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Filming the Redefinition of Evil in Syria

Filmmakers Michal Przedlacki and Wojciech Szumowski documented the hell of life in wartorn Aleppo, Syria.
Photos via Michal Przedlacki and Wojciech Szumowski

In the summer of 2013, filmmakers Michal Przedlacki and Wojciech Szumowski spent nearly two months in Aleppo documenting the hell that Syrian citizens were living through.

With unprecedented access, their film "Aleppo: Notes from the Dark" paints a deep, disturbing picture of the effects the war has on seven residents with vastly different stories.

Among others, the film follows Dr. Ammar Zakaria, a former Syrian officer from a prominent family who now treats victims of regime bombings, and Imam Qasim, a cleric who preaches in one of the city’s poorer neighborhoods and tries to provide care for his increasingly desperate neighbors.


Instead of concentrating on the constant sniper fire and aerial bombardment from the Syrian Air Force, the film allows the people of Aleppo to be the focus of the film, not the conflict.

VICE News spoke with Michal Przedlacki about the making of the film and his experiences in Aleppo.

VICE News: You’ve talked about capturing the humanity of the conflict, not just the violence. And you don’t get to see it that much in most news reports because most people don’t get to spend that much time there.

MICHAL: That’s basically the point of the film. We need to be portraying people in Syria, the way they are. They are normal people. We need to show that they have normal human faces. They’re ordinary people and we need to show their struggles, we need to show their sufferings, and the way they fight against injustices, But this requires time because you have to have time to have decent observations. You cannot make it in two, three days. And that was our name, we went to Aleppo not oriented towards news. We went there with an aim: We have two months.

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VICE News: So how did the whole process come about? Most people going in, even at that time — one of my colleagues working on the border in Turkey would go in for a week then go out because they couldn’t take it. How did you decide you were going to go for two months?

MICHAL: I had been working inside northern Syria for five months during the war, managing at that time the only international humanitarian aid program inside with a properly established presence. I opened up field offices in Aleppo, in Idle. I stocked them with my colleagues and with myself. And I spent five months working in Aleppo under the bombardment, going as far away as Hama and sending aid convoys to Homs. This was the end of 2012 until April 2013. I had been working for a Czech humanitarian organization called People in Need. And when I returned from the assignment, since I am a writer, I am a photographer, I document things, I decided we need to bring out the evidence and we need to do it in a way to show it to a global audience through a film. So I contacted a colleague, a friend of mine, a documentary maker with decades of experience and with hundreds of documentary films, who I knew from earlier projects.


We decided we would do it. So, then we returned. We were able to stay in Aleppo because of the fact that people knew our work, the work of People in Need. People knew me because I was there with them when they were bombing us. And we’ve been living through the same fears, through the same type of moments for months. And then that was basically the entry point. The social protection, the respect, the trust, that allowed us to be there inside for two months.

VICE News: So you had the respect for the time you put in before, and the humanitarian work you had done?

MICHAL: People knew who we are. People knew I was inside Aleppo for five months. And they knew the work we did, so we were not a bunch of freelancers trying to get close to a bombing site, because we went there to narrate the story of people, we hadn’t gone there at all to narrate the story of ourselves.

Basically this was the beginning. And if I remember correctly, we were the only international crew of this size in Aleppo through July and August, and everyone knew we were there. All different factions knew were there. People knew that we were there because we were spending every day on the streets of Aleppo. And then when we finished, we basically returned back to Poland to work on the documentary.

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VICE News: Just logistically speaking, I know you had spent a lot of time there, but just keeping safe and healthy — was that a big obstacle for you?


MICHAL: Keeping safe, of course, is an obstacle in such place. Our biggest risk was to get to basically hit by the air strikes, under the bombardment. Keeping healthy? You have to remember that stuff, and you must have heard it many times, that Syrians are some of the most hospitable people you can imagine.

VICE News Yes, I’ve seen it, I’ve experienced it myself.

MICHAL: Yeah, exactly. They will get you what you want because they are going to take care of you. Of course, we had arranged everything in terms of our logistics, but we also rented our own house, we lived in one place. And we kind of became the neighbors in the neighborhood. Just not Syrian, but Poles. And the people who have a camera. We had a couple of close calls. You have them. Everyone in Aleppo has, unfortunately.

VICE News: Kidnapping by some of the more extremist elements of the opposition has been a big problem for a lot of journalists. Did you have any close calls with the more extremist jihadi factions?

MICHAL: No, no. I must say we haven’t really encountered any problems from the fight of the different factions fighting against Assad because if we would face those problems, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. But then, again, I must say that personally, the fact that people knew us helped us a lot. We weren’t incognito, unknown journalists, some of whom sometimes are accused of being spies. We were people that were known. And this gave us much more flexibility to film.


VICE News: These seven people you focused on, they really opened up to you. How did you find them? How did you decide whose story needed to be told? And how did you get them to let you into their world?

