Tuesday, April 22, 2014

'Emergency Cinema': Films of Syria by Syrians


            Abounaddara is "the nickname for a man with glasses," according to the group of Syrian filmmakers by that name (see abounaddara.com) who produce short films each Friday on life in Syria today. They call what they do "Emergency Cinema." 
           The Abounaddara name stems from the Arab tradition of identifying people by something that relates to their profession. The group cites the precedent of a Syrian film and video pioneer who called himself "the man with the camera." On its site, Abounaddara says its first love is for short and documentary films, that the group is part of "the world republic of documentary cinema," and that members are interested in stories of everyday life.
             We saw a selection of Abounaddara's films, stitched together for an hour-long program, in a "video festival" in Beirut ten days ago. A couple days later we saw some more of these films at the American University of Beirut, an English-speaking institution, in a program that included a Q&A with a member of the group. I found the films in both programs very powerful.

         (I found some of the films we saw in Beirut posted on the group's Facebook page, but subtitled in French --fine in the Syrian context, but harder for Americans. You can also see some other films of ordinary life in Syria on on its website; click on the pictures on the home page and then choose "English subtitles.") 
            Here are a few recollected images from the films we saw.
            Masses of people pour from mosques to gather in the street for large demonstrations, everyone chanting slogans that called for the end of Syria's authoritarian, police-state regime led by dictator Bashar Assad, the son of the Hafiz Assad, the country's dictator/president from 1971 to 2000. Assad's 'party' has been power since 1963. This is the background for the demonstrators' cry "The people want the regime to fall."
            The revolutionary formula "the people want --" echoed the cries of the Arab spring three years ago when nonviolent popular uprisings against undemocratic regimes in Egypt and Tunisia overthrew rulers there. In Libya, when demonstrators were brutally attacked by Quaddafi's government and took up arms, America and its allies backed the rebels, knocked out Quaddafi's air force, and provided other aid. The rebellion succeeded.
            When rebellion spread to Syria in 2011, the Assad regime sent snipers and paramilitary thugs to kill demonstrators and terrorize the areas that supported them. As in Libya some of those who wanted change -- certainly a majority of Syrians favored a democratic replacement for the Assad dictatorship -- felt compelled to take up arms.
            This time the US and its western allies, for a variety of reasons -- the cost of intervention; the fear of adding fuel to the fire; concern about the potential recipients of US arms -- decided to let the rebels go it alone even though the government had the heavy weapons and the airplanes, military supplies for the dictatorship continued to flow in from Russia, and it was clear from the start that the toll of the fighting on the civilian population would be very great.
            The film, to be clear, doesn't "say" any of these things. It shows the demonstrators flooding the streets. 
            In another film we hear gunfire and some screams. In one segment we see a crowd of people digging a child out of a mountain of wreckage and churned up earth from bombed buildings. But the film collective made the decision (as we learned from its representative at the AUB program) not to show violence and murdered bodies because the international media coverage of the violence in their country -- the massacres, the outrages, the body count -- threatened to desensitize the world to the concrete human realities of the "emergency."
            To Abounaddara, the representative told us, the non-stop emphasis on bloodshed, he said, cannot help but distort the picture.  However -- and from an aesthetic point of view you can argue that this approach is more effective than pictures of the dead -- in group's films ordinary Syrians speak very bluntly about that human cost of three years of violence between the regime's backers and the rebels.
            We see (and hear) a boy of about ten living in a tent tell the camera about the people killed in a government bombing of his neighborhood. There was another boy, the child says, not his friend -- more his brother's friend -- but someone he knew a little, who couldn't be found and was believed dead. Then (our child informant tells us) searchers climbed the roof of a building and found the boy's head. So they buried his head.
            Our child witness recounts some other details of the destruction as well in a voice and manner of a child anywhere with something interesting to tell, and with a certain childlike fascination for the grotesque, rather than as a traumatized, stunned, desensitized or even distraught victim. He's not a ghoul or a martyr or a saint -- he's just a kid. He pays attention to what's going on. What's going on is horrific, but he's alive and living the life he has.
            In another film, a rebel fighter recounts his decision to leave the Free Syrian Army, the largest secular rebel group. The first goal of the Free Syrian Army is to protect civilians, the Syrian people, our soldier-witness says. But the army unit he was part of made decisions that in his opinion left civilians exposed to violence in order to pursue other goals. It nagged him; he talked about his bad conscience to other soldiers, and together they made the decision to "turn in our rifles" and leave the Army. They went home. Now, he says, "I do nothing." He's not happy about his current status, but not willing to pick up a gun again either. He's Everyman faced with impossible choices.
            We see and hear a grand cleric offer a nuanced explanation of how the demonstrators against the regime were driven to rebellion. So do you support the rebellion? an off-camera voice asks him. His reply is beautifully phrased and completely (laughably) evasive.
             We watch a spokesman of one of the extremist groups that have entered the war with the goal of establishing a "religious" regime give a PR speech. He mentions the "hypothetical" possibility of creating an "Islamic state" -- and the filmmaker is unable to suppress a yuck. The laugh makes the film.
            Some of the films shown at the AUB program were perhaps even more powerful. A woman in conservative, traditional dress -- very common in Syria -- says to the camera that when she asked at one of the government offices to see her son, a body is produced. "They let me see only his feet -- only his feet!" she says and breaks into uncontrollable sobs.
            A man seen in shadows recalls obsessively, with frequent repetitions of the central point, "and then I cut his throat." He had enlisted in the rebellion for good reasons, he tells the camera. "But that didn't give me the right to cut his throat." 
            He says, "I don't know why I did it."
            The Abounaddara representative said his collective was originally formed, back in 2010 before the Arab Spring, to counter the almost wholly negative images of Syria that appeared in worldwide media. Syrians have the same aspirations as the rest of us, the collective believed: they're facing predicaments peculiar to their past and present; here's how they live. This founding premise provides some context for their decision not to show images of violence while continuing to explore real life for real people.
            When questioners posed questions about the "war" in Syria, the group's representative replied that they still think of what's happening in their country as "the revolution." I so hope they're right.
            The atmosphere of the very first, wholly unexpected short film screened at AUB stays with me still. In a nightclub somewhere, a local band is performing a cover of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall," the rock song with the chorus "Leave them kids alone!" The audience, all standing, all young, not looking at all 'traditional,' and probably consisting of middle-class, secular, privileged, Western-oriented kids, are visibly quivering with emotion, shaking and bellowing all of the song's lyrics along with the band -- the most authentically Dionysian gathering this aging hippie has observed in years. "We don't need no thought control!" the kids scream. "Teachers! leave them kids alone!"
            In the context of Bashar Assad's Syria this cry for freedom struck me as the most natural emotion in the world, and its expression a pure, ecstatic and joyful release.
            I hope the Syrian young get the freedom they want; and, like the rest of us, learn that youthful rebellion is not enough. But, so far, no one is willing to help them. I still hope that will change.   
            Revolutions, like human nature, like spring, get quashed in some places at some time. But inevitably they spring up again. Putin, Chinese communist dictators, North Korean nutcases, wacko anti-women American legislators -- pay attention. You're all on the list: Leave the people alone.