I recently attended the DLD16 conference in Munich, aimed at media and tech companies, where the overall tone about digital technology was affirmative, even utopian. Delegates came in hopes of harnessing the potential of all kinds of digital and corporate entities – from AI and VR to EU and BMW. The UK’s Minister for Internet Safety and Security, Joanna Shields, was the first presenter in a session entitled ‘Beyond Business: The Responsibility of Global Players’. In it, she made a plea – or, rather, a pitch – for tech executives to join governments worldwide in preventing Daesh from spreading their messages online. To shore up support, Shields played an excerpt of Daesh’s 2014 online recruitment video, Flames of War, which illustrates the group’s masterful use of hi-tech graphics and Hollywood-style imagery. Unfortunately, due to the set-up, which was designed à la TED Talks to convey speakers’ inspirational messages, the film was projected on jumbo-sized overhead 4K screens. So Flames of War – along with the rest of Shields’s PowerPoint presentation, showing a montage of Daesh-produced imagery, from their Twitter accounts to moments before beheadings – was broadcast larger than the terrorist group could ever have hoped, to at least 1,000 of the world’s media moguls and politicians, while the voice of its narrator boomed through the conference in surround sound.
Shields’s proposal for fighting online propaganda was a government and tech-industry collaboration to create ‘counter-speech programmes’ and ‘mass take-down efforts’ to suspend Daesh supporters’ online accounts. As the organization’s logo rotated in high-resolution on the screen overhead, the dubious promises of government ‘counter-speech’ campaigns silently resonated alongside it. The takeaway from her presentation was how easily a pitch against propaganda can wind up resembling – and propagating – the very message it’s denouncing.
So, how do we escape the vicious cycle of propaganda versus counter-propaganda, and the instrumentalization of imagery in the Syrian conflict? Are there means besides ‘counter-speech’ or censorship by which to resist the messaging of Daesh, Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, or the more sensationalized aspects of Western media? How can journalists, artists and Syrian citizens counter the mainstream portrayals of the Syrian conflict, its complex factions and ideologies, its devastating and deadly results? What modes of representation remain?
The Syrian film collective Abounaddara (which translates as ‘the man with glasses’) has chosen to create ‘contrasting images’ and to ‘invent new rules of representation’. Coming together before the uprising in 2010, this informal and anonymous group has been releasing one short film a week, usually as brief as one or two minutes, every Friday, via Twitter, Facebook and Vimeo. Their output totals nearly 400 short films to date. Communicating via their spokesperson, Charif Kiwan, and occasionally releasing statements signed only ‘Abounaddara’, they have called for ‘the right to a dignified image’ – one in which the Syrian people portray themselves rather than allowing Western media to represent them either as victims or extremists.
Abounaddara’s strategy of what they call ‘emergency cinema’ is both aggressive and understated. They consciously deploy multiple cinematic devices so the look, feel and texture of their work can’t be pinned down and often lacks precise geographical or biographical context. They have interviewed ordinary Syrians on all sides of the conflict and have filmed children and citizens in the streets without commentary, but they have also remixed Russian or Syrian TV news broadcasts into absurdist, subversive music videos.
Abounaddara’s approach, above all, is to amplify the multiple and disparate voices of the Syrian people: to embrace the simplicity and integrity of the individual voice, time and again, in order to reflect the complexity of their society and its conflicts. A number of their films rely solely on first-person testimony, usually delivered by Syrians in their own domestic milieu or, in some cases, with faces cast in shadow to protect the subject’s identity. Woman in Pants (2013) is a straightforward account by a woman in a headscarf and jeans, sitting in an oversized chair in her apartment with a hand-written poster beside her. She explains how she goes out with her posters as a one-woman protest against the members of Daesh occupying her city. She points out that most of the guards are ‘children’ or ‘foreigners’ and relates that fellow citizens often flash her a silent thumbs-up in approval. According to her, it’s not her protesting that rankles Daesh as much as the fact that she is wearing jeans. Yet, she says, the men who kidnap and arrest people – her irritation boiling over – are wearing masks: ‘How can pants be sinful and not the mask?’ she asks in disbelief.
In another film with a similar set-up, a Daesh spokesman sits behind a large desk in a leather chair, a small aquarium bubbling behind him. With equal conviction, he explains didactically to the camera the difference between traditional Islam and the modern version of Islam that would govern the new Islamic State and how, for instance, cutting off the hand of a thief will rout out the thieves from the innocent. Abounaddara’s method gives both subjects – the spokesman and the protestor – the same platform to express their views without commentary. Only the title of the latter film, The Islamic State for Dummies (2013), and a short, audible burst of laughter from the filmmaker (which Kiwan says Abounaddara chose not to edit out), suggests they might have a political slant.
