×

Film Review: ‘The War Show’

A deeply affecting documentary of the Syrian conflict told from the standpoint of a former radio DJ and her friends.

There will be many documentaries on Syria. The country’s tragedies are like a million-headed Hydra, each deserving its own story, told in its own way. But the world becomes increasingly numbed, which is why a documentary like “The War Show” is so essential, at regular intervals. Told from the perspective of co-director Obaidah Zytoon, who left in 2013, and shaped by herself and co-director Andreas Dalsgaard (“The Human Scale”), the film is a highly personal yet universally affecting compilation focusing on Zytoon, her friends, and the footage they shot between 2011 and 2013, from the euphoria of protest to complete despair in the face of the unthinkable. Weaving in the tricky role of the camera — “The War Show” is a well-chosen title — as well as the parasitic fractiousness dividing the rebels, the film is a heart-rending attempt to document what cannot be imagined. A strong festival life is assured.

The documentary will most likely be compared with 2014’s “Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait,” and indeed they share a number of things: They’re too brutal for TV broadcasts, and they both contain moments of such sorrow that it’s impossible to view them unmoved. Neither dwell in “war porn” — while they’re films created to confront superficial reporting, they’re highly invested in individual responses to the horrors unfolding, and their images are chosen to challenge easy responses. Without going into the uselessness of which is “better,” “The War Show” is a more directly personal work.

A potted history of the conflict appears as text at the start and finish, while the rest is divided into chapters, all of which are listed in each section so audiences are reminded of what came before, and made aware of what’s still to come. It’s a sensible move, since some sections are so disturbing that it’s wise to let the viewer know how much more is left. Zytoon was a radio DJ in Damascus, uplifted like millions by the Arab Spring in 2011 and reveling in the sudden ability to protest: the fall of the Assad regime seemed finally thinkable. In a rally of women who use Syrian flags as face veils, an uncovered young girl, perhaps 10 years old, is asked why she shows her face: “I’m not demonstrating to be suffocated. I’m demonstrating to breathe,” is her expressive reply.

Popular on Variety

Zytoon, in voiceover throughout, introduces us to her friends, all enthusiastically embracing the revolution afoot. There’s besotted poet Hisham and his love, law student Lulu; rebel drummer Rabea; young activist Amal; dental student Argha; and Houssam, an architecture student whose beautifully infectious smile and gentle eyes will haunt the viewer for a long, long while. The two directors include just enough footage of these people to make them real, not just activists but friends. Even during the initial crackdowns by the regime they maintain their determination, with still a remnant of euphoria.

But the suppression grows in intensity, protest marches become funerals, and their understanding of how to resist becomes splintered, even in their own minds. By late 2011, the propaganda war was already trafficking in untruths, and Zytoon takes her camera to other cities, from her hometown of Zabadani, to Homs, Qassab, Saraqeb, and Kafranbel. As the conflict becomes more entrenched, she dodges snipers in streets reduced to rubble, and films little boys proudly holding semi-automatics as large as themselves.

While a number of documentaries about Syria discuss how the Assad regime specifically targets anyone holding a camera or filming with their phones (it’s said that filmmakers, amateur as well as professional, remain the snipers’ number one target), few apart from “The War Show” specifically address how the camera changes the battles themselves: performance as propaganda, staged skirmishes, and posturing for an audience add multiple layers of meaning, making the lens an active participant in the events it captures with a purportedly neutral eye.

Also addressed, toward the end, are the rifts between various rebel factions, humorously conveyed when a boy confusedly changes his enthusiastic chant for a civil society with one he overhears supporting a caliphate. This, like many other topics in the film, deserves a documentary of its own, but saying this doesn’t mean Zytoon and Dalsgaard treat their subjects superficially. On the contrary, “The War Show” captures the scope of the tragedy while making the participants real — unlike the largely anonymous victims seen on news reports, here Zytoon and her friends project a humanity that carries over even into the unnamed men revealing their torture scars for the camera.

