From the November-December 2019 issue of News & Letters
Evanston, Ill.—Documentary filmmaker Joshka Wessels, a professor at the University of Malmö in Sweden with experience in Syria since 1997, spoke at Northwestern University and the Evanston Public Library on Sept. 30 on her book Documenting Syria. The peaceful mass demonstrations of March 2011 that began the nearly nine-year-long Syrian Revolution did not come out of a creative void, she said; rather they followed three generations of resistance to the 40-year dynasty of Assad. With the realities of resistance so dangerous to the Hafez al-Assad and then the Bashar al-Assad regime, filmmakers, like poets and journalists, worked knowing they risked long sentences in regime prisons.
Wessels chronicled around 246 documentary films from the eve of the Syrian Revolution on. In 2010 young filmmakers made a video of sheltering refugees from drought in the northeast. They were the Greta Thunbergs of 2010, clandestinely giving aid to eco-refugees, Wessels said.
DOCUMENTING THE REVOLUTION
Filmmaker Bassel Shehadeh went to Homs to document multi-religious demonstrations. His last film was Streets of Freedom, before he was killed in 2012.
A host of activists have uploaded videos of the death and destruction from barrel bombs and of continued marches against Assad. Assad apologists have questioned the legitimacy of video from liberated areas under attack and sometimes without power. Wessels said the answer was USB sticks and satellites using signal encryption.
From 2014 on, underground networks in Raqqa documented atrocities under ISIS rule. Wessels asked them, why risk your life? All answered: We smelled freedom and wanted to show the world.
In spite of Assad regime lies that the White Helmets, who rescued victims from bomb rubble, were “terrorists,” an Oscar nomination gave Last Men in Aleppo a wider audience. In the same tradition of recording and preserving the truth, the newly released documentary For Sama must be seen.
The filmmaker, Waad Al-Khateab, explains the title as a letter to her daughter Sama, born during the revolution, on why her parents continued their defiance in Aleppo rather than joining the millions as refugees. Waad’s home was in Aleppo, a center of liberated Syria, and from the beginning she recorded exuberant peaceful demonstrations.
Her “home movies” caught the wider truth of the Syrian Revolution under the bombardment of Assad, and then Putin, because her close friend, later her husband, was on the front lines of the resistance as a medical school graduate who ran one of the makeshift hospitals. When that hospital was bombed, the space he found to reopen, since it was not known as a hospital, became the last hospital standing as Russians using UN-supplied GPS locations targeted every other hospital. The end of the movie shows the even greater privation of the six-month-long siege of Aleppo at the end of 2016.
SAVING ONE LIFE
During the siege we find human moments large and small. More people share apartments as bombings destroy East Aleppo, and little Sama plays like life is normal. We see how thrilling a single pomegranate was for the pregnant Waad. The staff delivered a seemingly dead infant from the lifeless body of his mother. They worked on him for minute after minute—the collective gasp from the ER staff on screen as the baby opened his eyes was echoed by the gasps of audience members, all agreeing that rescuing even one life from genocide was a victory.
The movie ends as buses expel the surviving population of liberated Aleppo into Idlib. But the Syrian Revolution still refuses to die despite nine years of repression.
—Free Syria activist
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