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ABOUNADDARA’s Take on Images in the Syrian Revolution: A Conversation between Charif Kiwan and Akram Zaatari (Part Two)

[The Abounaddara Logo. Image from author] [The Abounaddara Logo. Image from author]

‪[This is a text based on a workshop organized by Sonja Mejcher-Atassi at the American University of Beirut, 11 April 2014, with the generous support of the Arts and Humanities Initiative and the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at AUB and the School of English’ project Imagining the Common Ground, University of Kent, UK. Thanks to Loran Peterson and Dona Timani for their help with rendering the text ready for publication. Part Two appears below. You can read Part One here]


Sonja Mejcher-Atassi:

ABOUNADDARA is the name of a production house for documentary films, founded in Damascus in 2010, and of an anonymous collective of filmmakers who relay a “cinema of urgency.” Since April 2011, ABOUNADDARA has documented the Syrian uprising in ways different from the images circulating on news channels and social media. It chose to use the aesthetics of cinema to produce a form of counter-information.

The name ABOUNADDARA translates as “the man with glasses.” As stated on the collective’s website, www.abounaddara.com, it is a reference to nicknaming people according to their professions and the items associated with them in everyday Arabic culture. It is also a reference to documentary cinema and one of its early pioneers, the Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov (1896-1954) who called himself “the man with a movie camera” and inspired a filmmaker collective, the Dziga Vertov Group, in the 1960s, which in ways similar to ABOUNADDARA set out to combine art and political activism.

With its “bullet films,” ranging in length between one and four minutes, ABOUNADDARA does not simply show one side of the revolution-turned-war but gives voice to various camps, rebels as well as supporters of the regime, and first and foremost to ordinary citizens, placing emphasis on their shared humanity. It has posted its films on Facebook via Vimeo every Friday as a way of political participation in the mainly peaceful Friday demonstrations that so marked the Syrian revolution in its early phase, carrying glasses/cameras rather than weapons. Its objective is not to add to the media spectacle of information; rather, it sets out to critically question the very representation of the Syrian revolution and to sensitize its audience to the increasingly desperate situation in Syria.

ABOUNADDARA has gained increasing media coverage itself. A number of its films have been shown at international film festivals, such as Mostra de Venise, Festival du Nouveau Cinéma (Montreal), Doclisboa (Lisbon), the Hand Belfort International Film Festival, and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (London). The collective was awarded the 2014 Sundance Short Film Grand Jury Prize for “Of God and Dogs.” It has also made one feature film based on its weekly short films, which was broadcast by ARTE TV under the title “Syria: Snapshots of History in the Making.” 

Charif Kiwan is a filmmaker and a founding member of ABOUNADDARA.

Akram Zaatari is an artist and a founding member of the Arab Image Foundation.

Part II

Mejcher-Atassi: I would like to come back to two things: First, this countermovement, if I understood you correctly, Charif, between the images that circulate in the mass media and the images that you produce and circulate. So, how do you counter images with images, and can you say a little more about the power and flaws or shortcomings of images? Could you also talk about the role of the image in the Syrian uprising and the prevalence of the image over the word, since you mentioned poetry, Akram? Certainly, the image has come to play a very dominant role in the revolution.

My other question is linked to this political urgency and how you position yourself vis-à-vis political commitment and activism and how the urgency of the political situation has pushed you in directions that have perhaps surprised you or were unforeseen or that, as a filmmaker, pushed you to set foot on new territory.

Kiwan: Thank you, Sonja. I don’t know if it’s possible to answer that. It’s been forty years since the Vietnam War, a war that started something we are still experiencing now: the hegemonic role of the media and especially TV. In this time, TV has entered our minds with a representation of war that banalized violence and reduced the force and power of the image. I refer here to the work of the French scholar Dork ZabunyanNow, we can watch tragedy on TV, the Syrian tragedy on current news reports, and continue eating dinner. This is not acceptable. It was not imaginable before the Vietnam War. So, let’s speak plainly: Because of TV, violence has become banal and the image has lost its power. We have to find a new way to restore the power of images. That’s how I see our work in historical perspective. We are trying to restore something, sometimes using TV codes; our films are short and we use TV codes, to subvert them. That’s how I see our experience as filmmakers – and activists, if you want, but activists making use of cinema.

