The video is comprised of a single shot of a young woman in a nondescript room. The camera is fixed close to her face as she describes how the Syrian military press-ganged her younger brother into the service one night, dragging him off to the military academy in Homs. “He was fragile,” she says. “His whole life he never made a decision for himself.”
We can’t help but watch her closely, looking for clues about her life and the fate of the young man, whose name, we learn, is Hassoun. As she wipes away a tear with her right hand, which is holding a cigarette, she says, “My whole life changed after this happened.” We glimpse a tattoo on her arm, a fringe of colorful bands on her wrist, a ring. “The death of Hassoun is the best thing that ever happened to me,” she admits, “and the worst thing too.” She feels stronger, she says, for having survived the trauma of his death, but every expression on her face suggests otherwise.
So unspools the latest short documentary, released today, by the Abounaddara collective, an anonymous group of self-taught filmmakers producing some of the most wrenching, mesmerizing, and thought-provoking portraits of Syria as it is ripped asunder by civil war. Although they began creating “emergency cinema” (their term) before the Arab uprisings burst forth in late 2010, Abounaddara—the name translates to “the man with the glasses,” which is to say the man who, through his lenses, can see clearly—has been able to maintain a steady stream of production since April 2011, when the regime of Bashar al-Assad upped its wanton killing of protesters. Since then, Abounaddara has released a new short film on Vimeo every Friday. And as the Syrian uprising turned into a revolution and then morphed into a gruesome civil war, the film collective—the majority of whose members are women—has managed to capture the social and human dimensions of war with an intimacy that is almost never seen in any conflict, let alone in Syria today.
This is no small feat. Merely getting images from Syria is treacherous. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 17 journalists were killed in Syria in 2014, making it the deadliest place for journalists for three years running, and more journalists have been forced into exile since 2010 from Syria than any other country. The result is that we see very little of what’s really happening in Syria, enabling ISIS to promote its high-gloss terror pornography and the Assad regime to hide its crimes from view.
In this moonscape of representation, Abounaddara has stepped in, unflinchingly, to offer something else entirely, a necessary vision, but perhaps not what we would expect. The films straddle the border between art and news—most are between 30 seconds and five minutes in length. Offered without narration and absent most frames of reference to guide viewers, they can be disorienting to those looking only for evidence of regime or rebel atrocities, and frustrating to those voyeuristically seeking out images of human carnage. This is deliberate. Abounaddara is critical of the news media’s voracious appetite for gratuitous images, and is currently pushing for media producers to adopt their own ethics of responsibility in representation, which they term “the right to the image.” The success of that project is elusive, but no matter: The power of their films is unwavering.
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One discovers many sides of Syria in these films. Some, like The Day After, document the everyday labor of survival during wartime. Others, such as The Woman in Pants or The Child Who Saw the Islamic State, provide more depth in their brief interviews about what living under ISIS means than any journalistic accounts have yet produced. In What Justice?, we find an unnerving use of silence and body language as a man reflects on what shape justice for his torturers should take. There are multiple films about children, films mocking patriotic songs, and films where ordinary Syrians reflect on their own condition in painfully guilt-ridden ways. In their demand to force us to think about life, death, and survival, these extraordinary videos have a quality that both reveals and exceeds the Syrian tragedy. We don’t discover the comfortable notion of life-affirming art in their films. Watching the videos, we instead realize the fundamental fragility of this thing we pompously call human society.
The collective has been receiving more critical acclaim lately. It received the 2014 Vera List Center Prize for Art and Politics and was nominated for the Dutch Human Rights Tulip Award. It was also briefly part of this year’s Venice Biennale, until it withdrew owing to disagreements over how its work was shown. A conference and exhibition is scheduled to take place at the New School this September and October.
I sat down with Charif Kiwan, the group’s official spokesperson, on June 15, prior to a screening and discussion of the “right to the image” at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City. Kiwan lives in exile abroad and is one of only two named members of the collective.
Moustafa Bayoumi: Abounaddara started in 2010, before the Arab uprisings and the Syrian revolt. How did it start and why?
