The Syrian documentary: An aesthetic dictated by ethic By Nicolas Appelt

Oct 2017

By Nicolas Appelt, Phd student, University of Geneva

As part of Ettijahat- Independent Culture’s Programme, the Cultural Priorities in Syria, we are currently compiling a series of articles addressing the challenges facing Syrian cultural work. These articles have been written by Syrian and non-Syrian experts alike, as well as various cultural actors.

The first topic the articles explore is the relationship between artistic content, public events, and message concepts.

Today, who determines the nature of the artistic standards governing the Syrian creative process?

What are the new red lines and censorship requirements governing art production inside and outside Syria?

How can we review and learn lessons from comparable international cases?

‘The Syrian documentary: An aesthetic dictated by ethic’ By Nicolas Appelt, Phd student, University of Geneva, tries to highlight some possible answers.

Many recent documentaries are dedicated to the Syrian crisis, like Cries from Syria (Evgeny Afineevsky, 2017), The White Helemts (Orlando von Einsiedel, 2016) or Little Ghandi (Sam Kadi, 2016). However, those documentaries sometimes produced and broadcasted by foreign television channels, like Netflix (The White Helmets) or HBO (Cries from Syria), and directed at distance by a Syrian crew over Skype (Little Gandhi), adopted some narrative processes as blockbusters. Indeed, the music and the editing play on the emotion of the spectators. The trailers of those documentaries condense all sorts of emotional ingredients. In parallel, those documentaries gather testimonials, which explain the situation in the country. This pedagogical aspect works as a narrative tool, because it structures the running of the film, but also as a means for informing the Western audiences. A declaration of the director Evgeny Afineevsky is a clear illustration of this willingness to guide the spectators through the emotion:


“My goal as a storyteller is to take the Western audience and [put] them basically on the ground in Syria. To allow them to feel what these kids feel when they lose their parents, what mothers feel when they lose their kids. To allow [the audience] to have this journey into the darker side of humanity, to understand what makes these people flee and seek shelter.”


Without being in contradiction with these films, many documentaries, which have been shot since march-2011 are constructed in a totally different way, far from the storytelling. Indeed, outside the control of the authorities of the Syrian regime, young directors make films with very few means in which aesthetics are subordinate to ethic. As it will appear, they have developed a comprehensive approach in which the directors try to understand the situation that Syria is going through following the experience of individuals. An ethical question arises as to how to film and represent these individuals. This latter aspect occupies a central place in the Syrian documentary.

For instance, in certain cases, security of the people appearing in documentaries influences the aesthetic in order to preserve the anonymity. Thus, only the eyes or the hands of the young woman opposing the regime through her songs and her participation in the protests of the opposition are filmed in very close-up in Morning Fears, Night Chants (Diana El Jeiroudi and Guevara Namer, credited as Salma Aldeiri and Roula Ladqani, 2012). But, at the same time, this proximity - present in many documentaries, achieved throughout dangerous conditions of shooting - gives primordial importance to the people filmed. Indeed, they occupy the entire frame of the camera in close-ups or the screen of the computer that is confused with that of the camera when they are filmed on Skype, like in Haunted (Liwaa Yazji, 2014). For instance, Ziad Kalthoum tries to understand his own schizophrenia and that of a part of society through exchanges with members (actors, technicians)  of the film team of Mohammad Malas in which he is assisting or with passers-by who are at the scene of filming. How can we continue to live and work normally when the suburbs of Damascus, in particular Duma, are at fire and blood? One of the people he is discussing with is an elderly lady who comes from Homs and has only two replicas to say in Mohammad Malas' film, without even appearing on the screen. In the documentary of Ziad Kalthoum The Immortal Sergeant (2014), the scene in which she appears gives her a major importance. She occupies the whole frame of the camera and its silence; its modesty give the scene a high intensity.

Conversely, in some documentaries shot outside Syria like in On the Edge of Life (Yaser Kassab, 2017), the editing which mixes extracts of conversations with images of landscapes in Turkey gives extra weight to the absents left in Syria, whose voices haunt the film. Therefore, there is a double implication: that of the director when people address to him, but also that of the audience when they address to the camera. Thus, the impression of proximity is reinforced: in 300 miles (Orwa Al Mokdad, 2016) Orwa Al Mokdad becomes the person questioned, in the exchanges with his interlocutors, in particular when Abu Yarub refers him to his questions or refuses to answer them. It is important to add that in spite of the emergency, the long duration of shooting, over several months or even several years – Haunted, Our Terrible Country (Ali Atassi and Ziad Homsi, 2014), 300 miles, Return to Homs (Talal Derki, 2014), The War Show (Obaidah Zytoon, Andreas Dalsgaard, 2016), 194, Us children of the camp (Samer Salameh, 2017) – also testifies to this ethic of making films with and not on Syrians. This last point is also reflected on the way in which the directors are implicated in appearing on the screen – if only as shadows as in The Immortal Sergeant (Ziad Kalthoum, 2014) – which shows their willingness to include themselves in what they are filming and not just witnesses. For example, the documentary Home (Rafat Alzakout, 2015) is an immersion of the director in an amateur theatre troupe that mounts a show for the inhabitants of Manbij. Plunged into the creative space, the director shares with the group of friends the questions and doubts about the evolution of the situation.


