At the world’s largest documentary film festival, Amsterdam’s IDFA, in November, the opening film took us straight to the fighting in Syria. Return to Homs was a testament to the revolutionaries. The head of the festival describes the film as a masterpiece and «a very personal story». The personal aspect is following the young main character Abdul Basset al-Sarout, who changes from being a football star and Homs’ popular pacifist protest-singer (the film’s only musical track) to one of the revolution’s combat leaders. In line with the video activist Ossama al-Homsi, at first the resistance was limited to demonstrations and social media.
Toda, Homs is the city most symbolic of the uprising against Bashir al-Assad’s suppressive regime. The city has suffered massive military attacks, bombs, and has been besieged. The military could easily barge in the door, rape your daughter, kidnap the father and son of the house, and then ditch the dead bodies outside of the door the next day.
Bassett’s appeal. The film begins in August 2011, with women and men demonstrating and chanting that they will never surrender. As the film ends two years later, Homs is nothing but a ruin. At the start, they bury their dead, but after some time the dead bodies are scattered in the streets, killed by military snipers. Ossama is arrested because his «camera was more dangerous than weapons». No one has seen him since. During these two years, we see the resistance hero Basset change completely due to the war. He has barely survived. Friends and family are killed. His family home is destroyed. People are hiding in the ruins, the deserted streets are full of bomb cavities. Despite this, the young rebels are still staunchly defending their neighbourhoods against the brutal ravages of the governmental army. The 21-year old Basset is a war hero; he is handsome, convincing, analytical, and possessing all the charismatic qualities of a leader. But, nearing the end, we see him injured and muttering in shock. It all seems hopeless as we see them firing through bullet holes whilst shifting around in the ruins of the post-apocalyptic outpost which Homs seems to have become. Basset is just about to give up during a hail of bullets, in the end they flee the besieged city, digging through a tunnel. They make a heroic return, as the film title suggests: Basset gathers a couple of his closest friends to fight the governmental army again, they want to create an opening to free their families.
At the post-screening debate in Amsterdam, the Syrian producer (who is also the film’s photographer), Orwa Nyrabia, cites an appeal from Basset: «The 4,000 still left here in the military blockade have ran out of food, with just some grains left. When you see this film, please consider what it is like to be barricaded in such a siege, and please help us. Ask your government to make an effort, ask the so-called international community, and call for their humanitarian organisations, so that we can secure shipments of food and medicines. Especially for the children and the elders among us here. »
Political pressure. A year and a half ago, I interviewed the film maker Sofia Amara in connection with the Oslo screening of her film Syria: Inside the Repression (2011). She explained that the «regime imprisoned and tortured children for writing graffiti on walls. They pull nails off arrested people. Whenever I asked people if they would give up if the blood shed became too much, the answer was always: ‘No they are attacking our children!’ It is a fundamental crime to rob children of their innocence. »
She witnessed people cut into pieces, saw things she will never comprehend. She filmed where no camera operator dared to venture. Her film features only ten percent of her recorded material, the worst footage she handed over to Amnesty International: children whose teeth have been ripped out or their faces ruined by torture instruments. She was unable to broadcast this on TV.
The terror is still happening. The world’s big politicians play their own game. Yet another international negotiations solution is planned for mid-January in Genève. But Assad’s delegation are instructed to not surrender their governmental powers.
It is all too easy to feel that the film makers’ and media’s focus on the abuse means nothing and that they are not putting enough political pressure on the international society.
Changes nothing. During my interview with Nyrabia a year ago during his Cairo exile, he pointed out how generalising and simplistic the media is: «They provide a deceptive relief for excitement and guilt. Western media call the revolution ‘a civil war’ – but this is wrong. A large military force is attacking civilians, with only a couple of thousands taking up their AK-47s. This is a massacre! If the media termed it a massacre, they would have created a feeling of international guilt and demanded that governments acted. »
Nyrabia pointed out how the West gave the journalist Marie Colvin widespread attention when she was killed in Homs, along with another 300 people who also died in the very same street. The West has a so-called «Tarzan–syndrome»: We need a blonde, white Nordic person to report, in order to believe what is happening.