In the non-stop images streaming from Syria, it’s unique that these films are set in the private, intimate – and relatively intact – domestic spaces of their subjects. This reflects Abounaddara’s will to resist the dominant imagery of Syria in Western media: that of violence, fighting, victimhood and devastation. The first image thrown up by a Google search for ‘Syria’ is of a man carrying a young girl through the vast landscape of a bombed-out city. Abounaddara’s understated response to that trope can be seen in The Day After (2015), a brief video of two men – one on a ladder, the other standing on top of a pile of rubble – reinstalling the door-frame of a house that has been completely destroyed. As we hear them quibbling like family members, the simplicity and specificity of this two-minute film humanizes the devastated landscape. These anti-spectacular moments ask us not only to reflect on the scenario they show us, but also on the images of the same situations that other outlets choose to focus on.
It feels misplaced to praise Abounaddara’s films for their realism or authenticity as if they are artistic decisions, when the structure of the films is shaped mainly by necessity, as well as out of respect for the stories their subjects have to tell. The Child who Saw the Islamic State (2015) – in which a man sits in darkness in front of a flowered curtain and tells us what it’s like to walk past a public execution in the city centre with his wife and son, and then describes finding his child in the kitchen trying to cut his younger sister’s throat with a knife – requires no further exposition. But there are other films that wilfully eschew that realism. The filmmaker of a work like The Fly (2015) consciously makes aesthetic choices to heighten the film’s effect. Opening with a helicopter against a distant sky, as it drops a payload, the camera tracks the object’s downward spiral through space. In those long 40 seconds, the black speck freefalling against a blank surface uncannily resembles a fluttering fly. When the screen cuts to black and we hear the explosion of the bomb and then see the ashen aftermath and destruction, it is even more shocking and unexpected, the impact even more visceral.
The films of Abounaddara are also not without irony and biting satire. My Name Is Bashar is a slideshow of found images of Bashar al-Assad set to faux-sentimental music. Kill Them (both 2015) edits footage of a US news anchor saying ‘We need to kill them’ into a parodic music video with bold graphics. This more aggressive form of satire seems to have increased in Abounaddara’s output as the situation has worsened. The Chickens (2015) remixes a Slovenian advert for chicken, in which a family crowds on the couch to watch TV. But the footage it cuts to has been replaced by still images of a truck – advertising the same brand of chicken – being opened up by police in hazmat suits. A text informs us that this was the truck inside which 71 refugees were left to die on the side of an Austrian highway.
The way their subjects openly acknowledge moral ambivalence and uncertainty sets Abounaddara’s films apart from conventional media sound bites. The interviewees frequently question their own memories, interpretations and reactions to events. On the other hand, the collective has struck on techniques that appeal to a younger – or at least a more digitally orientated – audience in their opting for shorter lengths, serial formats and distribution through social media. Even so, this is not the kind of material you can binge-watch, for there are few recurring characters and no predictable narrative arcs. These are films that are absorbed slowly – their power accumulates through aggregation.
The Team is perhaps Abounaddara’s most coherent use of the serial format. In October 2015, the group premiered this 12-part mini-series with a short trailer, subtitled ‘The Syrian Free Team Story’. Released weekly, each episode features an opening sequence backed by music – a football team practicing on a pitch and ending with a cheer: ‘Free Syria. Free! Free!’ What follows is an interview with one of the 11 players, each episode filmed in the same locale – a cramped room that could be in a hotel or apartment. Playing off the reality-TV talking-head ‘confessional’ format (‘11 players, picked to live in a house …’), each athlete tells a brief anecdote about his life before, or as part of, this national football team. As each one sits in his practice gear to address the camera, it feels as if we’re set to hear a post-game interview. But what is said is completely unexpected – and the matter-of-fact way in which it is told, equally so. One player was shot in the shoulder during a battle; another was called to a prison hospital to recover the body of his dead brother; another was abducted and interrogated by Daesh after they took over his town. One confesses how, risking execution as a soldier for the government, he loaned rounds of ammunition to a teammate’s friend, who was fighting on the opposing side. The players tell of the complications of being on a team comprised of both rebels and government soldiers, but ultimately demonstrate that there are allegiances which transcend political ones. The Team resists showing Syrians as victims primarily by treating them, above all, as footballers. The series is exemplary of how Abounaddara creates a body of work that takes shape collectively but maintains the integrity of individual stories. And perhaps, from that success, we can extrapolate how the power of an accumulation of different individuals can resist a seemingly endless sectarian conflict.
It’s becoming increasingly clear how valuable Abounaddara’s films are as a timeline – as evidence of how one event begat another and led to the current situation. It’s almost possible to track, during the period the works span from 2010 to today, how defiance has turned to desperation. The woman who protested the masked Daesh guards in her town has left Syria, along with countless others. The films serve as proof of why Syrians are seeking new lives elsewhere – staying in their homeland has become untenable.
Abounaddara are an anonymous collective of filmmakers based primarily in Syria, who release a short film weekly. ‘Of God and Dogs’ won the Short Film Grand Jury prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, USA, and their work received a special mention at the 2015 Venice Biennale, Italy. In 2015, their work was the subject of a conference and exhibition, ‘The Right to the Image’, at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School in New York, USA, where they were awarded the second Vera List Prize for Art and Politics. The entire archive of their films is viewable on Vimeo.
First published in Issue 178