[Open to floor]

Q: I have a technical question, about format. Is there a difference between the films we saw today, as clips, and the feature-length film? I ask because of Akram’s question of authorship, but also because you mentioned temporality.

Kiwan: The idea is the same in both cases: we try to invent narrative strategy to communicate this breakdown. So, here we have very short films. When we made the feature film (https://vimeo.com/87259134), we tried to keep the same idea to give you fragments, the collapse, and not to give a traditional narrative with heroes and victims; to show the complexity. So, here we do the same thing with fragments that come every week. With the other film, we put those fragments together and tried not to lose this aspect.

Basically, we refuse to reduce the revolution to stereotypical characters. We refuse to tell the story of the revolution through a traditional narrative of events, escalation and characters. What we have here is an extraordinary event, a rupture in history that needs to be translated visually. We found the solution to this visual interpretation through the weekly short film. We also tried to maintain the same spirit when working on the feature film, but to reach the same result we had to break up and fragment the films and deal with them as components rather than films. And so we fragmented them and re-edited them as segments, then we introduced new material that we got either from YouTube or other sources.

I would like to add that we have been making movies for three years, during which we have defied TV and the mass media in general and told them that we can disseminate our films without their help. Thanks to the public and people like you, who have followed our work, people in television finally came to us, acknowledged our presence, and asked us to make a film on the condition that it followed a 52-minute format. 

We used our material, because we have a following public and because other filmmakers, film festivals, and colleagues started acknowledging us. We told the television people that we would do the film as long as they accepted our language and wouldn’t impose any voiceover additions on us or other tools that television uses for purposes of simplification. We asked them to accept our fragmented language because we wanted people to get a sense of this revolution without subjecting our work to the stereotypical narratives usually imposed by TV. So, the resulting film represents a meeting point, on the one hand, between our demands as filmmakers to get TV to acknowledge a different kind of language to represent this reality, and on the other, TV finally admitting its need to incorporate a new language that would represent reality in Syria.

One more thing: By doing this, TV accepted a language that is not its own. That was a big compromise because they consider our language a difficult one that the public might not be able to understand. So, on the one hand, they accepted our language, but on the other, they aired our film around midnight, so nobody saw it.

Zaatari: Most art films are actually shown [late at night].

Kiwan: The next step is to convince TV to air our film at 8pm, when everybody is watching.

Zaatari: But you don’t need to look up to television as a platform.

Q: I think maybe we’re missing some of the more important issues in your approach to making films. I really like this idea of the bullet film – very short, a one-minute thing – and I liked that each of them dealt with one thing; didn’t try to tell a story, didn’t try to explain, didn’t try to tell us anything, just simply showed us by juxtaposing a sound with an image in a moment, and it made us either feel something or understand something. In that sense, it approaches poetry because a poem succeeds by stringing a few words together that give you an understanding you couldn’t get except by that stringing together. In the same way, the image of the Hafez al-Assad statue made me understand dictatorship a lot more than many books one reads about dictatorships. Maybe we don’t even need the sentence at the end! That slow moving forward, the eyebrow, the hard-set mouth were enough to help me feel something about that –

Kiwan: His hand…

Q: Exactly. So, that, in a way, even goes beyond the Syrian revolution in terms of an approach to film, style, to getting a sense, an idea, a concept across to an audience.

Kiwan: Thank you. I don’t know if you noticed the manipulation we did in this film with Hafez al-Assad’s statue. We put a Koranic verse on the statue that addresses the story of Cain and Abel and embodies the peaceful speech of the Syrian revolution, as if we’re telling Assad “we realize you’re pushing us to take up arms, but we refuse to do so even if you attack us.” In the same vein, Abel told Cain that he would not raise his hand against his brother even if he tried to kill him.