Charif Kiwan: From the beginning, we wanted to make films that reflected all of Syrian civil society, but no producer or broadcaster was interested. Films about Syria have always been limited in scope, concerned mainly with geopolitics or exotic themes, and the culture industry is obsessed with films carrying well known narratives, often about Bashar al-Assad or Islam against modernity or the fight against Israel. We felt we needed to do something different. We are a small and powerless group of self-taught filmmakers telling the stories of ordinary men and women, of workers and artisans. Since we felt that the culture industry failed to represent our society accurately and with dignity, and since we couldn’t attract the interest of producers to fund or broadcast our work, we decided to seize the opportunity of the Internet and show our films directly, creating, in a sense, a new balance of cultural power.
MB: So from the outset, Abounaddara’s intended audience was an international one?
CK: Not at all. Our target audience has always been primarily Syrian. We want to tell our people, “Look, there are filmmakers inside our society, anonymous filmmakers, who want to represent you as you are.”
What you have to understand is that when the regime [of Hafez al-Assad] took power, they killed cinema. Our parents used to go to the cinema every Friday. But the Assad regime instituted a state monopoly on cinema and ended private production, leaving only a handful of theaters in the country, mainly in Damascus. At the same time, and from the perspective of social control, they have created a very powerful television industry. The stars of TV are very famous in Syria and they could play an important role in society, but neither filmmakers nor cinema has existed in any meaningful way for a long time.
MB: Was there a specific reason or event that caused you to come together in 2010?
CK: The regime felt very in control in 2010, so it would let small acts of freedom go unpunished. We thought the time was propitious to start something. So we began releasing films online without the approval of the state censors, which is very risky.
Understand, our films were not political. We didn’t deal directly with politics, and that was deliberate. Our anonymity suggested we were dangerous, but, at the same time, our films were not a direct challenge to the regime. So here was the game: We wanted to send signals to our society, but we didn’t want to fight the regime. In fact, until now, our main goal is not to fight the regime. We’re always presented as filmmakers fighting the regime, but we see ourselves as filmmakers empowering our civil society to give it the possibility to produce its own image independent of any political or media agenda.
MB: How did the revolution beginning in 2011 change things?
CK: The first thing we did was compose a manifesto in April 2011 titled, “What is to be done?” We asked ourselves what our responsibility is as filmmakers when our people are on the street protesting every Friday and demanding freedom and dignity.
We determined that, in 1860, the question was the same. Then, Syria was also mired in a civil war, and an artisan, Gergi Bitar, invented a new art form, the Syrian wood and mother-of-pearl mosaic. Bitar unified marquetry with wood imported from Europe and commonly found in churches with Arab and Islamic motifs in mother-of-pearl inlay. He invented a new and fantastic art form in a crucial period of Syria’s history. We decided that we, too, have a duty now to invent something new during this crisis. We didn’t want to contribute to the divisions of our society. Rather, we were aiming to reconcile our people with our films. But we had no idea how to accomplish this. The streets were full of our people chanting, “karameh, karameh, karameh!” [“dignity, dignity, dignity!”]. We felt that, as filmmakers, we had the responsibility to honor that call. The people were confronting the army on the streets. We had to find a way to do this through films that embraced an ethics of responsibility.
MB: How has the style of your films changed since the revolution began?
CK: The first films we released in 2010 were rather slow and poetic. But because we realized we were challenging the regime and the media industry, we made a decision to make faster films and to produce them more quickly. Our spirit of filmmaking has always been to go for the countershot—not to go where the mainstream media typically go, but to film the things happening elsewhere. We have kept this spirit, but the length and punch have changed because we have to work very quickly.
MB: When did you start using the term “emergency cinema”?
CK: Since the beginning. But I have to say that people have misunderstood our use of the term. Of course, we are in a state of emergency. This is a revolution that has turned into a war. But our notion of emergency was based on Walter Benjamin’s idea that “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that that the ‘emergency situation’ in which we live is the rule.” Our notion of emergency was based on disturbing and inventing: disturbing the machine that maintains the rules of the emergency situation, especially the rules of the film and media industries, and inventing new rules of representation.
