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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.