Eight years ago, protests against President Bashar al-Assad filled the streets of Syria, swept up by the boisterous energy of the Arab Spring. As hundreds of thousands of Syrians marched to demand an end to the dictator’s reign, Abounaddara, which describes itself as “a collective of self-taught and volunteer filmmakers involved in emergency cinema,” began to document the popular uprising. Filming with raw energy and immediacy, the group looked to reframe the dominant media narrative around the burgeoning revolution by filming “as close to the ground as possible,” according to the collective’s spokesperson, Charif Kiwan.
As the optimism of those early days faded, and the government’s brutal crackdown against the protests spurred a disastrous civil war, Abounaddara’s work evolved into a kaleidoscopic portrait of daily life in a country riven by violence. For the past eight years, the group has posted brief weekly dispatches from the domestic frontlines — scenes of hope, grief, heartbreak and comedy from the millions of Syrians whose lives have been uprooted and displaced by the war.
Abounaddara brings the same aesthetic spirit to “During Revolution,” the feature film debut of director Maya Khoury, which had its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival. Fragments of daily life patched together over the course of nearly seven years, “During Revolution” is a startling homage to the perseverance of a country where hundreds of thousands have died and millions have been displaced. Kiwan spoke to Variety in Locarno about how Abounaddara has worked to film the revolution from a different point of view, and why the Syrian fight for dignity and independence hasn’t ended.
Making this movie must have been a monumental undertaking. I was very interested in the editing process, because it’s not clear to us how much time has elapsed in the film: certain scenes were clearly filmed months apart. From a practical standpoint, what went into making this movie?
Maya started to film two or three months after the beginning of the revolution. First, because we wanted to make weekly shorts in our collective, but also, she wanted to film the revolution as close to the ground as possible. Her idea is that revolution cannot be seen just focusing on demonstration, confrontation between “good guys” and “bad guys.” She has a fragmentary approach which is very, very important to break that traditional narration, which consists always in embodying the people, representing the people in one singular figure — you know, the good guy fighting against the regime.
She started to film in 2011, till 2017. It’s about 1,000 hours of footage. And with those fragments of individual life, the idea was to put all those fragments together in a dialectic way, to let you feel the revolution just in the film, without any reference to the context. You don’t have to know where we are, the dates, the names of people. We just have to follow and to believe the form of the film.
Did you consider adding more context? Not necessarily having talking heads and other conventions of the documentary form, but something in a slightly more traditional format.
I think Maya didn’t have any hesitation about that. Our enemy is context, information — that discourse that reduces what happened into specific locations and specific [events]. The project of Maya, and the collective as well, is to make those details as universal as possible. Of course, there is a risk that the viewer gets lost a bit, because we know that he is used to seeing films with all this information. But again, it is our choice — the choice of Maya first. Because we consider there is enough information, and now we have to address the imaginary people — the Syrian people, and of the viewer in general.
In past interviews, you’ve talked about how important it is for the collective to reclaim the Syrian narrative, and particularly through image: to counteract this very mainstream, Western media approach — a bomb fell on a building, and 20 people died, and then we move on. It’s been eight years now that Abounaddara has been producing its work. When you look at that Western gaze, the way the Western media today is approaching Syria, has it gotten better?
First, it is not about the Western gaze, or Western media: it is about media in general. If you look at Al-Jazeera, or Al-Arabiya — even the Syrian opposition TV, it’s always the same treatment as CNN. There is no difference. It is about how we produce images. What we claim, it is not, “We are Syrian, we want to film as Syrians.” It is not that. We are filmmakers. We have the right to produce our own image. We don’t want a producer or broadcaster to tell us, “Look, you don’t have a choice, because if you want your film to be seen, you have to make it fit to our [format]. It’s 52 minutes, you have to put voiceover.” We need to use our tools as filmmakers without being obliged to fit places that are not ours. The idea here is just to do that — to take that risk.
We don’t do it that way because we think that the viewer is not able to understand, or to feel. The idea is to let the film itself express that thing which is revolution — that energy we cannot control. To make you feel lost between documentary and fiction. You just have to feel that, to understand that what’s happening there is unique — something very deep, and something universal. In the small details, the human details, you can recognize yourself or identify with them. So here is the challenge for us.
The collective is made up of self-taught filmmakers. Over the course of eight years, has the collective evolved in how it tells stories? Have there been ideological divisions between the group’s members about how to portray the war?
It’s difficult to answer that question. Of course we have regular debates and confrontations between us. As we all need each other, it’s quite difficult. Maya is the first filmmaker that used her real name. But each member of the collective is obliged to work with the others. To make our films, no one would be able to do it alone. It is rewarding enough for us to be in that collective project, so of course we had some crises. But it’s still working, because we all believe that the fight is not over. As an artistic project, we need to go further. We need to become more independent, to be able to produce our films as we desire.
