These 4 Syria Docs Will Help You Understand What the Hell is Going On

As the war in Syria makes headlines again, we turn to the documentary filmmakers who have been on top of the story for years.

The Syrian Civil War began six years ago and the rest of the world has become increasingly numb to its horrors, despite the reported deaths of almost half a million people. We were shaken from our reverie yesterday as images spread from treacherous new chemical attacks. But, as with many global issues, documentary filmmakers have been paying attention to the conflict and its effects since day one.

No Film School had the chance to speak with some of these filmmakers as their gripping films hit festivals this past year: The War Show, City of Ghosts, Last Men in Aleppo, and The Journey from Syria.

Unfortunately, only The Journey from Syria is available beyond the festival circuit at this point, though you can also watch Academy-Award-winning Syria short The White Helmets on Netflix now. Meanwhile, here’s what these filmmakers had to say about the conflict and their work during our No Film School interviews.

The War Show 

Synopsis from TIFF: A Syrian radio DJ documents the experiences of herself and her friends as their dreams of hope and liberation in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring give way to the grim realities of repression, forced emigration and extremism.

See a clip from the optimistic beginning of the film:

Video is no longer available: youtu.be/qYfwQVZf-p4

Co-director Andreas Dalsgaard on protecting footage from Syria:

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.

Read the entire interview here.

Last Men in Aleppo

Synopsis from CPH:DOX: “An unforgettable portrait of three reluctant heroes and their work to save Aleppo's civilians trapped in the heart of the war zone.” 

Co-director Firas Fayyad on fear for his protagonists:

We thought about how the war affected each character and what was living inside them. Yes, conflict happens, but we tried to be with them in their special, quiet moments. The silence when they're feeling tired. The depression. The exhaustion. The moments of reflecting on the war. It's these moments that made us want to tell the story, not just capturing the action of war. How it affects the people.

But I wondered, how can I make them continue and not feel scared about being killed? I feared for the subjects and the cinematographers. Because the film was like a family. It was like talking to your brother, your sister, somebody that means a lot to you. Every [time] I knew they went out to film, I felt crazy. Sometimes I felt angry. If something happened to them, what I would do? 

I always thought about the safety. When I talked to them, I said, 'Don’t go to the places where you could get killed." Many times we decided not to film something because it was [too dangerous], but they decided to do it anyway. 

Read the entire interview here.

City of Ghosts

Synopsis from Sundance: “[City of Ghosts] follows the journey of “Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently”—a handful of anonymous activists who banded together after their homeland was taken over by ISIS in 2014...This is the story of a brave group of citizen journalists as they face the realities of life undercover, on the run, and in exile, risking their lives to stand up against one of the greatest evils in the world today.” 

Director Matthew Heinemann on including graphic violence in the film:

Every single frame was discerned and talked about. In reality, on a scale of one to 10 in terms of the violence that happened, it is probably like a five. 

We were very conscientious of, on one hand, not wanting to turn people off, while on the other hand, wanting to acknowledge the reality of what these guys see and experience on a daily basis. So much of the film is about this war of ideas, this war of propaganda, this war of imagery, this information war. 

A huge part of that, from the ISIS point of view, is using and glorifying these killings, these beheadings as a way to instill fear, and in a sort of perverted way, to attract followers, as well. So to not show that would not be telling the truth. It would not be showing the reality of what's happening, so that was sort of my North Star.

Read the entire interview here.

The Journey from Syria

Synopsis from the New Yorker: “Many refugees seeking asylum in the E.U. trek in obscurity. But one filmmaker captured every step of a Syrian father’s seventeen-hundred-mile odyssey, fraught with peril and punctuated by moments of extraordinary human kindness.” 

