suave as his slicked-back hair, rolled the question around his mouth for a moment. He was at New York’s Walter Reade Theater for a panel discussion on the series “The Road to Damascus: Discovering Syrian Cinema,” organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and ArteEast; and yet, despite his being a guest of honor there, someone wanted to know if this spare, erect, professorial figure might willingly lump together his own work with the films of other directors, on the basis of a common language and geography.

What is Arab cinema? “A term that I don’t really mind,” Amiralay ventured dryly. But when you think of the films of Ingmar Bergman, he continued, do you immediately resolve them into something called Scandinavian cinema? Let individual filmmakers develop their art, he said, and then Arab cinema will come into being, defined by what its authors have done.

For many film academics in Europe and America, this response would be mildly heretical, the auteur having supposedly died years ago. But within the startlingly vibrant and utterly distinctive realm of Syrian cinema–a category that Amiralay does not resist, despite his French training and early Soviet affinities–authorship remains not only conceivable but necessary.

In Syria, all scripts must be approved in advance by the state censorship board–a process that can take years, during which maddening rumors may alternate with ringing silence. If approved, the script must then be produced by the National Film Organization, which manages at best only four or five features a year, since nothing resembling a production apparatus exists in Syria. Because exhibition, too, is under state control, any film that somehow gets through this grind may then be banned from the theaters, either officially or tacitly, if it arouses suspicion of being politically provocative. The “paradox” of Syrian cinema (to use Amiralay’s word) is that so many of these state-financed pictures really are provocations–beautiful, strange, uncanny provocations. According to Rasha Salti of ArteEast, 80 percent of Syrian films are political in nature, and are “the only cultural expression that raises questions or is in opposition to the regime.” At the same time, these films are works of flaming aestheticism, pushed through the system by people who have no choice except to act as individuals, and who find their principal audience not in Damascus but in Cannes.

In short, we are looking at the work of a classic avant-garde: a congeries of artists living in internal exile, thrown back on their own resources and determined to stay true to their personal visions. To quote another guest of honor on the Lincoln Center panel, the fiction filmmaker Oussama Mohammad, Syrian film is “a cinema free of its audience.” As his reply to the question of Arab cinema, Mohammad observed that Egyptian directors have a public and therefore suffer the misfortune of pleasing other people. They need to throw in a little romance, a little violence, a little song and dance. In Syria, by contrast, “you make your own film.” During the fifteen years that passed after his first feature was produced and banned, Mohammad said, he repeatedly told the censorship committee that he would make exactly the film he was proposing and no other, and nobody was going to make him change a single frame.

The fierceness of this boast was mollified somewhat by the absurdity of Mohammad’s situation–he is an employee of the same National Film Organization that wouldn’t produce his second feature–and also by his appearance. He seemed like an aging Arlo Guthrie to Amiralay’s professor: round, frizzy-haired, sprawling, quick to smile and quick to answer questions in Arabic, sometimes interspersed with a fluent and relaxed English. But, for all that, Mohammad’s refusal to compromise could not be questioned, if you had spent time at “The Road to Damascus” and seen his films.

His 1988 debut feature Stars in Broad Daylight begins in a rural village, where a double wedding is staged and then wildly, operatically disrupted, under the mismanagement of the family’s preening senior member. After a few forays into Damascus, the picture ends with another wedding, this one sternly enforced by the same family member and not nearly so funny. The film has an unruly energy reminiscent of Emir Kusturica’s movies, though without the elbow jabs that Kusturica sometimes throws, to remind you of what a good time you’re supposed to be having. Mostly Oussama Mohammad just shows you a good time, since Stars in Broad Daylight is absurdly, inventively funny, when it’s not being harshly satiric or heartbreaking. To a foreign viewer, though, the film’s jumpiness can be a little puzzling, and the reason for its ban incomprehensible. What caused the trouble?

“There are 1,001 stories,” Mohammad began, when a naïve journalist–me–questioned him at the panel discussion. The country’s informants and pseudo-journalists, he said, started a whispering campaign against the film and its theme of the pathology of power, as seen within one family.

Also, this was the first feature film shot in the Alawite region, using the dialect spoken by the President.

And then, the lead actor (writer-director Abdellatif Abdul-Hamid) was made up to look like Assad.

With that, the naïve inquirer suddenly understood some of those inexplicably jumpy moments–such as the family leader’s abrupt appearance at a telephone switchboard, where he cheerfully taps the calls, or his sneak attack on the sweet, harmless man who’s been dating his sister. For this crime, the suitor is beaten, while the surrogate Assad shouts, “We are the source of morality!”