From the beginning, you’ve worked to protect the identity of your members; Abounaddara won’t even say how many filmmakers are part of the collective. The more you’re in the public sphere, has it become more difficult to protect that anonymity in Syria? For you as a public figure, have you been targeted by the government?
I’m privileged. I am not living in Syria, so that’s why I can represent my comrades without being targeted. To be honest, for them – even for Maya – the anonymity is of course for security reasons. It is important to protect their identity. But also, anonymity is good to create without being afraid of the judgment of your people, your neighbors. The idea of anonymity gives us more energy to create. We have taken huge risks with our shorts, and with our work in general. We criticized the regime of course, but also people of the revolution. We made a very strong statement against people who represent revolution, Islamic movements. If we had to make those statements as Syrians, with our real names, our people would guess who we are. Abounaddara is neutral. There is no religion. It is not male or female. So our statement, our films, could have more impact. We all need anonymity to create more freely.
Abounaddara was born of the internet; it uses the internet both to reappropriate images and to disseminate its work. In the film, we’re always on messaging apps, we’re on Facebook, we’re on Skype. We feel as if we’re part of this creative process in some way. In terms of your reach in Syria, is your work widely accessible?
We don’t really know. We just put our films on Vimeo. Sometimes we read things in reference to our work. Yes, we have reasons to believe that people love our work. But frankly, we are not seen on Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya. It is hard to reach large numbers of people. We are mostly followed by people who know about what is going on, [interested in] artistic production, young people, students, militants, journalists. Some of our films are screened; others are quite confidential. I guess it’s the same as filmmakers everywhere. It’s quite difficult to reach the [wider] public.
You’ve been very successful at reaching audiences around the world. A few years ago, in an interview with The New York Times, you remarked that Abounaddara receives many invitations to show its work because “the market wants to have just the name of Syria in their catalog.” Do you think that’s changed? Is there interest and compassion and engagement in your work? Have you succeeded at showing the vision of Syria that Abounaddara has tried to project to the rest of the world?
We rejected many invitations, and now we try to accept the invitations that are useful for us to make a link with artists on a clear basis, which is not a geopolitical or humanitarian basis. In a certain extent, yes we succeeded, because we decided to work with people we want to work with. But still, it is very difficult. Even here, we are invited sometimes to speak with media about what is going on in Syria, and we resist that. I can understand. It’s normal that media in general are interested in what’s going on on the ground, and of course Syria is an important subject. But we always have to resist. It’s not our job to speak about migrants. It’s not our job to speak about Bashar al-Assad. It’s not our job to speak about ISIS. We need to construct an image of a people during revolution in a way that doesn’t reduce that people to one single figure, one single place, one single political project. Because that’s the only way to create bridges with you, as an American or European or whatever. Otherwise, we are not useful if we don’t give this to our people. If we don’t give them the feeling that the revolution, the demonstration for dignity that they are doing, is recognized as important or universal.
Why are we doing this job? We have been in school to be able to translate aesthetically what our people are trying to do. They want a better life, a dignified life, and us as filmmakers, as artists, our job is to find the best artistic tools to translate that need. You would answer better than me. What I can tell you for sure is that we do our best to make our people proud of us, saying that as artists we have done all that we could to do that — to translate aesthetically what they try to express when they shout, “Dignity! Kharama! Kharama!”
Toward the end of the film, Yara, one of the protagonists, tearfully confesses to the camera, “At moments like this, one realizes everything is lost… Nothing is left.” Many members of the Abounaddara collective are still living in Syria, documenting daily life. It must take a huge physical and psychological toll. What does hope look like in the context of where Syria is today?
To be frank with you, we are traumatized and depressed. We try to find a way to keep working. But we have been defeated. One dear comrade is likely dead now. Osama [al-Habali]. You have seen him in the film. He was arrested. The film is like a way to continue what he wanted to do. He was profoundly pacifist, as all of us, and he wanted to use images to tell the story of his neighborhood, his town, Homs. Something obliged us to keep working. The beloved people we lost. We have to continue because otherwise, we just cannot bear that. When you lose your beloved people, you feel obliged to continue for them. I guess it is the only hope we have. That gives us enough energy to continue.
There’s some hope in the [final] scene. Because the first scene of the film, we see children. Those children grew up and made the revolution, and then they were killed, destroyed by the war, by the regime. And then the next generation will start again. They escaped. The child is a way to suggest that of course, they are defeated, but it is never over. The viewer knows without any doubt that it’s always like that. We cannot resist war, barbarism. We are defeated, but the revolution is never over. People keep dreaming, keep believing in dignity and freedom. This is the hope that we could see in that last scene.