How to make film from a siege

BEIRUT: In the 20th century, it’s believed, people could imagine journalism to be a heroic profession. If that’s so, it may have something to do with a bit of film footage a journalist shot of some conflict, far from North America and Western Europe.Some remember the camera operator as capturing gunmen or soldiers, but it doesn’t really matter.

Pop culture recalls that the journalist is shot. The camera falls from his hands and strikes the ground, where it continues to film.

Since that first piece of ghostly footage was recovered, the scenario that made it has been repeated many times.

Recently it served to inspire the title of “Still Recording.”

Ghiath Ayoub and Saeed al-Batal’s award-winning 2018 documentary had its world premiere in the International Critics Week program of this year’s Venice Film Festival. It won five prizes at Venice and is still making the rounds and winning awards.

The opening sequence of “Still Recording” shows people pinned down by automatic weapons crossfire, shelling and explosions. The scene reopens upon a dimly lit room where a young man (Batal) is projecting action scenes from Hollywood movies.

This isn’t just a scene of incongruous evening entertainment. It’s obvious from the way he’s discussing the framing of individual shots that Batal’s offering practical tips to social media activists trying to spread the word about what’s happening to Douma, Syria.

“What it cost to make this film could have sent half the residents of Douma to university and built schools and hospitals,” Batal tells his audience. “They spent all this money on it. We may as well learn something from them.”

Soon afterward the camera frames a young man standing before the open rear doors of a truck. Staring into the lens, he’s trying to describe a massacre carried out by state forces. He pauses, tries to resume and gags. The camera never gazes at the truck’s grim cargo but it’s evident the activist is overwhelmed by the stench of it.

“Still Recording” unfolds as a series of tableaux (some with Batal in the frame, others not) depicting the chaos in Eastern Ghouta and Damascus’ adjacent neighborhoods, and efforts to prevent the disorder of siege from collapsing into sheer anarchy.

The camera is among activists as they escort a handful of regime troops trying to defect to the opposition. When bystanders see the unarmed men in army fatigues moving down the street, some attack them.

One fellow stabs a soldier repeatedly until an escort grabs him.

“These men are defecting to our side,” he shouts. “Why are you trying to kill them?”

“I didn’t kill anyone!” the man shouts back. “I only stabbed him [three times].”

Somewhat later, in Douma’s ransacked post office, a gentleman is seen struggling to liberate an expensive-looking piece of equipment.

“Stop that!” an opposition activist shouts.

The gent blinks at him, uncertain, and continues yanking at his prize.

“Leave that where it is,” the activist shouts again.

“We started this revolution to prevent the stealing.”

The complexion of “Still Recording” changes briefly when the (now concealed) camera returns to Damascus. A young man tells an off-frame figure that he’d like to go to an opposition demo but he doesn’t want to run away.

“Some people,” a voice informs him, “don’t run.”

“Yeah, well I don’t want to die either,” he replies.

The camera introduces Milad, an art school student who can be seen among his work in an atelier and hanging out at some pal’s backyard pool - where guys and girls in swimsuits can cavort as if the country weren’t at war with itself.

Milad is pals with Batal and the film returns to look in on him from time to time.

Back in Douma, the camera looks on as a fellow in a tracksuit runs wind sprints through the rubble of his neighborhood. He then takes a minute to explain why the siege makes it all the more important to maintain your training regimen.

After a meeting of civil activists chaired by the Free Syrian Army (“Why,” one man asks, “is the FSA at a meeting of civil activists?”) the filmmakers are on hand when their militant colleagues uncover a stash of booze that some regime functionary has set aside for himself.

The militants choose to destroy the booze. The civilians pitch in to help, but not without reservations.

“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t sad about that,” one young man sighs afterward, wistful. “Man, there was a bottle of araq there from 1991!”

Sometime after the August 2013 sarin gas attack on Damascus’ Jobar neighborhood, Milad is shown at an art exhibition.

“Is it possible,” he muses for the camera, “to be strong in this war?”

A short time later Milad arrives in Douma, which is in the midst of a regime blockade. He contributes to the opposition by holding art classes for local kids. He has the youngsters help him brighten up the town with his street art.

“Still Recording” is the latest film to emerge from Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts, a Beirut-based Syrian film-incubation nonprofit that, since 2012, has produced several short films and feature-length movies, some of which have been lauded internationally.

Ayoub and Batal documented the war in Douma from 2011 to 2015, amassing 500-odd hours of rushes.

The sheer size of their archive made it uncertain whether the footage would become a web series, a television series or a doc.

Making a two-hour documentary from these rushes created a significant challenge, since civil war films have a peculiar sameness about them.

If the footage is shot under siege, the gray-black palette is ruled by destroyed locations - vistas of smashed buildings, fixed camera shots of structures being shelled or bombed to ruins.

Naturally there are terrified civilians cowering in their houses, or in dislocation. The cast of characters tend to be fighters or activists - white-helmeted or not, wielding cameras and smartphones.

In films set against Syria’s war, artists are among the activists.

“Still Recording” shares much with the other nonfiction films made since Syria’s civil protest mutated into military conflict.

What distinguishes Ayoub and Batal’s work, and makes it cohere, is its not telling a war story but one of two friends in the midst of a conflict. It’s not a film about death, victory or defeat, but life.

One of the murals Milad and his kids paint on the walls of Douma is a graffito, reading “Be patient, my homeland.” The camera returns to it more than once.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 14, 2018, on page 12.




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