Culture

‘Bullet films’ offer Syrian snapshots

BEIRUT: A bespectacled man with thinning gray hair expertly inserts grouting between the colorful inlay of a backgammon board. Heaven and hell must exist all around us, he muses, for what could be worse than earthly suffering?

A middle-aged lady in jeans and a pink headscarf recounts how each afternoon she demonstrates alone against foreign Islamists, who denounce her for wearing the trousers she’s worn for 30 years.

A man in a security guard’s garb gestures at a globe as he confides his unorthodox theory that the sun circles the earth.

A young man, his face wreathed in shadows, describes how each time a cease-fire is declared the media demand to see footage of shots being fired. “I don’t want to film a massacre for TV,” he says.

“What I want is for that massacre never to have happened.”

These “bullet films” were shot in different places, at different times, by different people, but each shares the same aim: to represent the diversity and humanity of the Syrian people, irrespective of age or gender and political or religious denomination.

In March 2011, the demonstrations that signaled the start of the Syrian uprising swept across the country. The following month, a group of anonymous filmmakers calling themselves the Abounaddara Collective began uploading one short film to the Internet every Friday, in tandem with the mass protests. Ranging from two to five minutes in length, these micro-docs are dubbed “emergency cinema.”

“The idea is to propose a cinematographic form adapted to the situation that we are living today in Syria,” explains filmmaker and collective co-founder Charif Kiwan.

The collective’s spokesman visited Beirut earlier this month to give a talk about cinema and conflict at Ashkal Alwan.

“We’re in a confrontation between society and the state,” he continues. “The representation of society is unjust. Unjust because the regime doesn’t recognize society, and the media in general don’t represent society in an accurate and fair way.

“They show us as Alawites, as Christians, as pro-regime and anti-regime. We want to use the language of cinema to move spectators, to surprise them and to oblige them to see what’s happening in a new and original way.”

The name of the collective translates as “the man with glasses,” a reference to a tradition in the Arab world of naming people after their professions. It is also a nod to pioneering Russian documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov, the self-styled “man with the camera,” whose Vertov Group set out to combine art and political activism in the 1960s in much the same way Abounaddara does today.

The collective is made up of volunteers, self-taught filmmakers who make quality films despite the challenges they face, among them the need for complete anonymity and a total lack of funding. Kiwan refuses to reveal their numbers, explaining that the mystery adds to the effectiveness of their work.

“We want people to ask: ‘Who are they? Where are they? How many are they?’” he says. “That’s very important.”

The collective has two main goals. The first is to grant viewers a measure of insight into the diversity of Syrian society. The second is to immortalize the hopes and courage of those involved in the revolution, so that the films might inspire future generations around the world in the way that previous revolutions inspired the initially peaceful demonstrations in Syria.

In countering the dominant regime and media discourses, the filmmakers don’t focus on any particular segment of society. Instead, they attempt to show as many different perspectives as possible, Kiwan explains, accumulating an audiovisual mosaic of a humanity that transcends borders and beliefs.

“We strive to show anonymous people,” he elaborates. “We’re not interested in militants ... and if we do take interest in a combatant we don’t show him fighting. We show him at home. We focus on his face, his eyes, his mouth, so that the spectator can get to know this man. We don’t say who he is, what religion he is.

“We want to show the common humanity between people who are pro- and anti-regime, the people in Syria and the people elsewhere.

“The regime says that there are those who stand with me and the rest are terrorists. ... For the Islamists it’s a majority Muslim society and Islam is the most important thing. We believe that what is important, irrespective of our religious backgrounds, is what we do.”

The 12-minute “Of God and Dogs,” documents a Free Syrian Army fighter’s harrowing confession. The camera frames his face in a prolonged close-up as he recounts how he killed an innocent man. He shot his victim at close range before tearfully burying him, he says, swearing vengeance on the god that led him to commit the murderous act.

One of the collective’s longer films, it was awarded the Short Film Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this January.

There is only one rule that filmmakers are asked to abide by: The collective never films acts of violence or shows the injured or dead. There are several reasons for this, Kiwan explains.

“The first is a question of dignity,” he says.

“As a filmmaker, I don’t have the right to portray people as victims, to show them in an undignified situation. In Canada, in America, in Europe, you don’t show people dying. ... The Syrian people have the right to a dignified portrayal.

“The second thing is that we don’t want to arouse a sense of pity in the viewer. We want to show them that we have people who fight for what they believe in. ... They are not victims, they are heroes.”

The films’ documentary aesthetic precludes voiceover narration, effacing the filmmaker from the footage while keeping the focus on the subject. The filmmaker’s role is not to talk, Kiwan says, but to listen.

Unlike journalists, the collective avoids pinpointing who, where and when they are filming.

“Some of the footage was filmed before the revolution,” Kiwan says. “Sometimes we mix it with footage shot during the revolution to create a montage to show that the temporality of society surpasses events. It surpasses conflicts. A journalist can’t do that.

“What we do aims to make the spectator feel something, not to give them concrete facts. We don’t want to prove anything ... We want to put them in a state of doubt, to destabilize them so that they question the footage in front of them.”

Over the past year the collective’s work has attracted increasing attention both at home and internationally, but Kiwan considers the project a failure to date.

“This sense of failure stems from the fact that our films have not yet found a voice with regard to the general public,” he explains. “The distribution of the films has not yet reached the big media stations around the world.

“The only way to protect the Syrian identity ... is if people see that the Syrians share the same humanity as everyone else. We need people to see that the Syrian people do not match up to the media representations and that we cannot continue to just accept that they are being killed in this manner.”

To find out more about the Abounaddara Collective please visit www.abounaddara.com

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 16, 2014, on page 16.

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