Documentaries Solidifying the Narrative of the Syrian Revolution and Preserving Its Memory

The media system of Bashar al-Assad's regime has persistently released films since the beginning of the Syrian revolution to promote its ideas and distort the popular uprising. It was keen on vilifying the revolutionaries through series scripted by its security branches. The pioneers of the revolution had no choice but to confront the regime's narrative with their available means. The creative output documenting the memory of the revolution was immense compared to the repression that dominated everyone before 2011. Cinema emerged as one of the most impactful tools in narrating the events and focusing on crucial aspects of the revolution, witnessing its story unfold. 

At the onset of the Syrian revolution, it was evident that many activists focused solely on capturing and transmitting the suffering to various websites, agencies, and channels. Over time, as the news significance of the Syrian cause diminished and attention waned from the circulated content, they needed to shift towards documenting the situation to ensure the narrative and essence of the uprising were preserved. This transition led to the production of cinematic and documentary films, emphasizing a growing interest in film productions. The high production volume began, particularly in a rich environment filled with ideas and stories, each suitable for becoming a film or a novel from a unique perspective. 

These films had a clear impact in conveying the reality and suffering to the world. Some of them garnered important awards and reached international platforms, conveying messages that were otherwise challenging to communicate through other means. A single film with a sound idea and a distinctive perspective can resonate more profoundly in delivering the issue than hundreds of news bulletins or thousands of social media posts. In this report, part of our "Noon Post" series about the " Creative Revolution Memory," we discuss some of the films that emerged from within the Syrian revolution, immortalizing its comprehensive stages, figures, and transformations. These films conveyed the plight of the Syrian people to the world. 

For Sama 

This film toured the world to tell the story of Aleppo, which was besieged for years. Directed by Waad Al-Kateab and the British director Edward Watts, the film captured more than 300 hours of life in the city, devastated by the bombardment of regime forces and Russia. Waad documented her life, marrying a doctor and giving birth to her daughter Sama in 2015. In the middle of January 2020, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences revealed its nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards, including "For Sama" for the Oscars in the Documentary Film category. 

This film didn't stop at the Oscars. It won the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) for Best Documentary. "For Sama" stands as the only Arab film in this festival. Before receiving this award and its Oscar nomination, the film had already secured 44 awards in 2019. 

The Guardian's Arts Editor, Mike McCahill, described this work as a "documentary that captures the magnitude of the tragedy experienced by Syrians," explaining that it "depicts an important phase in the lives of a Syrian couple through videos shot by artist Waad Al-Kateab. These videos cover her journey, from marriage and carrying her daughter Sama to giving birth, and the perilous moments she lived with her husband and daughter." 

McCahill continues, stating that "the film will remain in cinematic memory as evidence of international failure and Bashar al-Assad's brutal behavior. It will also remain a testament to the cinema's ability to break viewers' hearts and touch their souls." "For Sama" won the "Golden Eye" award for the best documentary at the Cannes Film Festival. During the award acceptance speech, director Waad Al-Kateab said, "I made this film to justify to my daughter Sama the very tough choices we were forced to make. Nothing will strip us of our human decency." 

The Cave 

The National Geographic Network produced a film set in a Syrian hospital during the regime's siege on the towns and cities of Eastern Ghouta. The film depicts doctors and nurses aiding the city's residents targeted by Assad's forces and allies. It sheds light on the hospital staff working at risk to assist and save people. Syrian doctor "Amani" emerges as the film's protagonist, narrating events. She highlighted her responsibility for the hospital, its staff, patients, and the wounded. 

The film was directed by Feras Fayyad, who expressed that his motivation stemmed from "a sense of responsibility to expose the crimes witnessed by the Syrian people amidst international abandonment during the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons in 2013, considered one of the most brutal war crimes in modern history." The film received the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival award, chosen through votes from thousands of attendees across the festival's events. 

"The Cave" was nominated for the Oscar in the Short Documentary category and is on its way to winning more awards. It earned ten prestigious international awards, notably winning the Best Documentary at the 2019 Valladolid International Film Festival. 

Dr. Amani, who continued her specialization in medicine after being displaced, says, "This is an essential story for women today and future generations. It's about women seeking independence and change in life. I hope more people watch it to get closer to ending the war and achieving justice; something has to change." Caroline Bernstein, the producer at National Geographic, regarded the choice of this work as significant due to Amani's courage and the importance of her story. She added, "We are honored to share her story with the world, ensuring the largest global audience witnesses the dedication and commitment her team displayed in the worst conditions." 

White Helmets 

The SyrianCivilDefense organization, also known as the " White Helmets," was established by volunteers dedicated to aiding and rescuing victims of the Syrian regime's bombardment of cities. Since its inception, the organization has been a shining beacon of the people's struggle, having saved tens of thousands from beneath the rubble of neighborhoods targeted by Assad's forces. They've also assisted hundreds of thousands of displaced and affected individuals across various regions in Syria. 

