A version of this article, "Arts + Culture: Documenting Syrian Lives, in Long Form" was originally published on Syria Deeply.
By Katarina Montgomery
Yassin Haj Saleh went to prison at the age of 20, in the early 1980s, and remained there for 16 years. He is a well-known dissident and intellectual who has written about how to reform Syria, and played an important role in the Syrian uprising from its earliest days.
But his story might never have been told without Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts, a Syrian NGO launched in early 2012 to produce Syrian documentaries and short experimental films.
“Our Terrible Country,” a Syrian-Lebanese co-production co-directed by Syrian filmmakers Ziad Homsi and Mohammed Ali Atassi, was awarded the Grand Prix of the International Competition by France's International Film Festival Marseille this July. It's one of the first films to look at the early effects the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had on residents of eastern Syria.
It documents the journey of Saleh and his friend Ziad Homsi, who travel together from rebel-held Douma, in the Damascus suburbs, to the eastern city of Raqqa. From there, as extremists encroach, they flee to Turkey.
We asked Bidayyat's general coordinator, Christin Luettich, to discuss the importance of long-form documentation of the Syrian conflict.
Syria Deeply: How did the idea for Bidayyat come about?
Christin Luettich: There was a lot of interest in documenting what was happening during the revolution in Syria. Many Syrians turned to filming it.
When the project began in 2012, we took a mixed approach that supported citizen journalists and documentary filmmakers. Over time we discovered that it was more interesting to highlight personal points of view of the people who are actually living and experiencing what is happening in Syria.
The idea was to create a platform that enabled people the freedom to tell the stories they wanted to tell, outside political and commercial interests. This personal perspective gives an added value that makes the stories accessible and human to other people – a dimension that is often lost when you reduce experiences to news reports.
Syria Deeply: How does “Our Terrible Country” convey the current reality of life on the ground?
Luettich: Yassin Haj Saleh went to prison at the age of 20, in the early 80s, and remained in prison for 16 years. He is a well-known dissident and intellectual who wrote about how to reform Syria, and played an important role in the Syrian uprising since its earliest days in 2011. In mid-2013, he had to leave Damascus with his wife, Samira, for the city of Douma in eastern Ghouta, and was forced to sneak through tunnels to avoid being detained by security forces.
In Douma he meets Ziad Homsi, a young Syrian photographer, and a friendship quickly developed between the two, based on which Ziad decides to accompany and film Yassin on his trip to Raqqa.
The initial portrayal of Yassin turns into a film about the relationship between two generations who have been involved, each in their own way, since the onset of the Syrian revolution. It depicts the meeting of a Syrian intellectual and a young filmmaker and fighter, and the different ways they look to support one another.
En route to Raqqa, Yassin's hometown, he discovers that it had been overtaken by ISIS, the same organization that had kidnapped his two brothers. Given the brutality of both the Syrian regime and ISIS, Yassin finds himself compelled to flee to Istanbul, his place of temporary "enforced" exile. Ziad is arrested by ISIS on his way back to Douma, and spends more than a month in prison, after which he, too, leaves for Turkey.
While he is in Turkey, Yassin learns that his wife, Samira Khalil, was abducted in Douma, at the same time as Razan Zeitouneh and two other activists.
The film highlights the question of loss and defeat, and the notion of enforced exile, through the different stages of the Syrian revolution, “from its pacifist beginnings to its militarization, the bombardment and destruction of cities by the Syrian regime, and the emergence of extremist Islamist currents and their quest to take hold of the revolution."
At the end of the film, Ziad says, “At one point, we used to have one enemy: the regime. Now we have thousands of enemies and we have to know how to deal with that.“
It’s a question that many Syrians are asking themselves: How do we deal with the new actors that, like the regime, are trying to limit their liberties?
Syria Deeply: How exactly do you support young Syrian filmmakers?
Luettich: Our focus is three-fold: The first idea is to provide the space for Syrians to work and have access to materials, sounds and filming equipment, and editing facilities.
The second approach gives Syrians access to people with experience in filmmaking. We offer practical experience in workshops run by specialists in the field, with a focus on screenwriting, directing, editing and sound.
We try to bring people together from different perspectives and backgrounds to encourage an exchange among young filmmakers. We work with trainers in the region and other people who are based in and outside Lebanon, to encourage this exchange.
The third approach provides support and grants to a range of Syrian documentaries, short and experimental film projects, through regular announcements of grants.
We need to [tell narratives not found in] mainstream media. It is the fourth year of the uprising, so there is more of a need to tell stories that highlight how the conflict has evolved over time, as opposed to just examining small bits of reality. This also gives the filmmakers time to reflect on what is happening to them. We push people to lead a sort of reflection.
In the beginning, a lot of the filmmakers wanted to rush and do small films, pushing them out quickly. They soon discovered that they wanted to reflect what happened to them over time. Syrians felt stifled by traditional journalist formats where they felt like they weren’t part of the process of creation. This gives them the ability to express themselves freely so that they feel they are part of the story.
The human narrative is important. Everything in Syria has been reduced to violence, destruction, numbers killed and Islamists – this is portrayed in the media. We want to show what is happening over time, to show the destruction over time, without showing violence in a direct way. Many people are disconnected, overwhelmed by the degree of violence and magnitude of the conflict. By telling these human stories, you can connect with the people depicted in the films. They could be people you know.
Katarina Montgomery is the digital producer of Syria Deeply, a new media platform covering the Syrian conflict. You can follow her on Twitter @Katarina0326.
Edited by Karen Leigh, managing editor of Syria Deeply.
[Photo courtesy of Bidayyat]