Watch the first episode of the six-part series here:

Director Matthew Cassel on meeting his protagonist, who was embarking on a fourth attempt to escape to Europe from Syria:

[After meeting Aboud], I was amazed by the stories he was telling me. In the middle of winter, he tried to walk through Bulgaria in the snow. And then he told me that he didn't even want to go to Europe. The only reason he was going through this difficult, humiliating, tiring journey was because it was the only way to be with his wife and two kids. I didn't have any plan to make a film. I was just amazed and inspired by this father who was so motivated to be with this family.

I went to his house as he was preparing to go on this Greece trip. I happened to have my camera with me. They were wrapping their legs in plastic wrap, and I was like, "What the hell are you doing?" They said they needed to do that to cross the river. I asked if I could start filming. One thing led to another and I just decided to follow this guy and see where it goes. I didn't know the entire time what would happen one day to the next. I didn't know he was going to eventually make it to Greece. He could have been stuck in Turkey or Greece for years. I just got stuck in this story. I was amazed by his courage and motivation to be with this family. 

Read the entire interview here.     

Your Comment

10 Comments

Here we go again.

More FSA/Al Nusra glorifying documentaries pushed out by NFS.

AS A SYRIAN, this is so damn frustrating to see. The situation is far more complex then this simple-minded, biased and emotionally-driven narrative these documentaries, and you, put forth.

You guys are shameless.

April 7, 2017 at 4:36PM, Edited April 7, 4:36PM

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Adam Issa
396

Atleast The War Show, that's the one I have seen of those movies, didn't feel like any kind of glorification. It shoved into your face how fucked up wars are. After seeing it, I was so mad and wished every fucking right wing refugee hating fuck would see this movie.

April 8, 2017 at 4:35AM

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Re Tim ...
Virtue signalling..what a surprise..
You were this mad as the previous US left wing government armed/funded the "moderates" (Islamic State) in Syria…as well as destabilised the whole region for the last 8 years. ?

April 13, 2017 at 2:27PM, Edited April 13, 2:35PM

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Mike Williams
Mr Amateur
86

Adam, is there anything you recommend we see that is less biased and emotionally-driven?

April 8, 2017 at 12:59PM

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matthew david wilder
Director/Cameraman/Editor/Colorist
339

I saw The War Show, the director was present and I listened to her being interviewed. That was intense. Really, watch that movie.

April 8, 2017 at 4:31AM, Edited April 8, 4:31AM

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I am not sure "The White Helmets" can "help understand what the hell is going on". It is pure propaganda by the same people, who instigated and continually re-kindle the conflict in Syria. It winning an Academy Award was the greatest travesty of it all. It just tells me how little Oscars mean these days. It is sad to see the most famous film awards being used to serve someone's political agenda or being handed over to people because they have the right color of skin, or the correct "underrepresented" sex, or the recently tolerated sexual orientation.

April 8, 2017 at 5:31AM, Edited April 8, 5:31AM

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Pavel Tsvetkov
Producer/Director/Writer
191

Yes! 100% agree!

April 10, 2017 at 10:41PM

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Adam Issa
396

All wars are insane by their very nature as some of these films show. However it is knowledge as to why it occurs (apart from the philosophical) is important.

The Qatari's have poured immense amounts of money into IS. And the reason is mainly geo-political. The Qatari gas field is the second largest in the world. At the moment the gas has to be shipped. A pipeline, which Assad has always refused to allow in return for support from the Russians, would have fed gas through Turkey and into Europe. And where does Europe get a large portion of gas from. Russia of course. This is why Russia has supported Assad for such a long time. If they lost gas sales to Europe they not only lose financially but they also lose political leverage in the European arena. Put this in context and a lot of the political machinations fall into place.

April 8, 2017 at 2:23PM, Edited April 8, 2:24PM

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Jonathon Sendall
Stories
1692

Ehh it's a huge tragedy. I don't want to think about this...

April 9, 2017 at 7:29AM

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November 27, 2017 at 2:27PM, Edited November 27, 2:27PM

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Pavel Tsvetkov
Producer/Director/Writer
191