The viewer cannot even notice this addition because it becomes part of the image. The same Koranic verse was raised by protesters. We only took the slogan and added it to the image. We did this to prove to the regime that, indeed, we are manipulating and fabricating images. The regime claims that all rebels manipulate and falsify images. We, as filmmakers, unlike reporters and media people, have the right to fabricate and manipulate images.

Q: Do you feel this tension between the contextualization of scholarship and the complexity necessitated by reality, and now as a filmmaker perhaps you feel that things should be simpler? Do you feel a tension between your old career and your new one?

Kiwan: Part of the filmmaker’s work involves research and an in-depth understanding of the mechanisms underlying society. Without a doubt, a filmmaker is just like a researcher – they have many factors in common. A filmmaker first has to study and objectively understand how a certain society functions.  Other members of the collective and I come from a background in sociology. However, we carry with us a sense of disappointment. I am not about to address the field of sociology in Syria and Arab countries. Nevertheless, I believe that researchers have failed to depict the reality in Syria and to protect the Syrian society from the reductionism of both the regime and the media. One of the reasons we were prompted to get involved in filmmaking was our bitter disappointment with the failure of researchers, who spent years in our country, to protect us. Why were they unable to show the media and the world that this society is not merely divided into Muslims and Christians, or Sunnis and Alawites, or whatever. There is a bursting energy within this society, which is undergoing a true revolution, akin to what other societies have gone through.  So, from these feelings of bitterness and great disappointment, we are trying, through our work, to portray this complexity and richness that researchers have failed to do.

Q: I was just wondering if you’d considered using TV images and reusing them in your works?

Kiwan: Sometimes we did so. We made some films with Syrian TV images, and we don’t have any problem with that. We are preparing a new film with these kinds of images.

Q: When I think of this distinction that was raised between images as evidence pertaining to the regime – understanding that this proves X or Y – and images that open a door to a reconfiguration, in this case, what about truth? It seems like maybe there is a duty to actually say what’s wrong in the world with a clear and coherent narrative voice. Maybe that’s not the artist’s job or anyone’s job, but to me this is still a problem. And lastly, when you say that the regime says “images are doctored, don’t believe them” and then you embrace manipulation, that seems reasonable – you embrace this distortion of reality, but what about actually finally settling on a new representation? How does that work?

Kiwan: As artists and filmmakers, we don’t have the power to tell the truth. We have our own beliefs and we have a responsibility to represent. In all languages, representation is a responsibility upheld by both the artist and the politician who represents the people. Our job is not to impose our beliefs, but rather portray this society in such a way that people are prevented from imposing a certain truth on us. This is a diverse society, of which I am a part.  To maintain credibility, I need to let the images I present convince both you and those who do not think like you. So, the only thing I can do is to allow images to reach the common feelings and factors that all people share. From that point on, each will seek the truth they desire. My duty is to put the viewer on a certain path and point to where to search for truth. That is the most I can do. The regime is saying that the Free Syrian Army consists of terrorists who murder people. What I am telling the viewer is: “Yes, there are members of the Free Syrian Army who kill. Watch and listen to what they are saying, then try to reach a conscious verdict and make sense of what it means for a freedom fighter to kill.” I cannot become part of this dispute and claim that the regime is lying and is responsible for all the killings. If I do that, only those who share my version of the truth will watch my work. My job is to help people confront a multifaceted reality and get them to start questioning themselves and search for what they have in common.

I would like to add something: When I show a militant confessing to murder, and although I support the revolution that he is part of, I am saying that, from my position as a filmmaker, any person, whether pro or anti-revolution, can lose his humanity if put under extreme circumstances. By doing so, I am laying the founding principle on which I can build my question about truth.

