As we trudge reluctantly into autumn, the Arab Spring may be feeling a little like one of those nostalgic and wistfully chaotic uprisings of the past, all its bloodshed, violence, and human sacrifice fossilized in rolling news footage (and amazing documentary footage, obviously). But while Libya’s National Transitional Council suckle on the warm, milk-filled bosom of international diplomacy, post-revolutionary Egypt gets the corruption grumps, and Tunisia’s ex-boss gets a telling off on a North African version of Judge Judy, Syria has been experiencing one of the most brutal crackdowns the world has seen in decades.
Kicking the breeze out in the Mid-East, photojournalist Johann Rousselot has knocked together a pretty graphic web documentary, aptly titled Syrial Killing. It shows the sort of grisly subjugation the Syrian people have been experiencing for the past six months. Compiled from amateur footage leaked by a handful of Syrian gals and guys, Johann’s ten-minute death reel lays bare what most of the Western world (or at least its media) have more or less ignored.
We caught up with Mr Rousselot for a chat.
VICE: Hello Johann! Could you please tell us about Syrial Killing?
Johann: I recently spent a week in Hatay Province, Turkey, where I met several Syrian refugees. I was there collecting material for a film I'm putting together on the Arab revolutions, focusing specifically on the role information technologies have played in the Spring. I'd already been to Tunisia and Libya, but I was so frustrated at not being able to go further and enter Syria with one of the refugees. But when I was with them, I was surrounded constantly by bloody videos… The clips feature some pretty frightening scenes.
The things you see in those dreadful videos are a daily, common thing since the uprising started. That's why, before returning to Paris, I thought that my best journalistic contribution would be to compile my own film based on the thousands of clips of amateur footage.
When you were making Syrial Killing was there anything you decided to leave out?
No. The hard thing was to spend an entire day watching and editing, picking up "best" ones… I usually don't go for spectacular, shocking, bloody stuff in my work--more of a softer and deeper approach. But the situation in Syria is so brutal that it was clear there was no soft way to tell it. Those videos and horrors have been ghosts in the refugees' minds for the past six months. What made you want to document the Arab uprisings?
When I read about what was happening in Tunisia at the beginning of January, I realized I was shaking. I was feeling that this event was something enormous. I was especially moved by the beauty of the shows of angry but non-violent force people put on in the streets. Also, it was relatively close to France so it wasn't too expensive and they speak French there. To witness the end of a dictatorship and experience the atmosphere created by a recently liberated population was also a strong motivation. The Syrian situation is obviously very different. How did the Syrian refugees you met compare to the folks uprising in Tunisia?
That’s an interesting question. The first days I was there I was focused on the internet war aspect. But I soon realized they are not geeks at all and couldn't tell me a lot, unlike the Tunisian cyber activists I met in February. Talking about Anonymous or proxies didn’t get me anywhere. There was only one thing that mattered to them: showing those videos to the world. That led me to question them: After six months, aren't you discouraged, do you still have any hope in YouTube, videos, the internet? What did they say?
Their mood was the same as mine. Most of them had started doubting the power of the internet, seeing its limits and realizing that the army and weapons are still stronger than communication and news.
Is that what led you to start documenting the Arab Spring in the first place, exploring the power and limits of Facebook and YouTube and sites like that?
Yes. I built my little film according to that outlook, showing their daily horror show. I came to the conclusion that all this is terribly scandalous, but not scandalous enough to move the international community. So now we want to fight, the Libyan way. Are the Syrian people "less connected" than in Tunisia or Libya then?
Yes, it seems.
Why is that?
Internet access has a very short history in Syria; they only started using Facebook a year ago. Plus the education level is not as high as in Tunisia. Some of the footage in your film is from a news channel, Ugarit News. There's not much information about them on the internet, but from the nature of the footage they broadcast one can assume they are not state television…
I just had a Skype interview with one of them yesterday, although they revealed no location and only gave nicknames. They are about ten people from the Syrian diaspora, expatriates. They are very careful and suspicious and have close ties with guys inside the country. They manage to get videos through satellite devices, Facebook, proxies, that sort of thing. When you were compiling the film were there any legal or ownership issues?