These little allegories may need some deciphering, especially for foreigners; but they are transparent compared with the denser, more symbolic imagery of Mohammad’s second feature, Sacrifices (2003). Perhaps under the pressure of those fifteen years of imposed silence, Mohammad changed his style remarkably for this film, going in one leap from Kusturica to Tarkovsky. The locale, again, is a rural settlement; the characters once more are members of an extended family. But starting from the opening shot–a screen-filling close-up of a man’s head, entirely slathered in green mud–Sacrifices is not a story but an unsettling, fragmentary mood piece, evoking the yearnings, angers and frustrations of people who are stuck in limbo. A naked child is lowered head first through a hole in the ceiling, into a shaft of light. A door swings open and the Angel of Death enters, in the form of a pigeon. A girl presses her head against the bare shoulder of the boy who loves her, and the freckles migrate from her face onto his skin. A teacher, chanting the Koran at the foot of a tree, looks up to find his pupils arrayed on the branches, like giggling fruit. Even a Syrian, I suspect, would find much of this imagery difficult to decode. And perhaps decoding isn’t necessary. These pictures, one by one and in timed succession, may be cryptic, but they also feel full and complete.

There is nothing enigmatic, by contrast, about Omar Amiralay’s documentaries. They’re as outspoken as can be–and yet they, too, convey their argument through unforgettably strong images. Among the most forceful of his films is A Flood in Baath Country (2003), which has the added benefit of encapsulating Amiralay’s career for you. In 1970, fresh out of film school and fired with enthusiasm for the Baath regime, he made a short titled Film-Essay on the Euphrates Dam. At the beginning of A Flood in Baath Country, you see footage from this early work: brief views of dam construction, shot in expert imitation of Amiralay’s beloved Dziga Vertov. Meanwhile, on the soundtrack, the present-day Amiralay speaks of his distress at having made such a film. Construction was shoddy; dams have fatally collapsed. As for the artificial Lake Assad, beneath whose waters stand inundated villages, it now seems to Amiralay to be the perfect symbol of the Baath regime, which seeks to submerge all life in Syria.

The image changes to contemporary footage. An elderly man, shown as if he’d been interviewed in a rowboat, explains that he knows the exact spot where his house can be found at the bottom of Lake Assad. Then another elderly man appears on the screen: a village chief and member of Parliament who has loyally served the regime for decades. In response to an unseen interviewer’s bland questions, he sings the praises of Hafez al-Assad, the greatest of leaders, the most visionary of men, the all-knowing genius, the nation’s savior. Cut back to the rowboat, bobbing on Lake Assad. When the scene changes again, you see the village chief’s nephew–a local Baath Party leader and the principal of the school–discussing the role of education in Syria. Cut to children reciting lessons, which sound more or less like praise of Assad. Cut back to the rowboat bobbing on the lake.

An astonishing film–and, of course, a banned one. Bootleg copies make their way to anyone in Syria who really wants to see it; but the uncomfortable fact remains that this polemic about the Baath country plays mostly to people who don’t live there.

So two objections arise. The first may be summed up in the words of an Arab journalist, as quoted in a recent New Yorker article by Lawrence Wright: “The films get awards abroad, which is good P.R. for the regime.” This is the argument you used to hear against “daring” Soviet bloc films that went unseen at home but were praised at international festivals, the complaint you still hear against the Iranian art cinema. The best answer takes the form of a question: Would it be better if the filmmakers just went along quietly?

The second, contrary objection came up at the Lincoln Center panel discussion, when a member of the audience rose to denounce Richard Peña, the Film Society’s program director. Peña had worked on and off for ten years to organize “The Road to Damascus.” He had also said in a recent newspaper interview that Syria’s filmmakers expose the failure of Arab regimes–words that were cited, to the speaker’s particular outrage, in The Jewish Week. Here was proof that these filmmakers are tools, used to demonize the entire Arab people.

The best answer to this objection came from Amiralay: “When intellectuals in despotic societies manage, with great difficulty, to make an act of resistance, they are surprised to hear intellectuals beyond their borders say, ‘You are playing into the hands of the imperialists.’ I find it absolutely shameful for this pseudo-left, pseudo-Islamist orchestra to be complicit in the crimes committed by these regimes against their own people. Anytime I hear this, I’m mad enough to spit.”

Rather than complain about these tough-minded, visionary, extraordinarily principled film artists, you might want instead to give them a small gesture of support. “The Road to Damascus: Discovering Syrian Cinema” has completed its run in New York, but it will soon travel to venues including the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and the Northwest Film Center in Portland, Oregon. A complete tour schedule is posted at www.arteeast.org.