Q: First of all, I disagree with what you said that there is no criminal party and that it is only conditions that lead a certain party to commit crimes. I beg to differ. In this equation, the regime is definitely criminal, and we can say openly that the regime is criminal by default and that no existing conditions forced it to become so. This regime is criminal, then we can discuss the reasons for this criminal nature. The second point I would like to make is in regards to the second film on the Free Syrian Army. It is indeed very important that you address such an idea, admit the mistakes committed by the revolution, present the other point of view. It shows a very high sense of consciousness and a desire to shift the course of events toward the right track. However, I have to wonder if by adopting such an approach, you are not slipping into the trap of stereotyping. You said that the regime claims that the Free Syrian Army is committing acts of murder, then you presented an example of a Free Syrian Army member who committed such acts. This would only reinforce, for the viewer, this stereotypical narrative. Are all members of the Free Syrian Army murderers? Do they all admit to such crimes and feel remorse?

Kiwan: Nintey-nine percent of our films point to the criminality of the regime. There is no issue in identifying the criminal in this scenario. For us, the situation is crystal clear: there is a society confronting a criminal regime. This is the nature of the conflict we are living. We believe that we are currently experiencing a violent clash between a society struggling for its freedom and a criminal regime. Out of the 150 or 160 films we’ve made, there are at least 100 films that expose the extent of the regime’s crimes, including the film about Nousour Souriya [The Eagles of Syria] military indoctrination taking place and those who use barrel-bombs. There is no confusion here. We believe that the criminal nature of the regime is an obvious fact. After stating that the regime is criminal, we went deeper and explored a different level – that of the individual militant and what goes on inside his mind. When I work on the image of a militant, obscure his face, and name the film “The Unknown Soldier,” I am allowing any militant and anyone who ever carried arms to identify himself with this image. I did not give a stereotypical image of the Free Syrian Army. I did not present its members in a YouTube kind of video in which a member of the Free Syrian Army is standing behind the banner of his brigade. If I did that, I would be creating a stereotypical image. What I am doing is breaking this stereotypical image and presenting a figure whose identity is obscured so as to allow viewers to identify with him and put themselves in his shoes. It is because I’m looking to break the pattern of a stereotypical victim opposite a criminal that I am saying that any person, under certain extreme conditions, can lose his humanity, whether because he is feeling oppressed or carrying arms or for whatever reason. If we do not say so at this crucial moment, we will be endorsing a political rhetoric that claims that there is a victim facing a criminal, that conviviality is impossible between the two, and that there is no option but to divide, kill, and exclude. A filmmaker, on the other hand, says that this is the concern of politicians who fight each other and use their political tools of rhetoric and slander. My duty is to remind people that there is a common humanity that is currently under threat due to extreme conditions. I am reminding viewers that they have a responsibility to uphold. Their responsibility is not to cheer for one side or the other. Their responsibility, when viewing the testimony of this militant, for example, is to start asking themselves how they can contribute to improving these conditions, regardless of their political opinion. If I present viewers with a fixed perspective of a victim versus a criminal, they can’t do anything about it. I am presenting them with an image that confuses and troubles them so that they imagine themselves in a similar position and feel compelled to try to prevent such an outcome.

Zaatari: I just want to highlight that very often the role of the intellectual is to be very critical of an intellectual’s entourage, or an intellectual’s side. Sometimes it is very easy to blame or criticize the criminal, the other, the enemy. It takes much more effort and time to convince the oppressed that they could be the oppressor, too, and I think this work does that very well.

Q: There’s been talk about fabrication. I believe that art is completely different from fabrication. Art is a creative and genuine process in which an image engages and affects the viewer. An artist creates out of his own reality and what he sees. I believe there is something touching in most of these films, such as the one about a statue that is well known to all Syrians. In my opinion, this is creativity rather than fabrication. Fabrication is a term that perhaps has to do more with the media and is closer to lying, while art is more of a genuine process.