Many of the people filmed have their faces blurred to protect their identity (and one can’t help wonder if those whose faces are shown are revealed because they’ve been killed, as is the case with a number of Zytoon’s friends). While the torture and killings continue, and the refugees — half the country’s pre-war population — flow into Europe, where they’re treated like inferior beings, Western governments continue to hide under their pathetic mantra: “it’s complicated.” Far more complicated is the psychological trauma, which is why the sort of personal reaction exemplified by “The War Show” remains a necessity.

Film Review: 'The War Show'

Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Venice Days), Aug. 31, 2016. (Also in Toronto – TIFF Docs.) Running time: 104 MIN.

Production: (Documentary – Denmark-Finland-Syria) A Fridthjof Film presentation, in cooperation with Dharmafilm, of a Fridthjof Film, Dharmafilm, Oktober production. (International sales: DR Sales, Copenhagen.) Producer: Ronnie Fridthjof, David B. Sørensen. Executive producers: Ronnie Fridthjof, Miriam Nørgaard, Joonas Berghäll, David B. Sørensen. Co-producers: Satu Majava, Joonas Berghäll.

Crew: Directors: Andreas Dalsgaard, Obaidah Zytoon. Screenplay: Zytoon, Dalsgaard, in collaboration with Spencer Osberg, Alaa Hassan, Miriam Nørgaard. Camera (color): Zytoon, Dana Bakdounes, Amr Kheito, Hisham Issa, Wassim Anonymous, Lars Skree. Editor: Adam Nielsen. (Arabic dialogue)

More Film

  • Kajillionaire

    'Kajillionaire': Film Review

    The world is a weird place. Miranda July knows that, but the rest of us sometimes forget. Or maybe we just don’t want to admit how bizarre it is that society more or less agrees that back rubs and hot tubs and flavored chips and McRibs are an appropriate reward for a bazillion years of [...]

  • Stellan Skarsgard

    Göteborg Listens to Stellan according to Skarsgård

    GÖTEBORG, Sweden — Laughs were aplenty at the Stora Theatern, where Göteborg Film Festival artistic director Jonas Holmberg welcomed the recipient of the Nordic Honorary Dragon Award, fresh off his Golden Globe win for HBO’s “Chernobyl”. “It wasn’t planned. I thought that will be my only award this year, that’s why I said yes!” – joked Skarsgård, [...]

  • Promising Young Woman

    'Promising Young Woman': Film Review

    Given that the entertainment industry is pretty much the center of the #MeToo universe in terms of generating its most public effects — and, needless to say, causes — probably no Sundance film this year will be as hot a conversation topic as “Promising Young Woman.” Emerald Fennell’s first directorial feature is a female revenge [...]

  • Little Women Movie

    'Little Women,' 'Fleabag' Win USC Scripter Awards

    Greta Gerwig’s script for “Little Women” has won the USC Libraries Scripter Award for best movie adaptation and “Fleabag” has taken the television award. The winners were announced Saturday night at USC’s Edward L. Doheny Jr. Memorial Library. “Little Women” topped “Dark Waters,” “The Irishman,” “Jojo Rabbit,” and “The Two Popes.” All but environmental drama [...]

  • Four Good Days

    'Four Good Days': Film Review

    Addiction, you could say (and I would), has become the central demon that plagues Americans. We’re addicted to everything: alcohol, illegal drugs, pharmaceutical drugs, psychotropic drugs, sugar-bomb soft drinks, processed food, video screens…you name it. In theory, addiction was made for drama, because it rips up the fabric of people’s lives, and that’s intensely dramatic. [...]

  • Netflix backed animated films “Klaus,” left,

    'Klaus,' 'I Lost My Body' Top 47th Annie Awards as Netflix Dominates

    Netflix dominated the 47th Annie Awards on Saturday, Jan. 25, picking up 19 trophies, including the top prizes of best feature (“Klaus”), best feature-independent (“I Lost My Body”), best TV/media production for preschool children (“Ask the Storybots”) and best general audience TV/media production (“BoJack Horseman”). Disney TV Animation’s “Disney Mickey Mouse” won best TV/media production [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content