Syria’s Underground Film Club: Anonymous ‘Emergency Cinema,’ No Dead Bodies
A woman in a striped shirt and headscarf sits in a dark room and lets loose in rapid-fire Arabic: “Imagine to what point they’ve terrorized people!” A former schoolteacher, she has been ostracized and intimidated by the rebels for refusing to trade in her long-worn pants for a dress or skirt. Each day she stands in protest outside headquarters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in northern Syria. “They can’t imagine that I’m wearing pants,” she says, then takes a stab at the jihadist fighters. “How can pants be sinful and not a mask?” The film, just four minutes long, is simply titled “The Woman in Pants.”
This is one of the favorite films of Charif Kiwan, the co-founder and producer of an anonymous organization of Syrian filmmakers who call themselves the Abounaddara Collective. “This woman represents the desire of society to free itself,” he says. “We share this fight, [though] she is fighting alone, every day she is demonstrating alone.”
Each Friday since 2011, the Damascus-based collective has posted a single video from one of its innumerous contributors. There’s a man arguing that the sun revolves around the earth. An artisan carving an inlaid wooden box. Cleaners at dawn preparing a mosque for a handful of worshippers. Some show fighting, gunfire echoing in the dark frames, but there is a stipulation that sets the collective apart from other documentation of the war: no bodies of the dead or injured can be shown.
Five of the group’s shorts premiered recently at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York City. They call their style of documentation work “emergency cinema.” One, a close-framed confessional, watches as a Free Syrian Army fighter describes killing a man he knew to be innocent. “With a gun in my hand, I wept,” he says, eyes red and cigarette smoke billowing. The short, Of God and Dogs, won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Short Film at Sundance this year.
“We don’t have just Assad—a gentleman, always smiling, very polite—or the jihadist,” Kiwan says. “We have between those two actors, we have a society, ordinary men and women who are fighting for democracy...our fight is to show you that the main battle in Syria is between dictatorship and freedom.”
The filmmakers aim to show the Syria untold by news networks, and buried under documentation of bloody battles and dead fighters that floods YouTube. The shared humanity and humility conveyed by conflicted soldiers, activists, and everyday civilians adds another layer of complexity to the conflict—not only that real people are behind the refugee and casualty numbers, but that everyday life continues to some extent.
The collective formed before the country was thrown into turmoil, with the intent of documenting Syrian society, and maintained that goal as the situation changed, gathering an untold number of self-taught filmmakers to document the war via stories away from the frontline.
Kiwan says he hopes the films portray enough universality that its characters could be identified with elsewhere, in a nation far from war-torn Syria by viewers with little knowledge of the conflict.
“Despite massacre and tragedy we have the feeling that we are succeeding, maybe, we are starting to share something with a viewer around the world—and, we hope,” says Kiwan.
The collective operates under almost entire anonymity. Only Kiwan and one of the filmmakers—a young man named Osama al-Habali who hasn’t been heard from since his arrest two years ago—have revealed their names. “We decided to be anonymous to protect ourselves from the regime but also from the celebrity,” he explains. “We wanted to be free and go everywhere without being recognized by people.”
Kiwan demurs from sharing his personal details, but reveals he was an unsuccessful filmmaker before the uprising began and is now living outside the country under asylum.
Documenting the war is a dangerous task. If government soldiers catch you with a camera, Kiwan says, you are considered a terrorist. But the collective as a whole is not concerned about being targeted by the regime. “He has enemies more important than us.”
Even Kiwan doesn’t know the exact number Syrians on the ground making films for the group. When videos come in, the members of the collective debate and edit online until they come to the mutual agreement of completion. Just a small core group including Kiwan runs the logistics. They post the submissions on Vimeo, where the channel has a collection of 242 shorts.
“It’s really a miracle,” Kiwan says of the group’s cohesion. “We have zero funding, we just have strong desire to be different, to tell the story, to try to find a new narrative, and to be authentic. I don’t know why people are still committed and still working without any kind of salary or recognition, but maybe because of the mystery, because of recognition [the collective] gets around the world now, it makes us proud, and I guess it’s enough.”
The only point of contention between filmmakers and the collective’s pseudo-leadership is over the ban on graphic images. “We don’t have the right to show our people in a way that it’s not dignified,” Kiwan says, noting that American media shied away from similar images after the September 11 attacks. “Sometimes it’s very, very hard because we need to show the world that our regime is killing us.”
It’s not uncommon, he says, for contributors in embattled areas to send in footage of massacres, which are rejected. “They are so angry they tell us, ‘Are you kidding? We need the world to see the crime, please stop your stupidity.’ Sometimes it’s very difficult to tell our colleagues that we understand, but we cannot.”
This documentation is taxing, but Kiwan says he knows that the collective’s methods can reach people across the world and, someday, there will be an end to the bloodshed. When that time comes, he hopes to build a school of cinema so Syria’s younger generations can learn about society and subversion through filmmaking.
“I am very tired, we are very, very tired. I lost some of my colleagues, [the filmmaker] Osama is in jail, some are really depressed, some tried suicide,” he says. “It’s very hard to keep fighting...but we keep fighting, we don’t have a right to give up.”