The task in front of us is enormous. We are dealing with massive crimes against humanity. We are living through a revolution. We have a war. We believe that we have a responsibility to change the rules of representation. Yes, we have to fight the regime. But as filmmakers, our primary concern is image. How to produce images. How to change representation with our images. Our priority is not to criticize the regime. We are not politicians. We are filmmakers. First, we address our people with our images to prove to them that their experiences and their dignity matter. This is why our names don’t appear on film. There is no voiceover. We are invisible. We are anonymous. We let our images speak.
MB: How are the films produced? Could you describe the process?
CK: From the beginning, there is a small core group of founding members. We are all volunteers and receive no money for our work. We try to use the films to attract people. And with the release of our films, we have attracted more people, other filmmakers, and citizen journalists, who have footage or films they want to share with us. Often times, they ask us to help them edit their films or they are looking for a new way to tell their story. There is no standardized process.
MB: Is the editing always done by the core group?
CK: No. Sometimes our contributors do all the editing, but generally the core group discusses the title and some ideas with contributors. Or sometimes we do all the editing. There is no rule at all. Some people are interested in releasing their films with us but want to be very far from the collective. Others want to be a part of the collective. We’re open to letting everyone bring his or her talents to the group.
MB: You are an anonymous collective but have named at least two members of the collective: Bassel Shehadeh (assassinated in Homs on May 28, 2012) and Osama al-Habaly (missing since August 18, 2012). Is there a contradiction in searching for a cinema that places the dignity of the individual as a primary goal, and yet names its members only when they have been killed or gone missing?
CK: Osama al-Habaly did at least six films with us. We consider him one of us, but there is no membership card! We learned so much from him. He is a citizen reporter who never considered himself an artist or filmmaker. Osama is someone who had a very clear sense of what has to be done now. He is multi-talented and, during this war, you have to be multi-talented and do whatever you can do to save people. Osama is well known for dropping his camera to assist others. He really inspires us. [Here is a video of Osama al-Habaly speaking from the shadows, and here is another concerning his detention.]
But with Bassel Shehadeh it was different. Bassel Shehadeh was not a member of the collective. He was really brilliant and was teaching cinema when he was assassinated by the regime. Out of our love for him, we kept some of his rushes and made a film I Will Cross Tomorrow, which we presented as Bassel’s. We wanted to prove to the regime that Bassel is not dead.
Do you remember the cartoon that was made after the regime broke the fingers of Ali Farzat? The same thing happened in that case. A young artist drew what looked like a self-portrait of Ali Farzat lying in his hospital bed and giving the finger to Assad’s thugs. It was amazing. People were shocked because just two days prior every Syrian had seen Ali Farzat totally broken and in the hospital. Suddenly, here’s a self-portrait signed Ali Farzat? How could it be?
This is resistance. I know the artist who decided to draw the portrait of Ali Farzat as Ali Farzat, and in this gesture is how our society is resisting. Do you know “The Song of the Partisans” from the Second World War? We love this song. [He sings.] “Ami, si tu tombes, un ami sort de l’ombre, à ta place.” [Friend, if you fall from the shadows on the wall, another steps into your place.] There will always be someone else who will do the fighting. So the idea with the film we’ve done with Bassel’s rushes was exactly that. We even dedicated the film to the sniper who murdered Bassel. “Brother Sniper,” we wrote on our Facebook page, “I will cross tomorrow. You can kill me, but your children will see my images. With love, Bassel Shehadeh.” This is our homage to Bassel.
MB: But is there a contradiction in remaining anonymous while promoting dignity as a primary goal, when our individual names are intimately connected to our identities?
CK: Look. We can decide to use our names whenever we want, but our commitment is to keep our names hidden. We want people to see the individuals who comprise our society, and to represent them in ways they are typically not represented. But if we reveal our names, all the attention will turn to us. The system always wants to focus on you, the filmmaker, turn you into a celebrity, but we want to force it to look at our people and not at us.
