It’s been 12 years since the Syrian Civil War began, fracturing the region and contributing to the devastating global migration and refugee crisis. The Arab Spring of 2011 was an initially hopeful time for Syrians, filled with dynamic, peaceful protests against the corrupt regime of President Bashar al-Assad. When Syrian journalist Lina (who goes by this alias to protect her security) started documenting what was then still called a “revolution,” she and her friends believed that it wouldn’t last long. And when state forces began attacking and jailing protesters, they still thought it couldn’t get any worse.
In “5 Seasons of Revolution,” Lina documents the terrifying real-time transition from peaceful revolution to all-out civil war. Filmed between 2011-2015, the footage is rough and impressionistic, often making it difficult to get your bearings. Sometimes Lina records from the inside of her bag, her hand partially covering the lens so as not to be detected by the police. Her material is unpolished and incomplete, far from the kind of war reporting you might get from a news segment or a more traditional documentary. Instead, it’s largely made up of shaky footage like this, as well as segments featuring Lina and her friends sitting around, watching the news and smoking cigarettes, waiting to hear if someone they know will be released from prison.
It’s a deeply personal depiction of life during wartime, in large part due to Lina’s everpresent voiceover narration. Her diaristic recollections give a loose shape to this otherwise abstract film, as she looks back in a kind of dazed awe at how she navigated this perilous time in her life. She divides this time into five “seasons,” each representing a more brutal shift in the government’s response to the revolution, as well as more subtle fluctuations occurring within her personal sphere.
As the film opens, Lina lovingly introduces her friends one by one — each one more optimistic, opinionated and energized against Assad than the next. They come together to form a secret activist group to help organize protests and strikes, and wipe people’s computers if they’re thrown in prison. This lively spirit stands in sharp contrast to their attitudes by film’s end, when each member is severely worn down by the war — and one is no longer alive to fight against it.
As Assad’s crackdown against any form of dissent becomes increasingly brutal, Lina takes on multiple aliases to protect herself depending on where she is. Among journalists, she’s “Maya.” Among activists, “Maiss.” Among filmmakers, she’s “Layla.” And “Lina” remains her apolitical upper-class persona, which she assumes whenever she faces authorities at checkpoints, protests, or the prison where she spends 44 days.
Lina’s friends develop their own differing responses to the increasing violence. Some, like her provocative friend Rina, become emboldened to wave a red banner emblazoned with the words “Stop the Killing” in front of the parliament building in Damascus, starting a national movement of Syrians doing the same. She’s taken to prison — though not arrested, she suspects, to keep the media from getting involved.
But Susu begins to distance herself from riskier actions like these, becoming disillusioned with the movement and, to a certain degree, Lina. “I don’t believe in this film,” she tells her one day. Susu’s face is obscured with deepfake technology to protect her identity, further dissociating her from the events that took place.
Lina does not try to make sense of what happened, nor to give context to her audience by offering them a timeline of events. In fact, we’re dropped into the narrative without much pretense, almost as if this could be happening anywhere, to anyone. This technique is as effective as it is unsettling. The audience is able to witness the often banal realities of war — not the frantic, action-filled scenes we might imagine, but the waiting, the uncertainty, and the confusion. A film made by a woman living through the Syrian Civil War is far different from one made by an outsider — she’s not here temporarily. She has no choice but to go on with her life.
The footage has an eerie sense of calm due to Lina’s soft, steady narration. She, like most of her friends, was forced to leave the country in 2015, and time has given her even more distance from the events that took place. As we’re caught up in the coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the film serves as a reminder of how there’s always a personal aspect of war that exists outside the explosive media cycles. It’s one that’s not as riveting as we may want, but perhaps its specificity offers a fuller and more realistic picture of a conflict.
“5 Seasons of the Revolution” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
Sign Up: Stay on top of the latest breaking film and TV news! Sign up for our Email Newsletters here.