"The White Helmets" is a documentary produced by Netflix. It won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short in 2017. The organization is facing a struggle against the Syrian regime and Russia, both intent on tarnishing its image. However, during the award ceremony, the team behind the organization and the film's photographers were absent due to challenges in travel logistics and the expiration of some individuals' legal paperwork. 

It's worth mentioning that the film's cameraman, Khaled Khateeb, is a paramedic in one of the White Helmets teams, bolstering its credibility and expanding its fan base globally. This contributed to conveying the Syrians' plight to the world. The film depicts the daily stories of humanitarian organization volunteers and their sacrifices to rescue civilians from under the rubble due to the bombardment by Assad's forces and their ally, Russia, in opposition-held areas. The film is produced by Netflix and directed by Orlando von Einsiedel. 

Love in Siege 

The film "Love in Siege" portrays the daily life of a Syrian family consisting of a father, a mother, and their four children living in a besieged area. The film aims to make the audience feel the circumstances and the minor details of a family under siege, struggling day and night to survive. Particularly between 2012 and 2017, many cities and towns experienced suffocating sieges imposed by the regime, and it was crucial to convey the suffering in all its details to the world. The filming of the movie continued for two days. 

The director, Matar Ismail, a young Syrian who experienced the siege, said, "The film editing took a long time due to field-related reasons as I was busy covering the conflicts in Babella and Beit Sahm then. Additionally, the difficult circumstances prevented continuous work on it." The film spans 15 minutes and won the Samir Kassir Award for Freedom of the Press in the Audiovisual Report category in 2016. 

Darayya: Library Under Bombardment 

This film, captured by activists from Darayya in the western suburbs ofDamascus during the siege, tells the story of how many young people engaged differently and unconventionally during the city's siege. Their battle was a cultural and educational one aimed at human development. It involved gathering books from bombed houses or libraries destroyed by the regime's shelling, then organizing and setting up a library for people's benefit. Through this, they confronted the ignorance imposed by Assad. The library was established in the basement of a building, aiming to protect it from airstrikes. 

The film, directed by French journalist Delphine Minoui and broadcast on France 5, sheds light on the human will to live. It showcases the protagonists in that besieged city and how they were displaced only to return and try to rearrange their lives under semi-normal conditions, facing new challenges despite the imposed difficulties in various countries. The Darayya Library has been the subject of numerous seminars and has produced books in addition to this film. 

War Smile 

This short film captured people's social lives alongside the destructive war, focusing its shots on the resilience of people on the ground and the hope despite all the destruction. The director of the film, Ateba Kilani, told 'Noon Post': 'The idea for the film began in early 2016 when Abdul Rahman Alkilani and I noticed that most of the content related to Syria available online was filled with blood and painful scenes that we were trying to avoid. Consequently, we shied away from viewing media materials coming from Syria due to this media focus on violent scenes, leading those outside Syria to imagine that Syria was only about death and destruction. 

Kilani adds, 'We thought about how we could talk about Syria differently without painful scenes. The idea came to make a film focusing on what cameras don't usually capture: the smiles and the determination to live behind the scenes of barrel bombs and accumulated destruction.' He points out that what they wanted to convey with the 'War Smile' was 'the existence of life; there is lurking death in the country, but there is also lurking life. 

It's worth mentioning that the film achieved unexpectedly high viewership, according to Kilani. It resonated with an audience eager to see such content and aired on both international and local channels. 

Documentary Success 

The Syrian revolutionary films succeeded as documentary patterns but fell short in their dramatic aspect. Syrian director Yaman Antabli emphasized this in his conversation with "Noon Post," stating that "revolutionary documentary works have rightfully achieved success and recognition. However, there have been few dramatic attempts due to the difficulty of the dramatic structure in general and the regime's control over everything that aids in production." Antabli pointed out that these documentaries "also count for the revolution. When a documentary portraying raw truth without dramatization triumphs over the stories and dramatic narratives fabricated by the regime, like the very superficial films of Najdat Anzour that never were aired but on their own screens." 

The Syrian director further explains that the problem with dramatic works lies in "the presence of prominent actors aligned with the regime, while all actors associated with the revolution are exiled and struggling to survive in refugee-hosting countries. Added to these obstacles is the issue of production and the enormous funding required for drama, which producers tend to overlook as it's not commercially viable. Regarding independent films, there's extreme difficulty; the funding for independent films doesn't qualify you to recreate a single street in a Syrian city, for instance." 

Yaman Antabli made several short films addressing Syria's social situation, with the latest being "For Absurdism, Oh Vanguards." The film depicts education under the Assad regime. Antabli reflects on his films: "If I were to say my films embodied the revolution, that answer might be too broad. The more accurate answer is that the revolution embodied my films, starting from the shortest, 'Zaatar,' to 'For Absurdism, Oh Vanguards,' lasting 12 minutes. 

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