If the films do not offer enough reason to react, hopefully the press will be able to reach. In November, the Frontline Club in London organised a debate on the journalistic involvement in Syria. The situation is close to impossible, for example; 300 extremist groups have erected road blockades to earn money. A freelancer devoid of contacts will be easily kidnapped. During the debate, a journalist commented that it is possible to go in an ambulance, but not to stay the night in a hospital because you will be kidnapped during the night. Syrians who at the start believed that the press would prove helpful in the crisis, now benefit more from the ransom money they are able to extort by kidnapping them. Money for weapons is better than evaluations. Despite this, we believe that the press reporting does lead to something. As part of the London panel, freelancer Fabio Bucciarelli replied to questions about the press’ impact – whether they actually change anything at all. He has no illusions. The press can inform relief groups and others, but he does not believe that you can change the world. At the same time, it is extremely dangerous to report. The journalists all have insurance and protective gear. The local Syrian helpers can also die on the job, or be captured by the governmental army for helping the media. With regards to Return to Homs, Nyrabia elected to postpone the Middle Eastern screening because the army could easily track the people who are exposed in the film.
Exploiting resources. Some 30 freelancers have gone missing in Syrian this year alone. In London this November, there was an award (Rory Peck Award) ceremony for photographers who have risked their lives. British documentary maker Olly Lambert won it for his film Syria: Across the Lines. The film contains horrific footage taken after Assad’s fighter jets bomb a village, where blood soaked children run crying around searching the ruins for their families. Whilst Assad’s forces refuse journalists and film makers at the borders, the rebels, according to Lambert, want it all to be documented – it is their best weapon as they hope «the UN or the USA will react to the bloody footage and intervene in Assad’s regime».
However, the real danger is that images of bloody children no longer impact, and there are questions whether Western journalists still are the best at conveying war. After all, the chemical gas attacks which rocked the USA this autumn were shot and recorded by regular Syrians and activists – not by film makers or press.
The relief organisations themselves do not necessarily change the world for the better. One film that illustrates the opposite was one that Oxfam chose for its IDFA-program; Ricardo Pollack’s The Trouble and Aid. This film shows how the world first noticed the Biafra crisis at the end of the 1960s when the government launched a «campaign» focusing on small children with large stomachs. But the hunger catastrophe existed solely in the background of completely different political conflicts – somewhat like the Ethiopia disaster later. The film alternates between journalism and celebrity concerts. Bob Geldof insists that the emergency aid itself must be deemed humanitarian. But this relief was an «accomplice» in dragging out the warfare, as aid shipments and corruption were misused by the military. Also during the crises in Cambodia, Rwanda, the Balkans and Afghanistan, resources brought to the areas by aid organisations were very often exploited by those in power. The militarising which follows in a bid to protect the aid shipments lead to «bunkering»; that the organisations retreat into protected areas. It has all has become increasingly aggressive. After a while, Doctors without Borders and other organisations chose sides in the conflict, and were promptly thrown out. The clear message from the film’s seven catastrophes is that they, without intending to, fired up under the use of local military power, which then prolonged or strengthened the emergencies.
Fiction as instrument. If films, press coverage and aid work do not end conflicts, there is a hope that non-violent protests will. As mentioned in Return to Homs, Basset’s songs and grass root protests were what started it. In the beginning, they completed peaceful events such as dying the water in the fountains of Damascus red, launching balloons that burst in the air raining protest notes over the city, or rolling ping pong balls carrying messages around the streets outside the governmental buildings. This was the beginning in a country which refused groups of more than three people to speak in public together. The revolution began using mobile phones, Facebook and Twitter. But, then Assad dispatched his army.
The IDFA-film Everyday Rebellion, and its subsequent discussion, show that in conflicts where both sides reach for their weapons, long-winded and horrific events are prolonged. As a matter of fact, the tools used by peaceful protest organisations such as Occupy, Indignados, Femen and others prove far more effective to end suppression.
These days, Syria is described as a lost cause for the peaceful protests. Unfortunately, as witnessed in Return to Homs, they did not succeed in stemming the violence for more than six months. With the massive attacks employed by the army, it is hard to blame Basset for reaching for his weapons, though this leads to an escalation of the conflict. According to the film makers behind Everyday Rebellion, a peaceful riot takes two-three years before it has any effect, to garner enough sympathy from abroad for someone to react and act. This question remains: How on earth can Assad’s regime continue to rule a country where 20 out of the country’s 23 million inhabitants are opposed to it?
Festival leader Ally Derks says that «storytelling» and the language of the fictional film are entering into the documentary realm – tools that are far more than «Truth Well Told». But how exceptionally must the gruesome war events be narrated before our globalised world decide to step in?
Film makers, press and aid workers out in the field are doing their utmost. But, as the director’s narrator in Return to Homs explains: «The whole world is watching us being killed one by one, but they remain as quiet as the grave. »