MICHAL: So, regarding the choice of the people, we took time to find people of different jobs, of different backgrounds, different histories, in order to show that there is not one single fight in Aleppo, in Syria, in order to show that people have their own histories, and to show who is really fighting Assad. Both with guns, but also trying to save human lives.

There’s some we met by coincidence, by luck. Then took us time to convince people. We had more characters than the ones we have shown in the film. But we had to have their approval. And they had to understand that their face, their story, might be shown all over the world, and would definitely be seen by the regime. We just wanted to show people who see only one difference: the difference between freedom and oppression. This is what these people have in common. Everything else is basically the story of their lives. Like the person you meet on the streets of New York. You can meet a vegetable seller or you can meet a businessman. You can meet a guy that has shops, or you can meet a guy that used to work in a library. One of the characters in the film, Imam Qasim, he’s an imam. And he was my very close friend because I did work with him in Aleppo. He died in a rocket attack in early January and he was killed because the regime basically fired indiscriminately into civilian areas.


VICE News: You documented a lot of that — alleged war crimes. It’s still happening right now and nothing’s being done. It’s upsetting.

MICHAL: Exactly. In our film, there are moments, and there are sequences, where we show the results of a SCUD missile that has hit part of Aleppo. That is actually in the beginning of the film. There are aerial combatants of civilian areas where you have no legitimate military target next to it. Then there is the bombing of Ain Jalout elementary. That happened this very August. They bombed the charity market and now from 30th of April they bombed the school again. People need to understand that was the second time that school decided to organize some activity for children or for neighbors in the neighborhood. And the second time they got hit. They were attacked, brutally attacked by the regime. It just is beyond understanding.

VICE news: It’s deliberate.

MICHAL: It’s a deliberate attack, the second time they’ve organized something for children, for the neighborhood, they have informed people about the event. And for the second time, as a consequence of them raising up their heads, they were attacked by aerial bombardments. It’s a deliberate attack against civilians.

VICE News: It’s incredibly disturbing.

MICHAL: Basically, I mean, with some characters we knew from the beginning, we wanted to narrate the story. That’s the case of the Aleppo media center journalist. In order to show the kind of work Aleppo media center is doing, without which, many of us wouldn’t have as much information into the city. The second was the doctor — Dr. Ammar Zakaria, who I met first time in November 2012, when we traveled together to Aleppo. That was the first time I got myself to Aleppo.


VICE News: Have you heard from any of the other characters?

MICHAL: We are in contact through Skype. We are in daily touch. It’s terrible because only from the hospital staff that you can see the film, five people are dead. Imam Qasim has died. Two other colleagues in the film from People in Need have been killed. Many people have lost their lives since we finished the film. And now it’s like chasing — it’s like running against the time. Can we still show the people who are there alive or will we be showing a film full of those that have already left? Since ending the film, it’s been a couple of months. And our characters, the people we are showing in the film…They are real people. Their stories are real and they are just passing away. Not day-by-day, but they are passing away week-by-week, month-by-month.

VICE News: You mentioned you and your partner had done work in Chechnya, Somalia, and Afghanistan, and you had never seen anything like in Syria.

MICHAL: Wojciech was a couple of times in Sarajevo after the siege in order to show the results of war. Myself, I’ve been working in humanitarian aid for the past 10 years. And I’ve lived in Grozny, Somalia, and Afghanistan, and in many other countries. But what we both saw in Aleppo, this is something that we cannot compare with anything else we’ve seen throughout our life. And even Grozny, where I thought this is the definition of evil really, I mean the definition of evil, what can happen to civilians during the fight in the city, during the bloody Chechen war, wasn’t something similar to what we’ve seen in Aleppo and what is happening in Aleppo because of the fighting, and because of what the regime is doing. Even Grozny, it wasn’t as horrific as horrific in Aleppo. And really, Grozny got to all of us, those that were there or those that reported but imagine that there is something worse.


VICE News: That’s quite powerful.

MICHAL: Well, if I could throw in just a couple of words from Wojciech. But when you were asking about the barrel bombs, he said that he had rarely seen fear in the eyes of the residents of Aleppo when we were there, but when the noise of the aircraft came close and we heard the noise of the engines, of the aircraft just going to drop bombs, then you would immediately see fear growing in the eyes of the people around us, and this hectic way of trying to hide and cover. And then he felt fear as well. And when he thinks now that this fear is just daily, dozens of times when helicopters are coming over the city or bombs are being dropped from aircraft, he thinks that both the killing of innocent civilians is a war crime, but also bringing this amount of fear is a war crime as well because this is the way to hide the war — bringing terror to people.

Vice News: The war may end, but experiencing trauma like that doesn’t go away.

This Q & A has been edited for length.

The Film is currently looking for a distributor. For more, visit: "Aleppo: Notes from the Dark."