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Syrian Films Bring Horror, Hope

  • Heather Murdock

Syrian refugee girls sit in front of a painted wall in the Bab Al-Salam refugee camp in Azaz, near the Syrian-Turkish border, Oct. 27, 2014.

Syrian refugee girls sit in front of a painted wall in the Bab Al-Salam refugee camp in Azaz, near the Syrian-Turkish border, Oct. 27, 2014.

Syrian filmmakers are touring European film festivals this week, screening "Our Terrible Country," a film that explores an intergenerational friendship amid kidnappings, war and exile.

In this documentary, a young man named Ziad laughs with his white-haired companion, Yassin. They are in Turkey, having fled Syria after Ziad was captured and tortured by Islamic State militants. Yassin is in exile, fearing both the government and the Islamic State.

The film is not about what happened in the past, said its director, Ali Atassi. It was happening as they were shooting.

"I did stop shooting when Ziad was arrested by the Islamic State," Atassi said. "I continued with Yassin, and when [Ziad] was released later he came to join us in Istanbul, and there the film took end."

While imprisoned, Ziad wondered if people like him and his friends — Syrian activists who once dreamed of toppling the Bashar al-Assad government with peaceful protest — were to blame for the current war that has killed nearly 200,000 people.

Atassi said that his film asks more questions than it answers, but that the voices of secular activists are essential for building a postwar future for Syria.

Those voices, he added, are often marginalized by media that portray all Syrians as Islamist extremists, rebels or supporters of the Assad regime.

"We fought from the beginning and we will continue in our way," Atassi said. "And we belong to the society. I do not think the Islamists or Assad belong to the future of Syria. The media do not want to see us. But we are here."

More important, Atassi said, Syrians inside Syria need to hear moderate voices.

"If you look to the role that the culture in general, but also the cinema and short movie, can play in this struggle, I think it is a major role," he said, adding that the fight against the Islamists is a cultural as well as an armed struggle. "It is about some value. It is about the idea of the future of Syria."

Produced by Syrian audio-visual aid group Bidayyat, based in Lebanon, Atassi's film is one of a host of documentaries made in and around Syria that are trying to humanize the conflict.

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In a new short film, "Being Good So Far, Part 2," boys ride on the back of a truck in war-torn Aleppo, singing about freedom as they see it. In the song, Assad is not even human and the supposed "moderate" rebels are rats that scatter when they are bombed.

It is this kind of complexity that gets lost in news reporting, said Bidayyat general coordinator Christin Luettich.

Bidayyat's films are all subtitled in English and its website is in both Arabic and English. Luettich said that since they started supporting artists last year, one filmmaker has been killed and other people involved with the project are being held hostage by Islamic State militants.

Despite the continued horror, she said, filmmakers give her hope that one day there will be a peaceful Syria.

"All the people that I meet though the work we are doing in the last three years really give me a lot of hope, because I see how much they are willing to contribute to the development of the country, how much they are willing to defend the values that they have in mind," Luettich said.

One of those values, she said, is the dream of a Syrian democracy that includes all the people, minus dictators and violent extremists.​