This evening I attended a film screening of Syria: Snapshots of History in the Making, filmed and produced by Syrian film collective, Abounaddara, a group of self-trained filmmakers who have been documenting life in Syria since 2011. Charif Kiwan, a spokesperson for Abounaddara, led a discussion following the powerful film.
For someone whose only exposure to the war in Syria has been mainstream media, most recently the relentless coverage of refugees fleeing to Europe, this documentary was unexpected and raw. It was a real, humanizing look at all sides of the crisis.
Kiwan explained that this feature film was created over the course of several years. Each week, Abounaddara releases a "bullet film," or short snippet of content. One story. One perspective. So Syria: Snapshots of History in the Making is just that. Snapshots of Syrian lives that are being affected one way or another — victims, demonstrators, revolutionists, soldiers.
Abounaddara doesn't get paid for their films. They simply want to share truth, to spread awareness and to remind the world that the media has more control in manipulating content than we may realize.
Here are my main takeaways from the film and the discussion, many of which apply to the work I'm interested in as a documentary filmmaker.
- The golden rule is dignity. Kiwan stressed over and over that the films Abounaddara produces are about life. They don't show bodies, they don't show massacre. As a viewer, you're very aware of what's happening, whether it be through audio of gunfire or through the pain in a little boy's eyes. You don't need the blood and gore there to show you. Death is final. There's nothing to do but sit back and gawk if death is presented. By presenting life, the viewer watches, thinks and reacts to the ongoing story.
- It's the filmmaker's job to show every side. Even sides you disagree with. Sure, the editing process can be painful. Kiwan admitted to disagreeing with a Syrian who advocated for U.S. intervention, but says that Abounaddara chose to include the story in the film, because it illustrates one man's perspective on the helplessness of the situation.
- Sometimes omitting content can better tell the truth. This one is counterintuitive, but in context, makes more sense. None of the people in the film were given titles or lower thirds. No one was labeled "Christian" or "Muslim." By omitting these details, the focus became more about the human and his or her story. Similarly, by omitting a person's face, and simply showing their hands or heaving chest as they cry, focuses the viewer's attention on the subject's words.
- Building relationships is part of the process of preserving dignity in filmmaking. Kiwan said that the filmmakers and their subjects develop a trust with each other in the process. When there's no exchange of money, there's a different kind of bond being built. The subjects often invite the filmmakers into their homes and feed them in exchange for having their story told. The important part of Abounaddara's model is that these filmmakers themselves are Syrian. They are living the snapshot just as much as their subjects are, and aren't outsiders who come in, secure a story and then leave when they're finished filming.
- Pity doesn't accomplish anything. How do we help Syria? It's tempting to watch the news, gawk, take pity, and then, as Kiwan said, "go back to eating your hamburger." Do not pity the refugees. Take the time to learn their stories. Watch films, learn as much as you can, think, and share.