Syrian filmmakers tell the stories you aren’t hearing about the Syrian war

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Yassin al-Haj Saleh, center, stands on a street in Istanbul in director Ali Atassi's "Our Terrible Country." The film depicts Saleh's journey from Douma to Raqqa, the stronghold of the Islamic state, before he moves to Istanbul. Photo courtesy of Ali Atassi

Yassin al-Haj Saleh, center, appears in director Ali Atassi’s “Our Terrible Country.” The film depicts Saleh’s journey from Douma to Raqqa, now the stronghold of the Islamic State, before he moves to Istanbul. Photo courtesy of Ali Atassi


Always check for scorpions in your shoes.

That’s what Hassan tells the camera, shaking out his boots and shoving his feet in. At the age of 28, he’s had his own cow farm for years, and knows where the most terrifying creatures hide.

The air around him is filled with life. A barking puppy greets him as he walks into the one-story cinderblock compound where he lives alongside his cow, Saadah, Mabroukeh and Sally, to name a few. Two geese cluck over a bucket of water. A television mounted on the ground of his bedroom blares what appear to be state-sponsored commercials for the Syrian Army.

We’re on the remote outskirts of Salamiyah, Syria, in 2010 — just before the revolution of 2011 and the war that would follow.

Ali Sheikh Khudr began filming Hassan, his cousin, for a documentary project in 2010, but the project stalled while the filmmaker figured out the angle that would tie Hassan’s story together. He returned to Damascus until 2012, one year into the revolution, when it became more important than ever to tell his cousin’s story.

“Everything in Syria was not the same,” Khudr said. “Everything was unbalanced, everything was different. So I thought to myself, ‘Okay, now is the right time to go and film.’” The result was “The Cow Farm,” his film that puts Hassan front and center.

Khudr is one of a group of Syrian documentary filmmakers whose work has taken on new urgency as the Syrian war stretches into its fifth year. Those filmmakers are determined to add something new to the conversation around Syria in a media field that they say is filled with violence and overly focused on numbers — the number of dead (more than 200,000), the number who have fled (more than 4 million), the number who have entered Europe this year (more than 1 million).

But this is too simple, and too dehumanizing, a way to look at the war, Khudr said.

“Those people who are dying in Syria, they are not only numbers,” he said. “They are human beings. And we should listen to their stories.”

Let’s start with one: the story of Hassan.

Syria through the eyes of a cow farmer

Hassan “preferred cows to human beings” and always dreamed of having his own farm, Khudr said. “That state of isolation — I was facinated by the character,” he said.

“The Cow Farm” largely depicts Hassan’s daily routine: caring for the cows, talking to them, worrying over their falling yield of milk. It also depicts him criticizing the Syrian opposition, which he derides as disorganized and violent.

Hassan, the protagonist of Ali Sheikh Khudr's documentary "The Cow Farm." Photo by Ali Sheikh Kudhr

Hassan, the protagonist of Ali Sheikh Khudr’s documentary “The Cow Farm.” Photo by Ali Sheikh Khudr

Meanwhile, members of his family supported the opposition, a conflict that comes up in one of the film’s later scenes. This family dynamic reflects a society split between support for the regime and opposition against it, Khudr said. “That was my way to talk about the country, the whole country, through one character … The story of Hassan told me a lot about the situation in Syria,” he said.

In one scene, Hassan says that he has been drafted to the Syrian military, even after having completed the mandatory military service that the government requires of all Syrian men. He knows he must sell the cows, who would die of neglect while their sole caretaker was in the army, but he can’t bring himself to give up his life’s work. “It’s better to sell them, but I can’t do it,” he says. “Why?” Khudr asks, off-camera. “I am so attached to them,” he answers.

Khudr left Syria in 2012 and moved to Egypt for a year and a half, then Istanbul, where he finished the film and released it; this year, he migrated on foot from Istanbul to Berlin, a distance of more than 1,200 miles.

Shortly after filming, Hassan entered the military. He died in the spring of 2013 as a soldier in the Syrian army.

“While I was on the way [to Berlin], I turned into a number,” Khudr said. “And Hassan was a number in that war.”

By sharing Hassan’s story, Khudr hopes to begin to put a human face to the vast groups of people who have left Syria and those who have died, he said. “You need to tell the story of human beings. This is the most important task of art,” he said. “This was the most important thing I [could] do for the soul of my cousin.”

READ MORE: The chilling, abstract blueprints of war from the mind of Syrian artist Waseem Marzouki

A Syrian intellectual journeys to Raqqa

“It’s not always easy to change the world with words,” director Ali Atassi told me.

