As the Syrian conflict passes its fifth anniversary, a partial cease-fire and the withdrawal of some Russian forces has brought what many are calling the best chance in years for peace to begin to take hold. And yet as international negotiators try to bring together the government with dozens of different opposition groups, a larger question about the deeply divided country remains: What do Syrians themselves want? The lead-up to possible talks has been dominated by geopolitical and strategic considerations rather than appeals to popular will. Many foreign observers, confronted by daily images of violence and its victims, may wonder if there still is a Syria at all beyond the war.
The work of the anonymous Syrian film collective Abounaddara provides a strikingly different picture of Syrians and their country. The members of Abounaddara, an Arabic phrase meaning “the man with glasses,” began making films in 2010, but it was Syria’s version of the Arab Spring that gave them an urgent sense of purpose. For the past five years, they have posted a new documentary film every week, resulting in an archive of nearly four hundred shorts that can be watched for free on Vimeo. By contrast with the ghoulish habits of television coverage of the war, Abounaddara’s films, which typically run two to three minutes, show individual Syrians who speak—often directly to the camera—rather than mute collectives of the dead.
These films, whose subjects include soccer players for the Syrian national team, bereaved parents, former prisoners of ISIS, intellectuals, and refugees, are powerful portraits of individual Syrians, yet they can also be hard to read, in part because we’re told so little about the subjects and settings. This withholding of information is clearly by design. The films often begin and end in medias res, leaving the viewer to puzzle out their significance. They require one to think as well as to look.
Other Abounaddara films offer glimpses into quotidian life: boys playing video games, a man trying on a jacket, merchants talking shop. But there is invariably some friction between the actions we see and where they are taking place. The gloomy labyrinths of first-person shooter video games are made more sinister by their revealed similarity to the gloomy labyrinths of a makeshift camp for Syrians that have had to flee their homes. (What sort of fun, we ask ourselves, what sort of escape do these games truly offer?) The gestures of a man trying on a jacket are subtly different when he does it in a migrant processing center: he’s not buying the jacket, it’s being given to him second-hand, so what counts as a good fit? In these films, the everyday is rendered strange by war, yet war itself takes place among the stubborn routines of daily life.
By far the largest number of Abounaddra’s films are monologues by unnamed Syrians of different classes, regions, and sects (most, though not all, are opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime). Women make the most captivating subjects. The protest movement lifted a lid on political speech for all Syrians, but it’s clear that for many women the experience of going out into the street to demonstrate—often against the wishes of parents—was profoundly liberating. They speak of the revolution as a discovery of one’s voice, a political coming-to-consciousness. In an astonishing monologue posted in October 2013, a middle-aged former schoolteacher speaks matter-of-factly about her one-women protest campaign against the Islamic State, waged from within the jihadist group’s territory. Whatever the ultimate fate of the war in Syria, it is hard to imagine these voices will be stifled again.
The filmmakers have revealed next to nothing about their methods of shooting and collaboration—in part, one surmises, for security reasons. In an interview on NPR last spring, the collective’s spokesperson, Charif Kiwan, a Syrian who lives in Paris, was asked how the group managed to get a film out of ISIS-controlled territory (the group has filmed a number of speakers who live or once lived in the so-called caliphate). “It’s our secret,” Kiwan said, “I cannot tell you. We are everywhere in Syria. We are anonymous. So we can film everywhere we want.”
Abounaddara’s characteristic style took shape during the early days of the Syrian uprising, before it became an armed conflict, and its work remains close to the ethos of the protest movement. A central concern of the opposition was to document the regime’s violent response to civil disobedience. These peaceful demonstrations were soon pushed aside by foreign powers and Islamist groups, but the collective has kept faith with the original impulses of what they still call “the revolution” through their combination of documentary films and political dissidence. In a short called REC (the abbreviation for “Record”) posted in 2012, they suggest that the difference between past and present revolts is precisely the fact of the camera’s ubiquity. The film begins with a black screen that reads “Hama 1982”—a city where the regime of Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, killed thousands of civilians in a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood—and then shows footage of jubilant, cellphone-armed protesters in present-day Hama.
But even these early films insist on technique as well as truth-telling. REC is a reflection on documentary filmmaking rather than a mere example of it. The film shows scenes of demonstrations in Hama, but also the camera’s blinking red “record” light, a reminder that we are watching though the lens of a particular eyewitness, and that even documentaries have a point of view. This distancing effect is typical of Abounaddara’s films, which make a point of drawing attention to the medium and away from the subjects. As Jacques Rivette has written, in an essay cited by the collective, “The filmmaker judges that which he shows, and is judged by the way in which he shows it.”
