When Aleppo-based curator and gallerist Issa Touma noticed Syrian Civil War combatants on the streets below his East Aleppo home, he didn’t run—he grabbed a video camera. Over the course of nine days, using a compact Nikon photo camera, Touma sat in his perch and filmed the Syrian rebels on the streets. Last year, Touma collaborated with filmmakers Floor van der Meulen and Thomas Vroege in turning the footage into 9 Days - From My Window in Aleppo, an arresting documentary short on the civilian experience during the five-year long Syrian Civil War, which won Best Short at the 2016 European Film Awards this past December.
While Touma is active on social media, and on projects like Aleppo Gallery, he's not exactly easy to get ahold of for an interview. Talking over WhatsApp’s wifi service, Touma tells The Creators Project he returns to Aleppo every few months after touring Europe to talk about what life and creativity is like in the besieged city.
“There is a lot of shit going on around the world, but people pay attention because I’m coming from a wartorn country,” says Touma. “I was traveling around Europe the last six months, but during this time I traveled back to Aleppo to see what what was going on and shoot some more films. One will be Greetings from Aleppo, which is about me explaining why I come back.”
Touma says he wanted to document his experience in war, while shooting what would become 9 Days - From My Window in Aleppo, because he didn't know what would happen or if he would even make it out alive. This narrative, he insists, is all too common in Aleppo.
For Touma, shooting video seemed like the proper thing to do, so people could understand what is really happening in the city. Though the film was released last year, Touma actually shot it over nine days in August of 2012 while sandwiched between the rebels (Free Syrian Army) on his left and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Army on his right. In the film he talks about running out of food and not being able to communicate—things most people take for granted.
“Imagine if it happened in your city, with people shooting underneath your balcony for 24 hours,” Touma says. “That’s why I was shooting video. It’s real war happening underneath your window. You’re scared you might not survive.”
“It’s not normal,” he adds. “You’re scared the first 10 minutes, but after that, you live with it.”
When the Amsterdam-based filmmakers van der Meulen and Vroege met Touma, during one of his European lectures, they were already working on Syria-related films. This lecture, as van der Meulen recalls, was at Pakhuis de Zwijger, and focused on the necessity of making art in times of war. “He told the audience he was still running an art gallery in Aleppo,” says van der Meulen. “He showed some of his work and some video footage he filmed. We found his footage very powerful and an unique perspective in this complex conflict. He didn't film it with the intention to make a film—it was more a testimony of his existence if something were to happen to him.”
So the two filmmakers approached Touma with the idea to look at the footage together and make a short film. In doing so, they hoped they could show the world about civilian life in Aleppo.
Van der Meulen says they embraced the characteristics of Touma’s footage, since this made it an even more raw and personal view. They added in the color correction and a layer of grain to give it more a cinematic look and narrative coherency. They also interviewed Touma for two hours about his experiences, and talked about what they saw in the footage. Based on this interview, van der Meulen and Vroege wrote the voice-over, with Touma doing the speaking.
A number of films have been made about Syria and the conflict, though van der Meulen says most of them are by Western filmmakers about Syrians. She thus believes that their collaboration, one between Western and Arabic artists, is unique and hopeful.
“Most films focus on the rebel fighters and war; civilians and their experiences are often forgotten,” she says. “So the personal perspective of Issa Touma gives the audience an unique insight into a complex conflict. It makes it more vivid and invites involvement, [showing] experiences of civilians, who are stuck between rebel fighters and the regime army. Stuck in a conflict they don't choose to be in.”
While 9 Days - From My Window in Aleppo has an international aim, Touma sees a different audience for the film. For him, the reaction of Syrians to the film is of the utmost importance, because they are the ones who have suffered.
“We saw the same story,” says Touma. “When [the rebels] decided to cut the city in half and make war, they didn’t ask us. They didn’t care about us. They made a checkpoint and started shooting. They came to kill—they didn’t come to [liberate] us. This is the message for civilians.”
He blames the media, in part, for portraying the rebels as heroes. Some journalists, he insists, have an agenda and possibly even a party affiliation. “They try to take away our voice,” Touma says. “So I’m very happy that in the last 10 days a lot of Syrians have seen the film.”
“This is our story, this is what we’re suffering, this is the story of what happened,” he adds. “For the West it’s shocking. 9 Days shows the people who have no power and want to say something, and I think people get that, even in the West.”