BEIRUT

Culture

From prison cell to World Wide Web

Talkin’ bout a revolution: Riyad al-Turk in a Skype conversation with Atassi.

BEIRUT: The film opens upon an out-of-focus shot of an index finger moving minute objects around on a white surface.

“What do you think,” a male voice asks in Arabic. “Should I put an exclamation mark or a question mark at the end?”

“Ibn al-Am Online,” the latest outing of Syrian documentary filmmaker Mohammad Ali Atassi, is a brief but multifaceted thing.

It is in part a political pamphlet to the young revolutionaries who for the past year or so have challenged the decades-old Baath regime. It is also a political profile, a follow-up to Atassi’s earlier film about Syrian dissident Riyad al-Turk – whose fingers are the focus of the opening sequence.

Whatever documentary and aesthetic weight the film has is drawn from the new film’s relationship with Atassi’s older work.

The film finds Atassi in a lift en route to a reliable Internet connection. His voiceover explains how it was because he’d met Turk that 11 years earlier that he’d become a filmmaker.

Turk founded the Syrian Communist Party/Political Bureau in the 1970s, a democratic opposition to the country’s mainstream CP, led by Khalid Bekdash, which had made a pragmatic accommodation with the regime of Hafiz Assad.

Atassi briefly introduces Turk as the “Ibn al-Am” of the film’s title – that being his favorite nickname. The filmmaker’s interest in the ageing dissident lies in the fact that, despite having spent some 20 years as a prisoner of the Assad regime, he continues to resist, “determined that Syria not become the Kingdom of Silence.”

As Atassi has been unable to return to Syria, his sole means of making contact with Turk is via the Internet – appropriate since it’s also his only way to monitor the insurgency as a whole.

At various times Turk and Atassi are seen on one another’s computer screens, images complemented by onsite cameras in Beirut and an undisclosed Syrian location.

The bulk of “Ibn al-Am Online” is comprised of Atassi and Turk’s Skype conversations. Interspersed among these are shots of Turk’s hands in extreme close-up, either smoking or moving small dark objects upon a white background.

Naturally their conversation revolves around events in Syria. From the outset the dissident underlines that, much as he admires the accomplishments of the 20-something revolutionaries, he has no direct role in their uprising.

“The regime is in its 70s,” he says. “The revolution is in its 20s. Is it possible that a 70-year-old can start a revolution? ... We must respect these people, for all their shortcomings.

“When I spoke out against Hafiz and Bashar it wasn’t for show,” he continues. “It was because society was silent. Now people are active, so my opinion is less important.”

Clocking in at a brisk 36-plus minutes, Atassi’s film was designed to be a freestanding document and it can be seen that way without undermining the filmmaker’s intent. Yet for those interested in more fully appreciating the man at the center of the film, it should be watched in conjunction with the antecedent that completes it.

Atassi has been a recognized figure on Beirut’s intellectual and cultural scene for some years now, writing on Syrian politics and culture in several Arabic-language newspapers.

Atassi’s freshman doc was “Ibn al-Am,” his 48-minute profile of Turk from 2001.

Then little known outside the Arab world, Turk’s inveterate criticism of state authoritarianism first got him thrown into detention during the United Arab Republic – the 1958-61 Syrian-Egyptian experiment in political union. His longest spell to this point was his 17-odd years of detention from 1980 to 1998, which saw him confined to a two-meter-by-two meter cell without light.

Atassi has said he’d been compelled to make “Ibn al-Am” because he wanted to unearth the source of a political prisoner’s will to resist and how, once released, such a man readjusts to regaining his family and place in society.

Shot over a six-month period between 1998 and August 2001, the first film was a platform to interrogate Turk’s regrets about sticking so stubbornly to his political principles – which kept him away from his wife for over a decade and left his daughter to grow up without him.

The filmmaker’s prodding is played off against another line of inquiry about how Turk kept his sanity during all his years of solitary confinement. His technique was to make geometrical patterns on his bed sheet, using lentil shells he’d saved from his meals.

Fortunately for Atassi’s film, Turk’s re-creation of his daily ritual provides a visual complement to the conversation that makes up much of the film.

“Ibn al-Am” was made during the Damascus Spring, a spell of relative openness just after the death of Hafiz Assad, when his son Bashar was settling into the presidential palace.

The film’s theatrical premiere in Beirut corresponded to Turk’s arrest and re-imprisonment, after having railed against his country’s unique political system – neither monarchy nor democracy but a hereditary republic.

Atassi has remarked that he didn’t set out to make a political film with his first profile of Turk; it was Turk’s comments that made it political. And for all the modesty of its production values, that film is mostly concerned with existentialist questions of political commitment to a world from which one has been forcibly removed.

“Ibn al-Am Online” is explicitly political, with Atassi (and Lebanon’s Elias Khoury, in a cameo appearance) coaxing Turk to get more involved, to issue statements online that could help form a revolutionary consensus.

By the end of the film, the audience is allowed to see the sentence to which Turk refers at the start of the film, which might be phrased as a question or an exclamation, spelled out in lentil shells against a bed sheet.

It’s hard not to support the political sentiment of the sentence but you may find the slogan aesthetically disappointing. Then again, given the temperaments of Turk and Atassi, and the peculiar history that lies behind their collaboration, it may be the only appropriate way to end the film.

“Ibn al-Am Online” can be seen online at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BFOdOdCVKiE.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 25, 2012, on page 16.

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