Some of the films follow this logic to exhilarating, often uncomfortable extremes. The Kid, posted online last fall, takes its title and soundtrack from Charlie Chaplin’s sentimental classic of the same name. After the old-fashioned title card, we see footage of Syrian children lined up and chanting support for Bashar al-Assad. It quickly cuts to a young boy in a domestic setting, who recites some rhyming lines (with raised finger for emphasis) about Bashar’s murder of children. In the next clip, the same boy is shown in the open air—as though on the run—and says tearfully, “Bashar has killed us. What did we do to him?” The final clip is footage from an Islamic State propaganda video. The same boy holds a rifle, identifies himself as “a lion cub of the caliphate,” and promises death to his enemies. The final title card announces, “To be continued,” as the Chaplin soundtrack soars to a close.
The Kid hints at a tragic story, yet the reflexive pity and horror with which we are conditioned to respond to stories of child soldiers is in this case suspended. Although just ninety seconds long, the film builds an elaborate structure of allusions and ironic juxtapositions. The children we see are not figures of naiveté or sentimentalism; on the contrary, they are giving performances, whether in support of the regime, in opposition to it, or in support of ISIS. The film confirms the theatrical nature of what we’re watching by framing the clips as a picaresque adventure with a cliffhanger ending. Of course we suspect the children’s lines have been fed to them by unscrupulous adults somewhere off-screen—perhaps the most poignant moment comes when the boy stumbles over his rehearsed speech in the propaganda video—but even so the effect is to remind us that children are social and political actors (however much against their will) rather than mere victims.
In one of the few public statements signed by the collective, Abounaddara argues that images of the war in Syria “are too frequently about mutilated and starved bodies, not about persons; they are too frequently images of the dystopian landscapes of wretched camps and the ruins of devastated neighborhoods and not images of the network of social relations and forms of collective cultural and political life.” A social environment, for example, is what the famous image of Alan Kurdi, the two-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a beach in southern Turkey last September, lacks. (Although subsequent reporting, especially by The New York Times, has given us a sense of how extensive those family networks were in fact.) But how does one capture social relations on film? What is the point of insisting on their existence?
In Once Upon a Time in Syria, a film posted at the beginning of the conflict, we see black-and-white clips of children dancing at a patriotic function. The stage set behind them is a nursery room with flowers, butterflies, and slogans of Assad’s Baathist party (suggesting the shared aesthetic of sentimentalism and authoritarianism). The soundtrack this time is the Lebanese diva Fayrouz singing an excerpt from Khalil Gibran’s ode “On Children”: “Your children do not belong to you. They are the sons of life. And life does not reside in the abodes of yesterday.” (The Arabic title of the film is “The Abodes of Yesterday.”) The final episode shows a young girl standing among what might be her schoolmates, who looks directly at the camera as she smiles and waves.
What are we to make of this? One toehold for interpretation is the seeming contrast between the saccharine verses sung by Fayrouz, whose songs Abounaddara often uses to ironic effect, and the pseudo-Stalinist spectacle of stiffly dancing children. Yet the words of Gibran’s poem also say something true about life under Assad: children really don’t belong to their parents. As we can see, they belong to the state—like everyone else. (Lisa Wedeen long ago showed the extent to which the Baathist regime has effectively used the grey area between coercion and consent to sustain its power.) What about the waving girl, the only portion of the film shown in full color? Is her grin meant to remind us of what the children on stage are deprived of—i.e., spontaneous happiness—or does she smile only in response to the camera? Might she be watching the same spectacle we are? Do we have a real contrast, in other words, or a more vivid example of Baathist brainwashing, which makes spontaneity indistinguishable from naked coercion?
Though Abounaddara’s films give no firm answer to any of these questions, they are not politically neutral. But their politics have more to do with challenging the way we consume images than with taking sides in the conflict. The filmmakers’ determination to show all their subjects, including children, as embedded in networks of family and community compels us to acknowledge the moral and political complexity of the war. If that acknowledgment results in paralysis, so be it. Paralysis isn’t the only possibility, and anyway wise inaction is better than ignorant intervention—even or especially when based on compassion and fellow feeling.
