Why a Syrian Filmmaker 'Signed a Contract with Death' to Tell Her Story
Obaidah Zytoon and Andreas Dalsgaard's 'The War Show' succeeds at doing what many docs attempt: infusing humanity into the headlines.
In 2011, Obaidah Zytoon was a lot like how we imagine many in the No Film School community to be: a radio DJ, making media and hanging out with her artsy, non-conformist friends. But her setting was more dramatic—namely, Syria at the emergence of the Arab Spring—and her posse’s stakes grew higher and higher as they were drawn into the protests and ensuing brutal consequences.
The War Show expertly takes us on a first-person journey through a headline-grabbing but often-misunderstood conflict. We are invited along early, when the hope of change was still in the air. Zytoon and her friends were full of optimism and began filming the events on their phones and consumer cameras. We begin to care about our protagonists through their intimate footage, and as the next few years unfold, we journey with them through a series of increasingly bloody events that they do not all survive.
"I've been told that you have to keep a distance from the subject in front of the camera. Here, we've done the exact opposite."
Zytoon wasn’t in Canada for the film’s North American premiere at TIFF, but No Film School sat down with her co-director, Danish filmmaker Andreas Dalsgaard, to discuss how he got involved in the remarkable film, the life-threatening risks of making and showing it, and the multi-national collaboration that made it happen.
NFS: Can you tell us about the backstory of the film? How did Obaidah get out of Syria and find you, and how did you start collaborating?
Dalsgaard: Well, you can call her Obie; we do it ourselves. She and her peers were a rather disorganized group of artists and just young, curious, well-educated people that were friends. Everything started to evolve in 2011 and they thought that they should film it. At that time, I think the camera had only been something that they used at weddings or celebrations; there was no real training in how to use the camera, or what kind of things you should film.
All of these had to be explored basically on their own, in a time where everything was a big exploration because Syria is a country ruled by a regime that has been extremely repressive for many decades. It's one of the most closed countries on earth. They had to train their eyes to see what goes in society and finding ways to portray that. There was an ongoing dialogue among people in this group about this.
Then, several years later, Obie moved to Turkey. She carried five hard drives with her. Others in the group also have several hard drives of somewhat similar material, so they'd been all gathering and copying from each other.
"Safety is a huge issue with any footage coming out of Syria, and it has not been taken very seriously."
NFS: Was it difficult for her to get it out of the country with that material?
Dalsgaard: It wasn't difficult, but it was more a question of protecting it because this footage in the wrong hands could end up on Al Jazeera or social media the next day. Having that kind of footage can be a way of making a living in a situation where death is just around the corner and survival is really something you have to take seriously. For a lot of people, [selling conflict footage] has been a way of making money.
The way the camera started out in the early days of the uprising, it was really a way for everybody to express themselves, but over time, Syrians learned how dangerous the image could be. Footage containing images of people saying things against the regime, demonstrating, or giving testimonies of torture or the prison system could potentially be very dangerous to the people involved. Obie and the people in the group had to be very protective of how this would be used.
NFS: How did Obie connect with you when she got out of Syria?
Dalsgaard: They'd been in communication with the Danish Production Company who then approached me and asked if I could start a dialogue with Obaidah and the group to see if we could find some common ground of how this story could be told. First, I was attached as a writer. Through this process of doing hours of interviews and developing hundred of pages of notes of analysis and personal stories, I then started developing a kind of script.
It was very important, for all of us, that it had to be a story that, for Syrians, felt like it represented their experience. At the same time, it had to be a story that could also travel to the world and tell a different type of story about Syria.
"A film is only interesting if the whole process becomes a dialogue, that then challenges the language of filmmaking."
NFS: Why do you think the production company came to you as the right person to help tell this story?
Dalsgaard: I think first and foremost that, in the way that I work, I’m a very good listener and the style of my filmmaking is a product of this listening process. I don't come in and say, "this is how I make stories," or "this is how a good story is made." For me to make a film is only interesting if the whole process becomes a dialogue, that then challenges the language of filmmaking. There was also common ground there between me and the Syrians and how they perceived themselves in the world.
NFS: It's not only the production company coming to you, but you also had to gain Obie’s trust to tell such a sensitive, personal story. How did your relationship evolve?
Dalsgaard: The question of trust is something that you can look at in various ways. I think that, in the films that I've made, the kind of trust is not a question of an emotional connection that develops, though that can and should develop too.
She needed to trust that my way of making the story is the right one and has the right level of empathy and intelligence and so on. In my experience, it's really important to distinguish between the fact that maybe you like me as a human being and I like you, but that doesn't necessarily mean you can trust I'm on the right one to make a portrait of you. That trust comes from somewhere else.
“The most effective storytelling often actually compromises and corrupts reality.”