No legal issues, just revolutionary spirit. A sense of authorship from Syrian activists would be quite indecent. First kick Assad out of power, then maybe they'll start claiming authorship. Now, I’m not a Syrian activist, and I always claim some kind of recognition for my work. But very sincerely, this time I didn’t make a film to gain professional points. Of course, indirectly this is what happens. But I felt powerless to effectively tell anyone about this intolerable situation, so my first goal was to just spread information as much as possible. I even thought about getting some politicians' emails and sending it to them, but that's useless, they know perfectly well what's going on. One thing that comes across from the film is a sense of isolation. The aftermath of an extinguished protest looks like a very lonely place. Did you experience encouragement for what you were doing while you were doing it?
Yes, everything that helps the revolution’s success is welcome. That's why my contact in Antakya, Hatay Province, didn't ask me for money. He said, "I'm just doing my citizen's duty," but at the end I helped him up to my budget’s limits towards buying a new laptop. I gave him about €150. That’s really kind of you.
He was nearing his goal of reaching about €700 I think.
In the second half of the film there are pictures of some pretty sharp looking dudes on steroids. Could you tell us a bit about them?
Shabihas… they are the ultimate image of terror. They are the most dangerous and scary guys, personal security for Assad’s family. The pictures look pretty personal, all posing with each other. How did you come across them?
I had not heard of them before, but once my contact in Turkey told me about them it was easy to find the footage on YouTube. The photos belong to one of these Shabihas, taken from a cell phone after a clash in a street. The guy ran away, leaving his phone on the ground. They look so proud of themselves, like a little gang, it's quite disturbing.
My contact told me this: When checking your ID papers, they wouldn’t notice if it's upside down. True or not, that tells you how clever they are. It's always the same system: Uneducated guys, former prisoners and gangsters, long-term jobless youth… You offer them money far above the average monthly wage, plus girls, local power, cars, and an apartment, and they'll be happy to do anything for you. They’re above the law, they can do absolutely anything they like or feel is necessary to keep the state secure. They must have their big, strong hands full at the moment.
They’re growing in numbers since the revolution started. "Shabiha" means "ghost"… a ghost mafia. But only an army could go against those guys. Is that something you can see happening, an armed uprising?
Of course. I’m sure this is the next step.
Do you think the film will change things?
Oh no, one little film does not change anything. The multiplication of films, articles, pictures… they finally help move things forward, but only a little bit. Not doing it is no solution either, though. My job is the one of an ant; thousands of ants working in the same direction can achieve great things. Well put.
But yes, a civil war might be on its way, you read more and more about troops defecting. Some cities now have a popular army and protect citizens and neighborhoods from official army crackdowns. It's becoming militia against militia. That sounds terrifying. Do you think the lack of global interest (compared to Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya) is disheartening? Are Syrians aware of the West’s fickleness when it comes to global crises?
From what I could tell, they don't want external action, they need weapons and money, and they'll do the job themselves. They know that after six months of peaceful protests, it's becoming useless to go on the same way. Did you see any violence when you were there?
No, I didn't see any violence, but these are people faced with one of the most terrible repression machines in the world. So, what else is left? War seems to be the only "reasonable" option. Assad listens to nobody, he doesn’t care an inch what the world says. Why do you think it is so underreported in the West? What’s actually happening in contrast to the other Arab uprisings this year?
Wow… Tricky geopolitical logic, I guess; no petrol, a delicate position in the Middle East. They have close ties with Iran and Hezbollah. Also Russia, India and China are against any UN action. You know how bureaucratic all this can be, which means it’s long, sooo LONG. Yeah, its very sad. What’s next for your mission, then?
I'm preparing a small picture series, portraits of Syrian refugees… Maybe some magazine will publish them. Maybe.