We can also see through this proximity, this shooting duration and the implication beyond and behind the camera, an attempt to understand how Syria arrived at such a situation and also how this situation is experienced inside and outside the country, in a context that mixes individual history with that of the country. Thus in 300 miles, Orwa al Mokdad explains in voice over at the beginning of his documentary that he seeks to understand what is happening in the country. In addition, he places the Syrian drama in a wider regional historical context through the history of his family, addressing his niece Nour. Through a group of friends and their families living in the Yarmouk camp, it is the Palestinian question and its instrumentalization by the Syrian regime that is addressed in the documentary 194, Us children of the camp. In his documentary Houses without Doors (2016), Avo Kaprealian draws a parallel between the crisis that strikes Syria and the Armenian genocide of 1915 through an editing that includes images of classics of cinema. Filmed largely in an apartment or from the balcony, this film can be seen as a metaphor of the confinement in which a part of the population is found. The apartment in which the documentary Coma (Sara Fattahi, 2015) was filmed also symbolizes the confinement and expectation of a part of Syrian society, through her own experiences as well as that of her mother and grandmother, all three recluses in an apartment in Damascus. In these two films, there are several aesthetic elements mentioned above, imposed by the shooting conditions: the proximity in an apartment, the short distance with people filmed, and the inclusion of the director in the film through a dialogue or by appearing in front of the camera. Thus, unlike films like Cries from Syria in which there are many scenes where Syrians are interviewed face-to-face to fulfil a narrative function of explanation of events, all the documentaries mentioned give priority to the everyday life of individuals or to their commitment through a camera that captures moments of life.

A proximity that captures social practices, political commitments or scenes of everyday life, while keeping a necessary distance when required by ethics. In 300 miles for example, Orwa Al Mokdad does not frame close-up Abu Yarub when he arrives on the front line and greets the other members of the brigade, as if to preserve a moment of tranquillity. Similarly, the montage with the scenes filmed in Daraa that create a mirror effect with those shot in Aleppo, suggest that the militia leader has a family life, but this does not appear on the screen. Finally, in one of the scenes, the camera filmed Abu Yarub moving away alone into the mist, respecting its need for solitude, while suggesting a moment of weariness and doubt. Conversely, in a scene on the front line, the director goes against the order to leave, but he cuts the camera. So there is an ethic of distance and what can be shown. These two elements are also present in the documentary Taste of Cement (Ziad Kalthoum, 2017). Indeed, Ziad Kalthoum never shoots the building workers with misery, but shows worthy men, concerned about their appearance, on top of the skyscrapers. The only humans that appear on the screen, while an uninterrupted flow of cars defeats at their feet. Some shots in the basement of the building where they sleep are portrayed in long-shot respecting a certain form of privacy. Similarly, if Ziad Kalthoum inserts in his documentary images of destruction, they are never inadequate and they do not contain images of bodies. They allow spectators to understand this cycle of construction-destruction that rhythms the life of these workers and the history of a part of the region. The disappearance of the relatives is also approached with great modesty. It is mingled with the questions of exile, memory and forgetting without the bodies being shown as in The Edge of Life or in Obscure (Soudade Kaadan, 2017) in which a young boy, refugee in Lebanon, refuses to say where he comes from, the town of Deraa being linked to the death of his brother.

To conclude this brief overview of cinematographic creation, young filmmakers can be seen as tightrope walkers. On the one hand, they have to face the constraints linked to the situation which weigh on the filming, even outside the country, even if they are less important. On the other hand, they develop in their films an aesthetic to respect the security and more generally the moral integrity of the people filmed.

Besides the link between ethic and aesthetic, these films raise the question of involvement. Indeed, the personal involvement of Orwa Al Mokdad on the frontline with fighters is a direct testimony to the commitment of a director who is no different from the people he films. According to him, this takes place against the separation that the regime wanted to establish between the "people" and the intellectuals or persons active in culture. In general terms, these first-person documentaries, where filmmakers appear in front of the camera or interact with the interviewees, raise questions that go beyond individual cases and thus contribute to the elaboration of a collective memory of the Syrian tragedy.

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