Something that was essential there—and this was a rule that I set out from the very beginning—was that this film could never be a victim of “effective storytelling.” In the sense that, when you make a strong story, you often have to be quite creative with reality because you want to make this personal journey about a heroine who conquers evil and becomes a bigger and better human being or whatever. The hero's journey is rarely true. The most effective storytelling often actually compromises and corrupts reality.
So how could we find a shape for the story that would allow a different kind of narrative to play out? In the footage, there were beautiful moments of a very fragmented nature. Suddenly they're hanging out at the beach, suddenly they're having a conversation about torture, suddenly they're in the streets demonstrating or they're at the front lines and they're shooting bazookas or they're having a party with friends. How could that randomness be something that we protected in the story?
NFS: Some of the answers to that had to come from your editing.
Dalsgaard: Very often when you tell a story, you start polishing the edges more and more and, at the end, you lose that raw randomness. A rule we had in the editing was that we kept any of those moments shot with non-professional cameras or camera moves. Just being ugly would not be an argument for removing it. Where normally, when you just want to go for the good camera work, you would eliminate all of those things. But that zoom is actually representing, for the person who filmed in that very moment, some kind of curiosity. In that sense, a zoom is actually very much bringing the person behind the camera alive.
NFS: Process-wise, how did you pull all the elements together? You had this footage from all different kinds of cameras brought to you in five hard drives. You were doing your own interviews, and you had Obie herself there as co-director.
Dalsgaard: First step were interviews, then a treatment was made, then Obaidah and the group responded to this treatment. Then, I sat down together with Obaidah and we went through 200 hours of footage. She pointed out everything that she thought was somewhat important. I made notes and then I made a matrix of colors where red was: “this is very important footage.” Blue would be: “this could be important.” No color would be: “forget about it.” Then, I took the red colors first and started to develop a paper edit.
We started to edit together sequences and put in a scratch track of narration based on things Obie had actually said. We started going through each sequence together with Obie and I had her, together with Spencer, the co-writer, talk about everything that she felt was important in those sequences. We developed a new script to build a voiceover again, where of course we knew that certain things we needed for the narrative to work.
Then, in the end, I stepped back a little bit, because we had to also go from a voiceover that was basically written in English and turn it into something that then would be an Arabic text that could be translated back into English. I don't speak Arabic and I can't, in any way, tell whether something is beautiful in Arabic or not. We had a process with three other Arabic writers commenting and helping to create the Arabic text.
“Obie never expected to survive any of this. She basically signed a contract with death when she joined the revolution.”
NFS: What a process! Having gotten to know her, where do you think Obie found the courage to put this together and put herself out there when the conflict in Syria is still ongoing?
Dalsgaard: I think Obie is someone who is fundamentally opposed to any sort of bonds. Whenever she feels that bonds are put on her, she reacts. It goes way back before this film plays out. It's guided her in life, it's made her take radical choices to bring her to the stage where she was a radio host and a DJ.
There was a lot of discussion among herself and in the community about the right course of action and whether they should join the revolution or not. They weren't the first ones on the streets. She had to make a choice there and made a conscious choice to say: “There is a historical moment here that is a sort of destiny that I have to throw myself into the revolution.”
Obie never expected to survive any of this. She basically signed a contract with death when she joined the revolution. We have to also understand that taking part of the revolution was so dangerous, taking a camera was extremely dangerous. That when you were in a demonstration with a camera, there were snipers on the roof, always. The first ones they would take out were the ones with cameras.
As things play out, friends die and some of those friends, as we see in the film, were not the ones on the street during the demonstrations. Suddenly, Obaidah survived this ordeal, while others who took much less risk than herself didn't. I think there was a moment where she kept throwing herself deeper and deeper into something that could potentially kill her because of that. It's taken a while and I think that she is still struggling with the idea that she is still here. The film itself has been, to a great extent, her finding purpose in that.
NFS: Now that the film is out there, what responsibility do you guys feel as filmmakers for the safety of the surviving people who are in the film?
Dalsgaard: Safety is a huge issue with any footage coming out of Syria, and it has not been taken very seriously. Also, the situation on the ground has constantly changed. What felt secure in 2012 might be a different situation today.
The way that we've approached it here is, number one, that anyone that we think could be recognized today, who we cannot account for, is blurred. Other than that, everyone that we do not blur is basically accounted for, meaning they're either secure or they're not alive anymore. It's an ongoing process to discover where are people today. Are they in a situation where we could “unblur” them? Hopefully, in the time coming, we can “unblur” more people.
NFS: Is there anything else that you would like to say about the process or the film as it moves on to other festivals?
Dalsgaard: I've often been told, by other filmmakers and in film school, that you have to keep a distance from the subject in front of the camera. Here, we've done the exact opposite; we've made the film together. Whenever something felt, either factually or emotionally, untrue, to Obaidah or others, we had to respect that and find creative ways of resolving it, rather than convincing them that they were wrong. That mandated a creative rule that constantly challenged the language of the filmmaking into new places. We see levels of detail and complex understandings throughout the film that were only possible because we were constantly challenged.