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.