March 8, 2018 at 7:00 AM
The Syrian filmmaker said he endured torture, survived a massacre and fled two countries while planning a feature film he hoped would be the “Schindler’s List” of his homeland’s grinding war. Now, he was getting his break.
Muhammad Bayazid, 35, said he and a cinematographer pulled their car up to the rendezvous point on a dark street in Istanbul on an October night. It was here they were to meet a businessman, who said he wanted to fund “The Tunnel.”
“Mr. Muhammad,” a man in Syrian-accented Arabic said as he stepped out of the darkness with a cellphone, Bayazid said. The director, who is well known in the Middle East and lives in Northern Virginia, after being granted asylum in the United States, reached for it.
Suddenly, a knife slashed through the open passenger’s side window and sunk into Bayazid’s shoulder, he said. As the man pulled back and readied a second blow, the cinematographer jammed on the gas and headed to a hospital.
From his bed there, Bayazid and his family described an attack they said must have been orchestrated by Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad or his backers. The director’s story, though, soon came into question.
At first, Bayazid’s dramatic account of the Oct. 10 incident was international news, beamed around the world by the BBC, the Guardian and other media. As he recovered, he was lauded as a hero, a brave storyteller unafraid to tell the truth about a murderous regime. Donations flowed in for his film.
But then came a twist, improbable even for the movies. Mysterious videos surfaced of Bayazid chatting with a man in Arabic, discussions that to many seemed to show him planning the stabbing in Istanbul.
“When there is danger or harm, it accomplishes several things: The first is media buzz,” Bayazid is heard saying. “When that happens, within a period of 48 hours, you and I are going to be the two most famous people in the Middle East.”
Had a director whose sensitive short films about the Syrian conflict moved audiences also tried to exploit the same tragedy? Or were the videos, as Bayazid claims, a smear campaign, possibly concocted by Assad’s supporters?
The intrigue has consumed Syrians from Damascus to Washington, sparked a firestorm on social media and led members of the Syrian opposition to worry how the case might affect the credibility of their cause.
“We’ve never encountered something like this before,” said Bassam Rifai, a board member of the Syrian American Council. “If it’s true he faked the assassination plot, I’m immensely disappointed and dismayed. It does damage to all of us seeking a free, democratic and pluralistic society inside Syria.”
The birth of a revolution and a film
“The Tunnel” was to be Bayazid’s first feature film.
For nearly seven years, he and later his wife and filmmaking partner, Samah, toiled quietly for fear of reprisals from the Assad regime, they said. By early October, they were ready to go public.
Bayazid said the pair had struggled to find backers for the project he estimated would cost about $1 million, so they decided to post an image from a trailer on Bayazid’s Facebook account and put out a call for funders.
Just days later, emails began to pop up in Bayazid’s inbox. They were written in Arabic and came from a sender who claimed to be a Syrian businessman with a textile factory in Turkey.
“My son sent me what you wrote on Facebook,” one of the emails, provided to The Washington Post, reads in part. “I’m very interested in this project.”
It seemed to be the lifeline Bayazid needed to make the film that was his dream.
“The Tunnel” was born alongside the Syrian revolution.
As the Arab Spring swept the Middle East, Syrians in March 2011 began calling for democratic reforms and an end to repressive tactics by the Assad regime.
Shortly after, Bayazid said he was traveling from Amman, Jordan, to his home in Damascus when he came upon a funeral procession for protesters who had been killed by government forces.
Bayazid said he joined the mourners bearing the coffins aloft. Suddenly, he said, the crack of gunfire unleashed chaos.
Men and children fell screaming, shot in the head or chest as the crowd scattered. Bayazid said the gunfire was eventually traced to a sniper atop a government building being shielded by Syrian intelligence forces.
“The day changed my life forever,” Bayazid said.
Bayazid, who had made nonpolitical commercials and TV shows, said he decided to dedicate his work to the Syrian conflict. He began casting about for a story that would encompass the cruelty of the funeral massacre, as well as the bravery he was witnessing in the streets by protesters.
One day it came to him: Tadmor.
It was one of the world’s most notorious prisons, a place Amnesty International once said was designed for “maximum suffering.” The Islamic State would blow it up in 2015.
Inside, Syria housed hundreds of the nation’s most prominent dissidents in desperate conditions. Inmates were beaten after their heads and feet were threaded through car tires to restrain them. Prisoners were forced to lick guards’ boots and eat dead mice. They treated wounds with vinegar fermented from apples and grapes because medical care was scant.
Bayazid called it a black hole — and a perfect metaphor.
“Tadmor prison is Syria between four walls,” Bayazid said.
The director set out to interview former detainees to create a plot that would be a composite of their experiences.
“It was unbelievable what I heard,” Bayazid said. “A 50-year-old man is sitting in front of me and breaking down like a baby, telling me things he hadn’t even told his wife and kids.”
Such horror would soon become his own.
In November 2011, Bayazid said he and a friend came upon a group of women being sexually harassed by armed militiamen supporting Assad on the streets of Damascus. Bayazid tried to intervene, but he said he was beaten and hauled off blindfolded.
He was taken to the basement of a building and stripped to his boxer shorts, he said. Bayazid was beaten repeatedly with a length of cable so violently, he said, that the frayed metal ends broke off in his wounds.
On and off it continued for 24 hours, before Bayazid said he was turned back out into the street. Shaken, he called his driver to get a change of clothes and take him to the border with Jordan. He has never returned to Syria.
As he arrived for the meeting with the businessman in Istanbul on Oct. 10, Bayazid said he thought this harrowing prologue to “The Tunnel” was over.
