Powerful documentary offers initimate look at Syria conflict

Sunday 04/09/2016
Dalsgaard hopes film will shame West into doing more

VENICE (Italy) - As a documentary on the Syrian conflict, "The War Show" is highly personal, capturing the lives of a group of youngsters from the uprising's exhilarating first protests to the unspeakable horrors that followed.

Most of the footage was shot by Syrian radio DJ Obaidah Zytoon and her friends, and goes from early carefree days at the beach to sniper attacks and disappearances, ending with the deaths of several of the group.

When Zytoon fled Syria she took with her five hard drives of footage shot between 2011 and 2013 and asked Danish director Andreas Dalsgaard to help her sort them, saying she was too traumatised to do it alone.

"They started filming even before the revolution started," Dalsgaard said during an interview at the Venice film festival, where Zytoon was present for the screening but was still too deep in mourning to talk to journalists.

"There was a certain weird power to this footage in its fragmentary randomness, and it was very authentic because it was filmed by people who had an energy together, a bond that was special," he said.

The film shows economics student Amal, architect Houssam, music-mad Rabea and law student Lulu with her poet boyfriend, Hisham -- all dreaming of freedom and the collapse of Bashar al-Assad's regime.

"What's great about these people is they don't fit into any kind of label... They like Islamic poetry from the 13th century, they like Lebanese hip-hop, and The Doors," Dalsgaard said.

Hand-held cameras capture the voices of those descending onto the streets to protest, with one moving scene featuring a girl no older than 10 who refuses to cover her face and hide her identity despite the risk of retaliation.

"I'm not demonstrating to be suffocated. I'm demonstrating to breathe," she says.

The documentary explores not only the dangers of filming in Syria but also the evolution of the conflict from genuine skirmishes to groups staging battles for their own ends.

"A lot of the rebels that took up weapons did so to protect demonstrators who were being attacked by the regime, so the Free Syrian Army started to develop as a protection of demonstrators," Dalsgaard said.

"Some of these rebels started to get funding by showing 'we fight, and we fight under a certain political label that fits an international donor that wants this sort of policy to be promoted'.

"America wants secular rebels, Saudi Arabia wants Islamic Sunni rebels and so does Qatar, and a weird kind of economy starts to develop. Gangs or criminals start to play into that because they see they can get money and weapons that way," he said.

From Damascus to Zytoon's hometown of Zabadani, and on to Homs, Qassab, Saraqeb, and Kafranbel, the friends find towns under siege, families starving, children wounded and men with the scars of torture.

Having watched the group mess around playing the drums, smoking weed and refusing to be cowed by the regime, the dreaded news of the torture, imprisonment and death of some of them hits hard.

The film's final chapter returns to the images of Syria familiar to the world: the devastation of cities, the mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of people and boats carrying refugees towards the shores of Europe.

Zytoon fears the crisis is far from being over and both she and Dalsgaard hope the documentary will shame European countries into doing more for those forced to flee.

"The way that Europe reacts and has reacted to the refugee crisis is a disgrace and I hope that this film can, in a human way, make us understand deeper why things evolved the way they did in Syria, that we're not talking about crazy people or a crazy culture," Dalsgaard said.

"At the same time it's an important historical document which I hope can be helpful for years to come."

"The War Show" will go on to show at the Toronto and London film festivals.