He was talking about what Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a well-known Syrian dissident intellectual, has tried to do all his life. Saleh is the main protagonist in Atassi’s documentary “Our Terrible Country,” which follows him in 2013 as he moves with his wife Samira Khalil to the Damascus suburb of Douma. “You won’t find a place where life or death are in closer proximity,” Saleh says at the film’s beginning, walking around a Douma neighborhood where shells of buildings teeter on bombed-out foundations.

Ziad al-Homsi, a young photographer, worked with Atassi to interview Saleh in Douma and chronicle his journey to Raqqa, the northern city that would later become the operational capital of the Islamic State.

At the time, “I was scared that something would happen to Yassin,” Atassi told me. “I felt it was my duty to try to document his presence in this period.”

Atassi joined the group in Raqqa, where Saleh discovered that his brother had been kidnapped by the Islamic State. Saleh went into hiding and eventually moved to Istanbul, with his wife still hoping to join him from Douma.

“I was not sure that we were doing a documentary film, or who was the director,” Atassi said. “We were shooting and trying to be a witness to this period.”

Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh, left, and photographer Ziad al-Homsi, right, appear in a scene from Ali Atassi's "Our Terrible Country." The film depicts Saleh's journey from Douma to Raqqa, the stronghold of the Islamic State, before he moves to Istanbul. Photo courtesy of Ali Atassi

Syrian intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh, left, and photographer Ziad al-Homsi, right, appear in a scene from Ali Atassi’s “Our Terrible Country.” Photo courtesy of Ali Atassi

During the filming process, Atassi noticed a connection between the protagonist and photographer, each belonging to different generations of the opposition. “Something was established between Yassin and Ziad — this kind of dynamic between the young generation and the old generation, both involved in the uprising in their way,” he said. The film explores this relationship and their roles in the opposition; at the center, a question of whether each of them will remain in Syria to continue working and fighting. (Homsi renounced the film in November, saying he does not agree with its portrayal of the opposition.)

Filmmakers working in Syria walk a fine line between exposing the violence that they say needs recognition and making that violence the centerpiece of Syrian culture, Atassi said. In 2011 when the revolution began, “The image of violence became the center of our uprising,” Atassi said. “It was a real challenge for filmmakers and artists to try to say something different.”

Atassi said he was careful in “Our Terrible Country” to treat violence as a relatively unseen threat in the film, instead of a gory reality. “We can talk about violence, we can show violence without showing the image of violence,” he said.

In February 2014, when the group was still filming, Khalil — now known as one of the “Douma Four” — was abducted and remains missing.

READ MORE: The film that captures the heart of Damascus before the war

Filming the Syrian diaspora

The difficulty of filming inside Syria makes it a more dangerous artistic medium than many others, according to Natasha Hall, director of Art in Exile, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that raises awareness on crises in the Middle East by showcasing art.

Other documentary projects show a generation of filmmakers that is determined to release films in the midst of war, both inside and outside of the country. Abounaddara, a Damascus-based film collective made up of volunteer documentary filmmakers, releases a new short film every week on Vimeo; most of those films show one to five-minute snapshots of Syrians’ lives. The films cover a range of style and subjects, from two children pumping water in an alley, to a woman mourning her “fragile” brother who was killed at a checkpoint, to a man who describes life in Palmyra as the Islamic State took occupation of the ancient city. The group won the short film grand jury prize at the Sundance film festival last year for “Of God and Dogs,” in which a Syrian soldier describes how he killed an innocent man.

Several recently-posted films appear to show a group of Syrian refugees arriving on the shores of Greece.

Others work with found footage, including director Ossama Mohammed. He created “Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait,” which screened at the Cannes Film Festival last year, from footage he discovered online while working from Paris. Wiam Simav Bedirxan also contributed footage from Homs, the city that was a key center of the revolution in 2011 and became a target for anti-opposition government forces.

Some directors have chosen to focus on life after migration, grappling with a future in which millions of Syrians are living in diaspora. In “Queens of Syria,” a film by Yasmin Fedda that has recently screened in London and Washington, D.C., a group of refugee women living in Amman, Jordan, works with the UK-based group Refuge Drama Productions to put on a modern adaptation of Euripedes’ “The Trojan Women.”

The play, in which women on the island of Melos lament the destruction of their home and families, is highly personal for these women. “This has happened for real. It has happened to us,” Maha, one of the actors, says.

The film also brings a number of unexpectedly funny moments that will resonate with anyone who has ever been part of staging a play. (“Draw!” a vocal coach orders the women during a warmup, and as they begin flailing their arms she changes her command. “Now erase! Cry!”)

Now in Berlin, Khudr said he wants to make a new film with four characters, born in Syria in the 1980s and now living in Germany, who will “tell the story of this generation.” He said his experiences and those of other filmmakers will contribute to developing a new chapter in Syrian film.

“This whole experience that we have been through will form something different,” he said. “It will form a new, different kind of cinema.”

Explore more of our Syrian Voices series which highlights Syrian artists producing work around the world.

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