Zaatari: I do not think that Charif uses fabrication in the sense of falsification. Fabrication as a term originally means construction, such as the construction of an image. Any creative process will basically require a process of fabrication. For creativity to occur, fabrication must take place.

Kiwan: Of course. Thank you, Akram, for reminding us of this interpretation. I would like to add here that using the term “fabricated” presupposes the existence of non-fabricated images. When the regime says “there is media fabrication,” or when the opposition shows images and says, “this is the truth,” both parties are lying to the public and engendering the assumption that there is an absolute truth. However, I intentionally use the term fabricate to remind people that an image is a lie, a fabrication, and a reinvention of reality. Accordingly, it is our duty to remind viewers that this image does not reflect reality; rather, it’s one perspective on reality, and thus it is open to doubt and interpretation. When I manipulate images as such and use the term “fabricated,” I’m doing so to protect the viewer and to dissuade him from implicitly believing in what I am saying, because I am presenting him with a fabricated image and I am showing him that I am fabricating it. Despite that, I also want the viewer to have a pure human experience. So when I use the term “fabricated,” it is because I am taking responsibility for my profession and saying that an image does not reflect truth, but rather a certain perspective, and a certain narrative that is open to criticism and doubt. It is on this basis that we should deal with any given image, and those who distinguish between a real and a fabricated image are the same ones who want to oppress and muzzle society. This is not what I set out to do. I want the public to doubt everything, myself included.

Q: ABOUNADDARA has produced 140 to 150 bullet films and one feature film.  Do you feel you can continue with this very strict bullet format that you have adopted over the last three years, or will the ABOUNADDARA collective search for new forms? What would such forms be like, bearing in mind the challenge posed by your refusal – using Charif’s word – to adopt a traditional narrative?

Kiwan: I don’t know. The only thing I know is that we have a desperate desire to restore the power of the image and redeem our society, whose image has been violated. We are trying to do so using the tools currently available to us. I do not know if we can carry on like this. We are very tired. We try to carry on. We feel happy and revitalized whenever we encounter people who follow our work and ask us intelligent questions.  Whenever something positive is written about us, we feel energized and decide to keep going. At other times, we ask ourselves “what’s the point?”, feel that it’s all useless, that no one is watching our work, and that we might lose our drive. I don’t know. I think it has more to do with the public, with life, whether we keep on living or we die. I do not know. I really cannot give you an answer.

Zaatari: Just to say a final thing. You’re all very, very tired, yet this work seems so fresh and it just brings hope, not necessarily in Syria, but hope in the medium, that’s documentary film. I disagree with you on the wording of the phrase “restore power to images.” I think we need to go through an exercise of working, conversation with images, whether we understand them or we understand gaps in them, weaknesses or even their lack of power. We do not need to restore power to images, because restoring power is also too oppressive. Imagine images to be as powerful as regimes!

Kiwan: Wow!

Zaatari: What would this imply about us? I do not look forward to a time when images will rule. Many of us artists in Beirut have worked a lot revealing hidden layers of power in images. You cannot face glorifying images of oppressors with images of their victims. You cannot face glorification with another glorification, even if it were of victims. There is a need for such a critique to take place, equally in postwar times and at war, in my opinion. Let’s just take the power away from images. Let’s simply consider them as records of power, political positions, social and personal attitudes or unknown circumstances or attitudes. Let’s try to unmake images or simply try to understand where they come from.

Kiwan: ABOUNADDARA’s position is fundamentally anti-antiauthoritarian and iconoclastic. We have always treated the “heroes” of the revolution with suspicion, as in Warning (00:38). We have made several films, denouncing the glorification of victims, such as Two Minutes for Syria (01:26). The power of images I'm talking about has nothing to do with any attempt at domination. Rather, it has to do with defending the power to represent the world without freezing it in its current temporality. In other words, it is about ensuring that images remain dialectical and lightning, in the words of Walter Benjamin, to avoid any form of propaganda or idolatry. Amen!

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