Mixing disturbing cell-phone footage of the Syrian army’s brutality with talking heads of refugees who’ve fled to Turkey, “Isqat al Nizam — at the Regime Border” is a powerful record of Syria’s continuing nightmare. Perhaps the first feature docu coming out of the Arab Spring to highlight the significance of cell-phone videos as an often-suicidal form of defiance, “Isqat” is an important addition to the growing number of films covering the uprisings in the Middle East. Though the film is directed by an outsider, tyro Italo helmer Antonio Martino, its p.o.v. is sound, and will throw international fest borders wide open.
A 52-minute TV version should be attractive for smallscreen distribution on Euro newscast channels, though streaming sites can stick with the theatrical length. Among the docu’s significant contributions is that it smashes the usual caveats attached to “unverified footage” from cell phones, firmly detailing what’s being seen, where the atrocities happened, and what the ramifications are for those involved.
In addition, Martino finally says on film what’s being said by pundits: Every time someone in Syria holds up a camera or phone to record an attack, that person is targeted for assassination. Though the helmer doesn’t drive this point home, it’s due to this deliberate and systematic strategy that Syria has the world’s highest number of murdered filmmakers.
While Martino includes a great deal of vid footage, he resists repetition, and the editing is strong enough for the pic to avoid feeling like an unending catalogue of outrage. Of course, there’s a lot to be outraged by: images of teenage boys with vicious bruises, a veiled woman barely controlling her hysteria as she recounts being raped by five soldiers, security forces humiliating and beating people in a manner reminiscent of the infamous Abu Ghraib photos. And then there are haunting sequences in which the cameramen have obviously been knocked down, possibly killed, by bullets unquestionably meant for them.
Much of the phone footage appears to be in and around Jisr al-Shughour, a city near the Turkish border where the memories of a government-ordered massacre in 1980 add a further layer of horror to recent events. The men Martino interviews across the frontier in Antakya fled illegally and without passports, making them wary of Turkish authorities in addition to their concern about possible Syrian cross-border incursions. Living a life in limbo, they collect footage from fellow refugees and post them on the Web as a means of documenting the Assad government’s ruthlessness.
Quality of the amateur footage is medium to low, though the roughness of the material doesn’t reduce its intensity. Otherwise, visuals are aces: Martino, also acting as lenser among the refugees, impressively establishes a sense of place in both a broad and narrow sense, his sharpened eye attuned to qualities of light and framing. Rudimentary opening and closing explanatory graphs can easily be improved.