This Syrian Filmmaking Collective Shows the Banality of Life in War
The anonymous collective Abounaddara spotlights individual Syrians and how they are coping—or not coping—with the devastating humanitarian crisis.
In the four years since the start of the Syrian uprising, the formerly stable but repressive country has been plunged into near total chaos. As the rebel army engages in combat with Bashir Al Assad's forces, and ISIS's brutal regime moves further into the fray, the images coming out of the embattled nation have been of devastation: stacked and bloody bodies, ruined buildings, and hordes of refugees fleeing the country. Syria, previously a functioning country, was home to artists and entrepreneurs, bankers, and doctors.
Today, our view of life inside its borders is opaque, with little news escaping beyond the jarring war reports on the evening news. Anonymous DIY filmmaking collective Abounaddara, composed of several self-taught shooters mostly in and around Damascus, wants to shift this one-dimensional coverage by the media. Since its emergence during the initial phase of the uprising, the Abounaddara upload one video online each week, spotlighting individual Syrians, both for and against Assad, and how they are coping—or not coping—with this devastating humanitarian crisis.
In a deliberate attempt to stay vague about numbers and location, both for safety and artistic reasons, the collective offers a faceless, surreal, fly-on-the wall perspective of the conflict. They interview subjects both in and outside of Syria in a self-named form of visual pastiche called "emergency cinema." The work is poignant, thought provoking, and frequently disturbing. The films, which feel like snapchats from purgatory, often focus on the banality of a single individual, in a single moment, living in conflict.
In one of the most powerful shorts—few are longer than a handful of minutes—a sniper casually speaks into the camera about the roughly 600 people he has killed (having lost count) showing emotion only when discussing his wife's miscarriage. Rather than demonize the subject, you sense his weariness at a conflict with no end in sight that's had a dehumanizing effect on the population. In another, an Alawite woman from Syria's ruling ethnic group discusses how and why she became a rebel sympathizer. These are just two experiences out of the 250 plus that have been captured, a visual record in the spirit of Rashoman and told with multiple angles and viewpoints.
Although the group was briefly featured last summer at the New Museum in Here and Elsewhere, a multimedia exhibition of contemporary art "from and about the Arab world," their first widespread attention came when they won the short-film grand-jury prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Now their greatest challenge is infiltrating the mainstream consciousness of the average American.
Last year, the New School granted the Abounaddara its 2014 Vera List Center Prize for Art and Politics, a prestigious award in honor of the noted philanthropist. "Transcending political, disciplinary, and artistic boundaries, Abounaddara's videos reveal the conflict in Syria on a human scale, creating a crucial link between Syria and the rest of the world, outside of the political framework of war," said New School president David E. Van Zandt in a press release. The international jury that nominated Abounaddara includes activist playwright Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame and Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo, whose work embodies the often repressed and marginalized voices of the victims of political violence and social upheaval. The prize offers the chance to both work with the school on an exhibition, which will open in October, and monetary support to continue their work.
In their unofficial manifesto, the group says it defends the "right to the image," which it feels has been taken from them by opportunistic media outlets hungry for a one-sided debate. The group also had the unfortunate experience of being asked to take part in the Venice Biennale only to have their work censored, even at this fairly liberal event. To the group, these weekly video missives are a way of creatively fighting for the freedom and dignity of all Syrians. Last weekend, VICE had the chance to speak with Charif Kiwan, the spokesperson for Abounaddara, who was in town for the Human Rights Film Festival, to show and discuss the collective's films at the UN, and to plan the collective's October showcase with curators. Now in permanent exile somewhere on the border of Syria, Kiwan has made it clear that he is just the mouthpiece for a broader movement for change in and outside the country.
VICE: Can you tell me a little bit about what you discussed at the UN?
Charif Kiwan: I told them, "We need your help. It's not fair that people in Syria are represented in an undignified way." We don't have the right to [free speech] without the right to our images. We need to reconsider and rethink how to inform [viewers] while respecting certain ethical principals regarding dignity. Reporting is no longer created by professional correspondents. In Syria there are no journalists. So everything is based on images taken by anonymous citizen reporters. We have to consider this. Nobody has interest in letting these images circulate without any rules or principals [or agendas]. We have the duty to think how we portray the situation. [Our work] is mainly on informing [readers] about this huge tragedy without exhibiting just the bloody, murdered bodies. If we do so, we play the game of the regime and ISIS, who want to use media against the democracy.
Even on the internet, if you don't have the support of media, you cannot exist and be seen.
Without giving away identities, can you tell me who is a part of this collective?
We want you, the regime—we want everyone to think that the filmmaker is everywhere. We want to empower our society to produce its own images independently of its all power systems. To use the anonymity, and the mystery [to its benefit]. It's very important for us to let you imagine that the films we produce are created by the collective society, not just one person who has a specific religious or political opinion. Our films are not products of the market. Our films are addressed to humanity.
