A Fragmented Reality: How a Vital New Documentary Rejects Clear Readings of the Syrian Revolution

Sadia Khatri

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The following essay was produced as part of the 2019 Locarno Critics Academy, a workshop for aspiring film critics that took place during the 72nd edition of the Locarno Film Festival.

Social media has made us myopic. As soon as something happens, no matter where in the world it may be, we turn to Twitter and Instagram, ready to devour instant, bite-sized explanations of the latest tragedy. But most of these explanations are crafted to serve those in power, and to keep political hierarchies intact. The same is leveraged through cinema; fiction and non-fiction films routintely “explain” the chaos of the Muslim world by moving between lazy stereotyping and deliberate demonizing; Muslims are branded as exotic (as in “Aladdin”) or dangerous (as in “Homeland”), and both scenarios enable Western powers to continue their self-righteous crusades and violent interventions in other countries. Meanwhile, audiences can be compelled not to question these narratives, because knowledge takes precedence over veracity: who can get it first, who can retweet and share it first. It’s a race for some language, any language, to help us make sense of the world.

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In the light of such urgent processing, “Fi al-thawra” (“During Revolution”) by Maya Khoury, which premiered at the Locarno Film Festival this month, and received a special mention in the first feature prize, is not an easy film to watch. It is something akin to a difficult poem, one you really have to concentrate on to sustain your attention, one you have to take the pains to stay with even as you keep asking yourself again and again: what exactly is going on?

Over the course of an exacting two and a half hours, the documentary yields little of what you would typically expect from a film exploring a country in a state of unrest. No insider’s view into cities ravaged by war; no blood and gore; no humanitarian crises and perpetual upheaval; no nostalgic portrayals of the worlds being lost to terror. No voiceover, no statistics, no chronology. Instead, the film is something of a meditative journal, going back and forth, changing characters and points of view, ambling as it follows the daily lives of Syrians through a series of disconnected sequences, most of which were shot by Khoury over seven years during the revolution.

“There is no context in the film,” explains the producer of the film, Charif Kiwan, when we sit down for a conversation at the Locarno festival. “The fragmentary approach was a way to resist the traditional narrative which reduces the revolution to one single place, Syria; one single political project, democracy against Islamism, or democracy against dictatorship; or one single figure, the hero, the good guy.”

As one of the three visible members of the Abounaddara Collective, the anonymous filmmakers’ collective which co-released the film, Kiwan says that the fragmentary approach was both intentional and crucial for Khoury and the collective. “[It is] a way to let you feel and see the people making a revolution without reducing them to one nationality or one character.”

The result is a scattered narrative which is all over the place, which refuses to locate the viewer in time or space. Unless one personally recognizes the faces and markers in the film, it is impossible to say what city a scene occurs in, what positions various individuals hold in the political context, what an argument is really about, how much time has passed between each cut, et cetera.

Instead, the scenes shift without explanation or connection, and just when you feel yourself developing conclusions, it changes again: a woman putting on make-up, talking to—her lover?—friend?; a heated discussion in someone’s lounge, activists debating the formation of a new collective, but it’s unclear why; a woman addressing the camera after a protest, declaring that the demonstration has failed—but what was it about?; two people sweeping the stairs of what looks like a school—are they preparing for something, or cleaning up?; a man’s ironic voiceover taking you on vlog-style tour of his destroyed house—“This is where my bed used to be,” he says, pointing at only rubble; a shot of someone’s laptop screen, a Google chat unfolding in real time about smuggled weapons—but wait, whose side are we on?; a younger man recounting to an older one how he abandoned the army—when did he leave? And what year are we in now?; a group of people celebrating their friends’ marriage—what does it have to do with everything else?

And where do we begin to make sense of all this to understand what is going on in Syria?

It seems we are not meant to. This is precisely the difference, Kiwan says, between their work, and the work of journalists. Abounaddara was formed shortly before the revolution by a group of Syrian filmmakers; they are artists, not activists or militants or reporters.

“We do not bear witness,” Kiwan clarifies. “An artist doesn’t have to do that, and perhaps doesn’t have the right to do that.” Instead, the members of Abounaddara can take greater creative risks, because anonymity frees them from self-censorship, and because they are intent on being both the authors and the producers of their films. That is the reason “Fi al-thawra” is able to get away without a voice-over, without any attempts to guide its viewers through the world it presents. The whole idea for Khoury and Abounaddara is “to let the images speak for themselves.”

At a time when the Western gaze, in cinema and otherwise, is dangerous because it has been determining how the rest of the world is consumed and comprehended, this is a powerful statement. It shows how it is possible to take control of the narratives pushed upon us, but also, how we can choose to resist a narrative altogether.

In fiction, the lack of plot and coherence is more readily accepted, because fiction is not burdened with the same expectations that are heaped upon non-fiction, particularly documentary. Audiences are used to documentaries laying things out neatly, taking them by the hand, forever explaining. But it is this same pitfall of explication that leads to simplification and reduction, that leads to political situations being funneled through the same worn-out lenses. “Geopolitical lenses, religious, sectarian. It’s always the same story… Follow us, we are going to explain the Middle East, selfish people with beards and good people who believe in democracy,” Kiwan says. “No, reality is much more complicated… The only way we could disrupt a bit of that narrative is by taking the risk of losing the viewer.”

Compare this to “Douma Underground”, a 12-minute documentary, also by a Syrian filmmaker, Tim Alsiofia. In “Douma”, the audience is never lost. For the entire duration of the film, the viewer is held terrifyingly among a group of families seeking refuge in their basements in Ghuta, while bombs drop intermittently overhead. Alsiofi is filming live; any of them could die any second. It is a film that locates us directly within the surreal horror of war, bearing witness in a way that “Fi al-thawra” refuses to. It is a film you cannot unsee because of the shock and claustrophobia it brands on you for those twelve minutes.

Which would have been impossible without its specific setting. Which is what makes it work, but also limits it: “Douma” will always be a film about that exact moment in Ghuta, that precise location in time. It is a report, an archive, a fixed history. But “Fi al-thawra”’s and Abounaddara’s approach to documentary as art as opposed to reportage allows it to create a lasting work which can transcend its own context. Khoury may have shot the film mostly in Syria, but its shapelessness grants it the capacity to be read in other milieus, by other people in other times.

It is also a film with the power to speak to other contexts and realities, be it today or in the future. The name, too, is significant. “During Revolution’” not “During the Syrian Revolution.” People anywhere in the world who are facing a similar state of disarray will find something in it that speaks to their lives, particularly the sense of confusion and utter lack of comprehension that pervades during such political shifts. How everything is in flux. One will walk away from this film realizing that it is impossible to describe this flux, to pin down its narratives to a clean, straightforward, story, whether in Syria, in Sudan, or in Kashmir. And that perhaps fragmentary narratives have the power to bring us closer to the truth, because they reject not only the West’s, but also our own impositions of a single reading of our realities.

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