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Reality Checks: Can a Wave of Syrian Docs Wake Up Apathetic Americans?

By Anthony Kaufman | Indiewire June 12, 2014 at 3:24PM

"We have the feeling that we failed," Syrian producer Charif Kiwan said in a recent conversation. "But we cannot give up yet."
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"Return to Homs."
"Return to Homs."

"We have the feeling that we failed," Syrian producer Charif Kiwan said in a recent conversation. "But we cannot give up yet."

Kiwan is the spokesperson for the Abounaddara Collective, a group of Syrian activist filmmakers who have been producing daily short videos to raise awareness for Syrian atrocities and redefine the media's representations of them. A program of the Collective's videos are among a handful of projects related to Syria playing at this year's Human Rights International Film Festival, which runs June 12-22.

But as Kiwan suggests, getting the West to pay attention to Syria is an uphill battle — and yet a sense of urgency makes what they do necessary. As Kiwan told Indiewire via email, "We want the world to feel the humanity of our characters before the Assad regime assassinates them."

"This isn’t just some 'bang bang shit' from Syria."

They define their work as "Emergency Cinema," which seems an apt moniker for films chronicling torture, murder, and bombings shortly after they have transpired.

As news from Syria vanishes from the front pages, just as, according to a recent U.N. report, there has been "a marked increase in the indiscriminate use of barrel bombs by the government," these films offer an under-informed public the chance to see deeper, more personal reflections of the ongoing conflict than what is available in the mainstream media.

"This isn’t just some 'bang bang shit' from Syria," said HRWFF Deputy Director Andrea Holley put it.

Rather than show the shaky-cam violence typical of YouTube shock videos or Fox News reports, the festival is able to contextualize the carnage, according to Holley. "Whatever people think of Syria, when you see these films, it's much easier to imagine what it’s like to live under siege, what it's like to live in a city that’s falling apart,” she said. "It's very easy to turn on the TV here, eat your dinner, and watch a massacre. So how do you break through that? We are showing things about Syria in the face of a lot of apathy, but we're showing it in a way that lets people relate to the individuals."

For instance, one of the Abounaddara Collective's most famous videos, "Of Gods and Dogs," which won the short film jury prize at Sundance 2014, features a 12-minute continuous close-up of a man talking about a brutal interrogation and killing — of which he took part. Many of Abounaddara's videos are similarly confessional, with individuals speaking intimately about atrocities, and how these events have impacted their fragile psyches.

Syrian filmmaker Talal Derki's feature doc "Return to Homs," another Sundance winner, may begin with footage of indiscriminate violence, bled-out dead children and utter chaos. But as the film goes on, it, too, becomes an affecting and devastating portrait of one man: charismatic soccer-player-turned-revolutionary Abdul Basset, who ceaselessly and sometimes recklessly strives to liberate his people.

The film's iconic image — which shows Basset sitting exhausted in a hallway, with one hand on his head and the other holding his weapon — provides the film with one of its most piercing moments, encapsulating the sense of anguish, futility and frustration that plagues the Syrian resistance.

The signature image from "Return to Homs."
The signature image from "Return to Homs."

Like the Abounadarra shorts, "Return to Homs" ultimately, then, becomes a more of a human story that transcends politics. As Kiwan said — speaking about their own work, but the sentiment applies to "Homs" as well — it "stands apart from any intention of propaganda or voyeurism. It is a humanist cinema that seeks to share a desire for freedom and justice rather than to prove the guilt of one party or another."

But do these films have a chance of raising awareness amidst the crowded and competitive U.S. cultural and commercial marketplace?

UK-based film company Journeyman Pictures picked up worldwide rights to "Return to Homs," and is now beginning to bring the film out in the U.S. According to Journeyman's director Mark Stucke, the company almost sold the film to HBO. "It was just a whisker away," he said.

"Look, it's a tough film. It is a slow build," he added. "But the impact is huge. Despite the nitty gritty content, subtitles, and herky-jerky camerawork, it has done very well."

"The U.S. is always a hard nut to crack," continued Stucke, who said that out of some 50 docs the company handles a year, the number that land U.S. broadcast spots is minimal. “We have a lot of other Syrian films, and none of them have had the near success of 'Return to Homs,'" he said, "which says something about the quality of the film, as opposed to the audience."

Furthermore, Stucke said that foreign-language documentaries face even bigger hurtles. "It's almost hopeless," he says. "None of the premium buyers will look at a film with subtitles."

For the theatrical release of "Return to Homs," Journeyman is partnering with crowd-sourcing distributor Gathr Films, which also worked on the release of the Egyptian documentary "The Square," which appealed to Stucke. Plus, he wanted to move fast. "I was aware that the Homs story was still happening and the main character was still fighting for his life."

The festival's other major documentary touching on the crisis in Syria, Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman's "E-Team," has an even better chance of making an impact. For one, it follows two English-speaking Human Rights Watch investigators — who are married. And secondly, it's not exactly a film about Syria, which helped get the film made, according to producer Marilyn Ness.

"E-Team."
"E-Team."

"We weren't pitching it as a Syria story," said Ness. "It was about the lives of these human rights investigators and it just happened to coincide with the Syria story."

And yet, the film's most powerful moments take place in Syria. One such sequence shows an anguished, angry Syrian man, standing atop a pile of rubble in his recently bombed out village, telling the investigators that his brother, sister and stepmother were just killed in the attack.

"The news market doesn't always reflect what we want to see."

"We felt a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down," said Ness. "If people perceive an investigative action film and they’re getting lessons about Syria, it seemed worthwhile."

"E-Team" also struck a deal with Netflix for worldwide distribution rights. Ness is hopeful that the "mainstream" company will get the film out to a wider audience both theatrically, later this fall, and through its online streaming service.

Indeed, if the nightly news isn't providing adequate coverage of the Syrian crisis, the content available through other releasing platforms may be filling that gap. Journeyman's Stucke said he's seen a massive increase in digital consumption of similar types of issue-driven foreign docs over the last 2-3 years, much of it within the United States.

"The news market doesn't always reflect what we want to see," Stucke said. "I am hopeful that the viewers crave something different than what they’re being given."

This article is related to: Reality Checks, Documentary, Return to Homs, E-TEAM, Syria