In an opinion piece published in Newsweek in December 2014, Abounaddara criticized the pervasive use by the Western media of cell phone images of violence in Syria, and argued that images of dead Syrians should not be shown on television, no matter the motive for exhibiting them; they pointed to the ban on showing bodies of 9/11 victims as precedent. In the case of the Syrian war, which is mostly off-limits to foreign journalists, networks regularly take such images from YouTube or from local nonprofessionals with agendas of their own. Such imagery, whose informational value is very low, “assaults the dignity of both Syrians and television viewers, reducing the former to violators or violated bodies and the latter to obscene voyeurs.” The media’s exploitation of dead Syrians, often killed in shocking fashion, is what Abounaddara calls “televampirism.” In response, they claim “the right to his or her own image”: that is, the right of Syrians, including dead Syrians, not to have their pictures shown on the news and so to maintain “human dignity.”
In Burning Country, their new history of Syria since the outbreak of the revolution, Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami write, “Generalisations are sometimes necessary, but it’s most accurate to think of Syria as a collective of 23 million individuals.” Most accurate, maybe, but is it possible? Like Abounaddara, Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami want to keep faith with the original impulse of the Syrian revolution—their book is full of fascinating details about the early protest movements—and they also stress the importance of letting Syrians speak. The chief interest of Burning Country, which is in large part a polemic against the regime and those who have failed to stand up to it, is its inclusion of voices from the front lines. “Syria was once known as a ‘kingdom of silence,’” the authors write. “In 2011 it burst into speech.”
Many of the oral histories in Burning Country sound like the monologues filmed by Abounaddara. Their subjects tell of discovering political agency—often an oppositional sense of Syrian nationalism—as well as talking about revolutionary tactics (peaceful protests versus armed militancy), the reality of sectarianism, and harrowing stories of imprisonment. The details can make for painful reading. “I used to spend an extra minute in the toilet so they’d punish me with torture,” one activist is quoted as saying. “I wanted to be tortured to have a break from solitary.”
A danger of writing history through testimonials and eyewitness accounts is that it is hard to know which voices are representative. One needs some background—some broad sample—to decide if they are or not. Burning Country lets us listen to many voices we aren’t likely to hear on the news, but not one of them is a regime supporter, nor even someone who opposes the regime but fears the Islamists even more. There is no lack of such people in Syria. Al-Assad’s state is much reduced, but it still rules the majority of the population and many of them would rather stay than flee to the so-called “liberated zones.”
Abounaddara, which has filmed several regime supporters as well as Islamists, has a slightly different problem with respect to capturing Syrians as a whole. For there is a discernable tension between the group’s universalist rhetoric of human dignity and rights and their effort to present each Syrian as a particular individual. This tension affects their choices as filmmakers in important ways. In an interview, Charif Kiwan explained the group’s striking refusal to supply viewers of their films with points of orientation: “We don’t give any information about place. The idea here is also to confuse people. We want the universal viewer to recognize himself, his place, his country in this Syrian place and voice. We want him to imagine that he could be there.”
This appeal to the universal viewer and his powers of sympathetic imagination sits somewhat uneasily with the group’s tough-minded rejection of pity and fellow feeling as political and aesthetic principles. Nor is it clear how the filmmakers’ method of abstraction, as explained by Kiwan, can be reconciled with their commitment to show “images of the networks of social relations.” Isolating individuals from their local settings may make them easier to recognize as fellow humans, but precisely at the cost of losing a sense of their individuality—a sense of the particular place they speak from. One might argue this is especially important in a country such as Syria, where local identities run deep (one reason why the opposition has been so fragmented).
The appeal to dignity and rights might be the result of Abounaddara’s slow drift, along with the rest of the civil opposition, into the forums of international opinion. (While the collective’s early films have no subtitles, the later works are typically posted in two versions, with excellent French and English translations.) Fortunately, the group’s films rarely lose touch with actual conditions in Syria, and are in fact coolly untroubled by what foreign viewers—wherever they live—might make of them.
The more of them one sees, the more one has the sense that the documentaries form an alternative Syria, much more finely grained than the one we find in the news, but also more unified. Grounded in the patriotic ideals of the protest movement, Abounaddara still believes in the Syrian people’s oneness, despite the stark differences their own documentaries attest to. In one short film, the Arabic letters spelling “Syria” dance through a series of print fonts, before finally resolving in a slogan, “The Syrian People Are One.” In the end, these films are acts of construction as much as they are works of witness. They imagine Syria as it might be, were the fate of the country up to Syrians to decide.
Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami’s Burning Country is distributed by the University of Chicago Press.