2017 sees the Syrian Civil War move into its sixth year and, as the death toll climbs upwards of 400,000, the nature of warfare on both regime and rebel sides grows ever more sordid. Inevitably, this has been reflected in the media war being waged internationally: the various regimes, militias and interest groups are all vying for the rights to shape the story and further a certain political agenda. Reports of media manipulation and propaganda came to the fore at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, amidst calls to boycott the screening of Sundance Grand Jury prize winner Last Men In Aleppo, director Feras Fayyad’s examination of The White Helmets, the “reluctant heroes” of the supposedly nonpartisan search and rescue organisation run by Syria Civil Defense.
Targeted by media critic Vanessa Beeley as the “phony humanitarian first responders for the US and NATO Al Nusra/Al Qaeda forces,” The White Helmets have come under fire by activists and commentators pointing to the organisation’s alleged front as US-NATO-backed terrorist stronghold. The controversy ratcheted higher following an Oscar win by the Netflix-produced documentary The White Helmets, and here in Sydney, clued-in university students and activists certainly managed to publicise the festival’s screening of Last Men In Aleppo with protest leaflets posted around the inner city. Was the campaign executed in good spirit? Undoubtedly. Did it inadvertently steer the Syria discussion at this year’s SFF towards partisan politics, and away from the Syrian people themselves? I suspect so.
While the politics of image and representation surrounding the Syrian conflict remain murky and divisive, The War Show manages to slice through the conversation with an essential, often harrowing examination of the powerlessness felt by the Syrian people, who are routinely overlooked by the international media. Co-directed by Obaidah Zytoon, a former radio DJ in Damascus, and Danish director Andreas Dalsgaard (Afghan Muscles, The Human Scale), The War Show is the most personal film to emerge from the Syrian diaspora in recent years, for reasons not limited to the incredible feat of assembling the movie. Zytoon had lived outside of Syria for a little more than a year when the development of The War Show began. Escaping Syria with five hard-drives and three hundred hours of film shot mostly in Damascus and her hometown, Zabadani, Zytoon enlisted Dalsgaard to help her study the footage and re-construct the impossibly intimate story of her group of friends, a small collective of artists and activists
Zytoon, who has been based in the Turkish border town of Antakya since 2013, carries the incredible responsibility of presenting the faces and voices of the deceased––only two other members of the initial group have survived, and the acquaintances she meets over the course of the three years only result in an mounting list of casualties. We first meet Zytoon on-screen in 2011, during her regular radio spot for Sham FM, an alternative, Damascus-based radio station devoting increasing airtime to political opinion and protest music in the early days of the revolution. The mood at this point is still hopeful as women and children join in the protests, a defiant young girl explaining to Zytoon her reason for protesting with her hair uncovered: “I’m not demonstrating to be suffocated, I’m doing it to breathe.”
One by one, we are introduced to the group: Houssam, a former architecture student and Zytoon’s “soul mate”; Amal, an economics student; heavy metal drummer Rabea; law student Lulu and her boyfriend Hisham, the poet-romantic of the group; Hisham’s friend Argha, a dentistry student. Together, they document instances of police brutality, speak nostalgically about their university years and interview fighters and their families in the besieged territories of Homs, Qassab, Saraqeb, and Kafranbel.
“We can’t show this (footage) until 2014, then we’ll be free,” one of them says at Hisham’s apartment, with another cynically accepting: “We’ll all be dead by then.” But death shall not deter them. As the regime begins to clamp down on civil liberties and the optimism of the Arab Spring’s aftermath settles into an acceptance that their ideals may not survive Assad’s iron fist, the friends craft their own utopia. Grainy footage of the beautiful Lulu and Hisham playing and singing The Doors by the ocean has a nostalgic, ‘Summer of Love’ quality to it that would risk romanticising life under Assad, were it not cut short by the sudden assassination of Rabea. The group’s tender, short-lived honeymoon period plays out like a memento to the lost innocence of an entire generation. As Zytoon’s friends are progressively eliminated and she embeds herself with SFA fighters outside the capital, these moments linger, and not even the hardening effect of watching corpses and child fighters can shake those earlier images of what a free Syria could have looked like.
As the stakes climb (filmmakers are the number one target of government snipers) Zytoon pushes herself into increasingly life-threatening situations, accompanying rebel groups on staged sieges designed to attract international funding, recording the stories of Syrian military defectors and photographing the injuries of tortured political prisoners. These war zone interviews are brief but never superficial, Zytoon never straying from her stubbornly humanist project. Even as she interviews Hasan, a former engineer in Crete who returned to form the Free Syrian Army, her directness is disarming. Hasan tells Zytoon about his wife and daughter, and Zytoon asks him what he misses most about Crete. “The ocean,” he smiles, a few days before dying in a blast at his base in Saraqeb.
The film’s disjointed camera style serves as a silent and constant reminder of the politics surrounding the production. Shot on different cameras and jumping between cities and time periods, the footage is fragmented: VHS home videos of road trips and intimate discussions between lovers are abruptly displaced by slick frontline combat and street interviews. Zytoon explains in her narration that she could not shoot in the same place for more than a few minutes for fear of attracting government snipers, and indeed, countless interviews are punctuated by the sounds of explosives and loss of focus as the DP runs for cover. Thankfully, Dalsgaard’s tendency towards meticulous, academic exposés is an asset. His editing lends the film just enough structure to draw us into the stories of Zytoon and the subjects of her film, without ever attempting to impose any kind of coherence––there is no narrative underlying such senseless violence.
While documentaries like City of Ghosts (2017) and Egyptian media collective Mosireen have discussed the political power of using cameras to document military abuses and disrupt false propaganda, Zytoon’s documentary provides a compelling analysis of the Camera as Director in a war zone. “The camera was an event in itself,” she says, shaping the behaviours and speech of those around her. Rows of men queue up to display their wounds, and young children boast to the camera of their ambition to die martyrs. Thinking of the camera outside its capacities as disseminator of information, the film makes a surprising intervention into the current discussion surrounding wartime photography––without giving away too much, the mere presence of a camera is enough to push even the most upright rebel groups into elaborate, money-grabbing stunts that mimic the propaganda tactics of Assad.
After the intimate, humanising portrait of Zytoon’s friends, the sequences from the rebel strongholds feel like more of a general survey of players in the uprising. Even as an afterthought, the insight that they provide into the wider conflict and the questions they raise about the role of media in exacerbating the worst of human behaviour are invaluable. While the killing continues and the refugee crisis spreads to Europe, where national and ideological borders are bringing out the worst of political fear-mongering, the intimate trauma captured by Zytoon camera parses through the niceties of partisan debate. Bearing less thematic resemblance to the current Syrian documentaries than the Arabic cinema of displacement––particularly Tewfik Saleh’s harrowing portrayal of the Palestinian exile, The Dupes (1973)––The War Show will linger as a bloodied testament to the loss and sacrifice faced by those forced into diaspora.