MB: There is a profound sense of the human toll of violence in your films, but this is almost always represented from a fundamental position of the aftermath of violence. The effects are much more important than the illustrations of violence. But you’ve also said you want to create films that are “like bullets…to make something beautiful and violent.” You’ve described your work as “cinematic Molotov cocktails that we have thrown in the face of the world since the beginning of the Syrian revolution.” Why employ the language of violence when your films are more interested in the aftermath of violence rather than violence itself?
CK: Okay. We are all pacifists in Abounaddara. And we find it difficult to accept that the revolution was transformed into an armed conflict. But at the same time, we are not naive. We are making a revolution! We cannot change things without violence. I mean, pacifists are people who can control violence. Violence is everywhere. It’s life. There is no life without violence. Love is violence. But our purpose is to control the violence, to exhibit it in a highly controlled way, in order to enchant life and keep death away.
MB: Most of your films eschew sentimentality completely. This is interesting considering how, within cultural theory, there has been an emphasis in recent years to think about how melodrama is connected to human rights discourse. Within the history of representation, melodrama has often been used to enable a kind of affect that compels people toward specific political action. But Abounaddara seems to reject melodrama for something else. If that’s the case, what is that something else?
CK: This is a very important question. We try to be very dry and understated in our vision, but I think we have something of a combination between dryness and lyricism. Fundamentally, we are lyricists. I told you we were poets, that there was some poetry in our first series of films. Up until now, in our titles and in our approach, we’ve tried to be a little poetic in our approach. Our language—as Arabs, as Syrians—has been influenced by melodrama and poetry, but we are living in circumstances that forbid lyricism so it’s very hard. We have to be authentic to ourselves, and our language—the Arabic language—is very lyrical. But we are also dealing with massacres, with enormous crimes against humanity, so we also have to be very dry. And in this contradiction—seen in Apocalypse Here and Absence of God, for example—is the main aspect of our identity, a confrontation inside of us. We are in a fight against our own lyricism.
MB: Can you define what you mean by “the right to the image”?
CK: It’s dignity. Since the beginning of the revolution, the first word of the demonstrators waskarameh—dignity. And as filmmakers we have to translate what karameh means in formal and aesthetic terms. We believe that people should be required to represent powerless individuals with dignity.
Sensational media corrupt our revolution. We wrote about this in Newsweek. But our project is to use the existing rules—the rights to privacy, self-determination, and dignity—to arrive at principles globally respected regarding the right to one’s image. We demand that the principle of dignity in representation be respected by the media. There are many abuses around the world, where images of dead bodies are cynically used to gain more viewers. This trivializes evil to the point where the media is playing the same game of the horrific spectacle as ISIS.
MB: What do you want your films to do?
CK: We want to change the way that people represent Syria. Did you know that the first time a Syrian character was represented on film, he was represented as a fanatic? His name is Suleiman al-Halabi and this was in an 1897 film by the Lumière Brothers [seen here at 14:30]. Al-Halabi killed the French General Kléber in Cairo in 1800, and like the Enlightenment philosophers before them, the Lumière Brothers couldn’t grasp why. How could they kill us? We represent the French Revolution! We want to civilize you! How could you kill us? So they found the explanation. It’s not that Syrians are resisting colonization, no—they are fanatics.
The Lumière Brothers completely misrepresented al-Halabi, giving him a beard when he had none. And the French searched for scientific proof of fanaticism. They exhibited his skull at the Musée de l’Homme with the word “fanatic” inscribed on it.
We need to be done with such representations. That’s why in one of our films—Two Minutes for Syria—you will see visitors to this museum admiring the skulls and bones of those who were killed during French colonization and then leaving. This is our way of saying goodbye to such representations.
What we want is nothing less than to change perception. But the idea that we want our work to change the regime is ridiculous. Our society is very divided. I have friends and family who are still with the regime. And you can’t fight the regime with films. The only thing you can do is to show our common humanity and invite people to see us as human beings, not as Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, or Shiites. That’s all we can do.