News Column

Documenting a revolution in movement

October 31, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 31--ABU DHABI -- The Arab Spring has been a vexing thing for this region's documentary filmmakers. Stumbling across North Africa and the Middle East since 2011, the regime-toppling political unrest has altered its complexion. Now the prospect of "change" provokes trepidation in some citizens, joy in others. "Hanging Dates Under Aleppo's Citadel," the latest feature-length documentary of Lebanese writer-director Mohamed Soueid, tells a story from Syria, the Arab world's most recent, and heartbreaking, spring.

Working with video footage shot by three different activist cameramen between February and early November 2012, the film profiles a man called Abu Bakr, a commander in Aleppo's Tawhid Brigade. He is something of a celebrity, having emerged as a public figure in the early days of civilian protests, when he extemporized anti-regime songs for demonstrations.

Shot by Mahmoud El Basha, now deceased, Mayzar Matar and Muhannad Najjar, the footage shows Abu Bakr in combat, procuring materiel, relaxing and escorting the cameraman though his bombed-out house.

Like most of his men, Abu Bakr is a devout Sunni and over the film's 71 minutes his language drifts from secular-sounding to more forthrightly Muslim, if not Islamist.

Contextualizing these vignettes are interviews with the fighter's young daughters -- living in a Turkish refugee camp -- Abu Bakr's men, and some residents of Aleppo.

The title of this snapshot of Syria's complex and shifting civil war is an Arabic palindrome -- a phrase with the same meaning if spelled front-to-back or back-to-front -- the filmmaker learned as a child.

Speaking to The Daily Star from the sidelines of the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where his work is competing in the Documentary Competition, Soueid said the title was meant to reflect some of the indeterminate vagueness of this conflict.

"It's like this palindrome. ... The [meaning of this conflict] is vague. 'Hanging dates' in Arabic is ambiguous. What does 'dates' signify? And 'hanging?' I didn't want the viewer to think this title explains something. I want it to open up [uncertainty]."

The project originated when the activist associations Kayyani and Shaara contacted Soueid about directing a film of footage shot by the three cameramen. As director, he constructed a coherent story from 60 hours of rushes -- existing and additional footage he requested.

"I was interested in Muhannad Najjar's work because he has [a good] eye. His questions to the people [suggested] he didn't want to make just another propaganda film, or something to glorify what's going on. ... Eventually we needed a producer, so Al-Arabiya television [a long-time collaborator with Soueid's 03 Productions] came in through me.

"The challenge was to make a film that would be personal for the director, for the character and for those who shot the film."

For Western audiences, the main delivery system for Syrian civil war images has been online platforms like YouTube. Soueid says "Citadel" is a formal departure from YouTube.

"This footage is original," he continued. "Looking at the rushes, you could tell they had nothing to do with ... the spirit of YouTube ... which has a particular texture. ... If I were to shoot this film myself, I think there would be a few technical differences, but the prevailing texture [would be the same].

"... Many films have been shot during wartime," Soueid continued. "During the Lebanon war, Volker Schl?ndorff made [the fiction film] 'Circle of Deceit.' It was attacked at first but now people have made a kind of reconciliation with it. Even if you don't like it, I think it was a great inspiration for many filmmakers.

"The challenge comes from how to see some people involved in the war. ... I'm working on footage that is now 2 years old. I took out everything that made it current at the time, so you [left with] the story of this man who didn't know his father. ... Anyone wanting to retell the story of the revolution in Syria will have a passage like 'Things started with peaceful demonstrations that later became war.'"

Throughout a career documenting the legacy of the Lebanese Civil War, Soueid has never made a film like "Citadel." Still, Soueid feels that this film is intimately linked to his filmmaking practice.

"For me this film is a kind of forward flashback to 'Nightfall' [his documentary about group of Lebanese friends who during the Civil War fought with Fatah].

"After losing many friends and fighting, those people spend their lonely nights in Beirut, remembering what they did, recalling a time when they used to believe in something. The war makes normal people feel they're doing something historic. When the war ends, they're expelled from time.

"They appear, to me, to resemble Abu Bakr."

Audience response to the world premiere of "Citadel" was lively. One audience member, a Syrian national, said the film was not shot in Aleppo at all. Several Aleppo natives rejected this accusation. One media-critical observation was that the film's perspective -- noting the fighters' Muslim-Islamist discourse -- is in line with that of the broadcaster that produced the film.

Soueid would like the film to be criticized for its content, not the producer's logo. "This project is mine," he sighed. "If I present it without the [Al-Arabiya] logo, would it change anything? ... My previous films were Arabiya [produced]. Why were they not considered Al-Arabiya?

"The Syrian revolution has transformed into an Islamist one. ... I don't want to simplify things but this is one thing I felt is crucial. This revolution started with the activists, many of whom are secular, many of whom have now left Syria. They are either making films or writing articles about perceptions of how things became militarized ... [on how] the discussion has [become] focused on Jabhat al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda.

"I find it very crucial to understand the Syrian people's loss of hope.

"Erdogan said, 'If Hama is bombarded, this is a redline for Turkey.' Well they attacked Hama and nothing happened. Things have accumulated like this.

"The Syrian people fell into an accumulated despair, so that in one of the early demos they said, 'We have no one but God.' Maybe the intellectuals and activists thought of this revolution [as secular] -- but in real time those who continued the revolution were in the countryside. These are simple people -- not naive people but simple people -- who fell out with the regime.

"... I think a verbal understanding existed among the people of Syria and Egypt and Iraq. 'Okay, we trust you. It's your time now to prove yourself.' Eventually Nasser, Hafez Assad, Saddam Hussein and the others proved themselves to be ruthless lunatics who build prisons instead of countries.

"The people in my film are [Muslim]. If you look at the names of all the brigades, they're all [Muslim]. But they're not Al-Qaeda or Nusra or whatever. If you listen, they're trying to declare and hide at the same time. 'I'm not against someone drinking alcohol in his own home. But it's haram.' 'I'm not the one to prosecute him. That's the government's job.' They want to be just but they cannot hide being Muslim. If I were to make a film suggesting that these fighters are communists, then I'd be fabricating things.

"They want the world to understand that ... every time you say 'jihad' you don't mean Al-Qaeda. That whenever you say, 'I don't drink alcohol,' you don't mean 'I'm violent.' They want to be rewarded for their moderation.

"If you don't listen to them, eventually they will be lured by Al-Qaeda-like organizations. They have lots of money. They can secure services for people, but in return, they'll make their lives hell.

"I'm biased toward the revolution." Soueid said. "I hope I'll always be able to defend the revolution as I do now.

The Abu Dhabi Film Festival continues until Nov. 2. For more information see http://www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae/en/.

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(c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)

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