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.
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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.
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.