Was it difficult to reach a broader audience on the internet?
Yes, at the beginning it was very difficult. We have no budget, nobody knows us, and we don't have the support of the media. We are totally underground, and had zero funding from the beginning. We are all volunteers. Even to organize the contact with journalists, this meeting with you, we needed to be helped. In this case, the university, the New School, is supporting us. Even on the internet, if you don't have the support of media, you cannot exist and be seen.
How do you plan each video? Do you let volunteers take cameras and shoot their own experiences, or do you conceptualize first?
We are shooting all the time. We shoot our friends, our neighbors—we are living amongst our subjects. We are not like the correspondents or the filmmakers who come to just shoot and leave. This is our home and our people. We try to blur the boundaries between journalism, art, and cinema, and highlight propaganda. We listen, we shoot, we look over the footage, and we let our imagination make the rest. Sometimes we add effects or other images. We are totally free, creatively. Our job is to let you feel something very strong, to haunt your imagination. To make you ask for more. We are not obliged, like journalists or reporters, to give you facts. We are not addressing the viewer as a judge. We want just them to be punched, touched, and linger in their imagination. To invite them to reconsider the way they see Syrian society or the Middle East in general.
How long has this collective been active?
We started one year before the revolution began. In 2010 we released, on the internet, a series of 12 short documentaries. At the time we couldn't find a producer because media outlets all wanted the same thing; they wanted us to tell the story of our society through a geopolitical, or religious perspective, Muslim versus Christian, Israeli against Arab, Sunni against Alawi—and we hated that. So we decided to use the internet to prove there is another way to represent those people. We released our first series without official censorship [and approval] in Syria, which was very important but risky. But we were then ready when the uprising started, and in March 2011, we decided to go further and make a very short piece every Friday. As filmmakers, we wanted to demonstrate with our people. We have a duty to fight for freedom and dignity, so we had to do so through films.
Even though it's an anonymous collective, all of you have put yourselves into incredible amounts of danger. Do you feel scared?
Not more than any Syrian who is fighting for freedom. We hate intellectuals and filmmakers who say, "I am brave! I am in risk! The regime wants to kill me!" In fact, the regime killed few intellectuals or filmmakers comparatively. Our Collective lost some beloved colleagues and one of them, Osama al-Habali, has been in jail for over three years. But we are more able to protect ourselves than the majority of Syrians. And also, we are anonymous. So even if the regime wanted to kill us, they couldn't. We are anonymous also because we hate ego. We don't have the right to speak about ourselves when ordinary people are taking the real risks. Our society is being totally destroyed. We just take a little part of the risk experienced openly on the street. Also, because we are not making propaganda, we are not considered to be making films against the regime. We are not screening them on Al Jazeera, or VICE—although maybe now we are, ha!—and because of all that we are not really in big danger.
As filmmakers, we wanted to demonstrate with our people. We have a duty to fight for freedom and dignity, so we had to do so through films.
As the spokesperson, you more than anyone should be in danger. Have you received any threats?
I have the chance to be outside of Syria if I am in danger. I am no longer based in Syria, which is under regime control. My enemy is not the regime. I have friends who are with the regime—all of us do. We have to respect those people and represent them as well. So our issues are as filmmakers. Of course as a citizen I want to finish with this criminal, but as a filmmaker my job is to represent my society in an accurate and dignified way.
Are there any artists or filmmakers who the collective admires?
Samuel Fuller. We are impressed that, to begin with, he filmed in a concentration camp without exhibiting the murdered bodies, which was a huge artistic lesson for us: how to evoke the horrors, how to let people imagine the worst thing possible, without actually exhibiting it. We also liked that Samuel Fuller brought together both dryness and lyricism. In order to represent a tragedy, we have to be very dry. We have to represent it with minimalism. But Fuller also had a sense of poetry. We admire him greatly because, like us, he made his films with very little budget. Do it yourself! That could be our main principle: Let's do art with nothing. Create with just desire, and without the market. Be authentic. Samuel Fuller was an artist, a filmmaker, and a soldier, and was interested in the deepest aspects of society, and could represent it with dignity.
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Many Americans don't understand what life in Syria was like before the conflict. How has it changed after the uprising?
The main change now is that we are surrounded death. It is everywhere. People have the feeling that they could die at any moment. It's why the people we film seem so deep—they speak with very clear idea of what and who they are, and their experiences. The boundary now between life and death is very fragile. For example, if you see our first documentaries, released just before the revolution, people are reserved and silent. The films we are making now go faster and faster. It's like people don't have the time.
Laura Feinstein is a writer and editor who has contributed to T/The New York Times, the Guardian, the Creators Project, and many others. Follow her on Twitter.