Soon, though, he was desperately trying to stanch his wound. A chaotic call came into Samah Bayazid’s cellphone from 5,000 miles away.
Muhammad Bayazid was panting in pain and told her the meeting was a trap before he lost consciousness, she said. Samah said the incident has left her shaken.
“When we watch ‘Schindler’s List,’ we always admire how Steven Spielberg honored all these innocent souls,” she said. “I really wish we could do this for the people of Syria. This is a holocaust. At the same time, I ask myself, ‘Would Steven Spielberg have made this film during the life of Hitler?’ ”
A plot within a plot
Mohammad Hindi was filming in Istanbul when news of the stabbing broke. The Syrian producer said he rushed around trying to confirm the story, before thinking with a sinking feeling: “He really did it!”
Hindi, who lives in Turkey, said Bayazid contacted him last April, asking for help scouting photography locations and handling other logistics for a film-training course he was to teach there.
Bayazid eventually told him in a Skype call about the struggles he was having to fund “The Tunnel.” Then, Hindi said, the director made a shocking proposal.
“The director told me that he had exhausted all his attempts to collect the funding [for the film],” Hindi wrote in a statement to The Post. “He had only one last card. He had to go through an assassination attempt to finance the film.”
Hindi said Bayazid proposed paying him to participate, but he never accepted the fee. Hindi said in an interview that he felt the proposal put him in a bind. He didn’t want to be part of the scheme but was afraid of suddenly cutting off ties with Bayazid.
If a man was willing to stage his own stabbing, Hindi thought, what would he be willing to do if the producer became a threat to the plan? He was particularly concerned that Bayazid could make trouble for his brother, who remains in Syria.
Hindi said he hit upon a plan. He would create an “insurance policy” to protect himself and his family while continuing to participate in planning. The next time the director called him on Skype, he recorded the call.
And he said he did it again and again through May and June.
In one call shared with The Post, Hindi asks Bayazid in Arabic to explain how the “scenario” will unfold. Bayazid replies that he will meet with a man to discuss his project. Bayazid goes on to say at the end that the man will contact him on Facebook and send him a message about a time and location to meet.
Hindi: “What is this person’s nationality?”
Hindi: “You’ve already decided his nationality — Syrian!”
Bayazid: “This is what I think, the person who can hurt me is Syrian.”
In a second call, Bayazid and Hindi discuss creating a camera using a 3-D printer. In another call, Bayazid reveals he is talking in code and the word “camera” means weapon. Hindi tells him it is hard to get weapons in Turkey because of terrorism concerns.
In another call, Bayazid appears to reveal his ultimate goal.
“My aim here will be that the people who weren’t sure about this project will divide into two groups — the first group will be terrified and leave,” Bayazid says. “The second group are the Arabs, typical Arabs. When they will see how this subject took over the media . . . this will make them donate happily for this, and I have a list of 15 people who are like that.”
Hindi said their final call took place on June 21. He said he told Bayazid he needed more time to think about participating in the plot. At that point, he said, Bayazid grew angry and told him he would find someone else.
Bayazid said he regained consciousness as he and the cinematographer arrived at the hospital Oct. 10. Bayazid said he was rushed to the emergency room, where he was treated and gave a statement to police.
Bayazid boarded a flight back to the United States the next day. He said he had scheduled his return before the stabbing and, fearing for his safety, wanted to leave as soon as possible.
The story was quickly picked up by the news media: “Syrian filmmaker making prison torture movie survives ‘assassination attempt’ ” read a headline in the Guardian.
To many, it was hardly a leap to think a dictator who had been accused of using chemical weapons on his own people would strike at critics abroad. Just weeks before, a Syrian activist and her daughter were stabbed to death under disputed circumstances in Istanbul.
Acquaintances who set up an online campaign to raise money for “The Tunnel” soon had thousands of dollars (Bayazid said the money was later returned), and activists rushed to pronounce their support for Bayazid.
Hindi said he became increasingly anxious as he watched the story gain international attention.
He eventually brought his recordings to a Turkish government official and then shared them with the New Arab, an Arabic news outlet based in the United Kingdom, which first made them public in November.
The report was the first in a dramatic series of claims and counterclaims about what happened on Oct. 10 that have played out in the Arabic language media and across social media.
Bayazid confirms the authenticity of the videos but vigorously denies they showed him discussing staging the attack. He said the videos were filmed after the stabbing, as he and Hindi talked of making a film about the ordeal. Bayazid said Hindi deceptively edited the clips to make them seem as if they predated the stabbing.
Bayazid said he suspects the videos are an attempt by Assad or his backers to undermine him, a claim Hindi denies.
“They tried to assassinate me,” Bayazid said. “After that failed, they are trying to end my reputation.”
For his part, Bayazid vows to move forward with “The Tunnel.” He said he and Samah are spending their savings to launch production in May. He said he owes it to the prisoners of Tadmor and thinks it’s crazy anyone believes he could concoct a scheme that would risk his life.
But many in the Syrian community have come to that very conclusion after watching the videos. On social media, prominent journalists, members of the Syrian opposition and others have decried Bayazid. Bayazid and his wife briefly shut down their Facebook accounts because of the angry outpouring.
Barra Sarraj, who spent years in Tadmor and told Bayazid his story, is one. He finds it unfathomable that Bayazid might exploit his own suffering and that of others.
“It’s a big betrayal,” Sarraj said. “The human psyche is hard to understand.”
Azhar AlFadl Miranda, Dara Elasfar, in Washington, and Zakaria Zakaria, in Turkey, contributed to this report.