By Eric Kohn | Indiewire November 27, 2013 at 9:1AM
The role of social media in fueling the Arab Spring has been a crucial aspect of its progress, so it was only a matter of time before somebody made a documentary about it. In the aptly titled "#chicagoGirl -- The Social Network Takes On a Dictator," director Joe Piscatella explores the phenomenon in the throes of one its more prolonged struggles, the Syrian revolution.
The project simplifies the cluttered impact of status updates and video fragments sent forth from the war by focusing on the receiving end, in the form of Illinois-based college freshman activist Ala'a Basatneh, who has aided revolutionaries in Syria online for two years. While hardly a complete picture of the situation or even an especially complex one, "#chicagoGirl" embodies the idealistic spirit of its subject.
A Syrian immigrant obsessed with aiding her countrymen overseas, Basatneh wields technology with extraordinary finesse, mapping out escape routes on Google Maps and pulling together activists from different parts of town using the online powers unavailable to them. Shifting between her account of attempts to aid the cause from her bedroom to dramatic footage of the war shot from the front lines, Piscatella shows the direct link between Basatneh's button-pushing tactics and the intense survival methods adapted by those on the receiving end. The global infrastructure is a fascinatingly modern process: At protests, activists record footage and send it directly to Basatneh, who blurs out faces to protect them from government scrutiny before uploading them to YouTube. In her Facebook group, she weaves together Syrian activists both in the country and beyond it, creating a broader representation of those committed to fighting ahead than any given media broadcast.
Piscatella pads this portrait with expert talking heads, largely hordes of media experts whose eagerness to place Basatneh's endeavor in the context of new media paradigms border on the obvious -- it's all about "the ability of citizens to report on facts of their own lives," proclaims tech writer Clay Shirky. But the filmmaker also includes a welcome overview of the Syrian war itself, uncovering its roots in Bashar al-Assad's history of rulership in the wake of his father's 30-year reign.
Nevertheless, "#chicagoGirl" places less emphasis on the cause of the war than the moment to moment efforts by those engaged in it. The story's immediacy mirrors the pace of communication that Basatneh facilitates with relentless fervor. Piscatella outlines her domineering commitment to the cause, finding her fiddling with her smartphone during class and discussing experiences with pro-regime stalkers threatening her in person, which only strengthens her drive.
At a slim 74 minutes, "#chicagoGirl" rushes through as many aspects of Basatneh's significance as it can without devoting too much time to any single ingredient. Her parents express concern for her, but their relationship to the cause remains largely undefined; the glimpses of emotion when Basatneh deals with news that some of her activist friends have been killed come and go relatively quickly. The movie concludes with an end credit summing up two trips she made to Syria, hinting at a missing third act.
But "#chicagoGirl" makes a distinct point by virtue of its existence: That mainstream reports on Syria haven't sufficiently exposed the extent of the destruction taking place there. "Don't forget this country," pleads one activist on Skype. This isn't the only new movie to make that point. "chicagoGirl" premiered at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, which opened last week with the viscerally unsettling "Return to Homs," a powerful but relentlessly dreary account of activist fighters in the eponymous bombed-out city.
Viewed collectively, "#chicagoGirl" and "Return to Homs" portray the dwindling resources among revolutionaries in Syria as they dash through crumbled buildings dodging bombs. Of the two, "Return to Homs" is unquestionably a sharper work of cinematic heft that carries the grim weight of the losses unfolding in the country at each moment, as well as the growing sense of despair surrounding them. "#chicagoGirl" contains only a frantic glimpse of the intense survival tactics shown throughout "Return to Homs."
However, Basatneh's drive shows that the battle cries haven't gone unheard. "When the regime finally falls, these videos will hold them accountable," one activist proclaims. And even she realizes that her wifi connection can only do so much. "They need help on the ground more than they do online," she says. As it ends, "#chicagoGirl" leaves the impression of being the first chapter in a long story far from being finished.
Criticwire Grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Broadly accessible if not groundbreaking, "#chicagoGirl" is too short and specific for a wide theatrical release, but should enjoy continuing festival play and a healthy broadcast/VOD life.