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Filmmaker Captures Life for Syrians Whose World Has Been Blown Apart

April 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
FRONTLINE's latest documentary, "Syria Behind the Lines," explores the everyday lives of citizens caught in the midst of the country's civil war. Jeffrey Brown talks with film director and producer Olly Lambert about witnessing daily life in Syria, indiscriminate attacks on civilians and the future of the country.

GWEN IFILL: We return now to the conflict in Syria.

Earlier today, al-Qaida in Iraq announced that it will merge with the Syrian militant group Al-Nusra Front. The al-Qaida offshoot could become the dominant player in the fight to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The country’s civil war is the subject of tonight’s FRONTLINE documentary, “Syria: Behind the Lines.”

Jeffrey Brown has more on the story and the making of the film.

But a warning to viewers: Some of the images are disturbing.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a war, as this film says, of community against community and sometimes neighbor against neighbor.

Documentary filmmaker Olly Lambert traveled to Syria twice last year to the Orontes River Valley, where Sunnis live on one side of the river and Alawites on the other, once peacefully, now amid violence. He was able to follow and talk with people loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and also with members of the Free Syrian Army.

Here are two excerpts. The main protagonists are Syrian Army Lieutenant Ali Ghazi and a former policeman who defected to the opposition named Ahmad.

NARRATOR: Across the river our regime are regime forces, usually off-limits to Western media. Their positions along the 40-mile valley defend Syria’s Alawite heartland.

This army checkpoint faces Ahmad’s village, and is one of the launching sites for regime attacks. The platoon commander is Lieutenant Ali Ghazi.

ALI GHAZI, Platoon Commander: We are the Syrian Arab army, and our duty is to defend this homeland, to protect unarmed civilians and to attack militants and destroy the armed mercenaries.

NARRATOR: Rebel-held Sunni villages are less than a mile away. This is President Assad’s front line.

ALI GHAZI: There are a lot of armed groups over there. They’re particularly active at night or at dawn, when they’re preparing to carry out armed attacks.

There used to be a sniper in the dome of that mosque. One of my soldiers was shot in the chest by this sniper. They were using armor-piercing bullets, but we dealt with the threat.

AHMAD, Free Syrian Army: I grew up in this valley. I used to mix with the Alawites a lot. We were like brothers before this revolution. We used to go to their homes until the early hours of the morning and they’d visit us, too.

If the Alawites don’t want to fight us, then we will solve this problem peacefully. But if they want to confront us, then we will respond with deadly force.

NARRATOR: Three miles from Ahmad’s village in the settlement of al-Bara, Jamal Maarouf meets his senior commanders. They’re planning their next attack at the army base at Wadi Deif.

A regime jet has dropped a bomb on al-Bara. It’s landed 300 yards from Jamal and his commanders. They fear they are being targeted and flee to safe houses. The bomb has destroyed homes filled with villagers and refugees.

WOMAN: Where are you taking my children?

MAN: Just come in the ambulance.

WOMAN: My children, my children!

JEFFREY BROWN: And with me now is the producer of FRONTLINE’s “Syria: Behind the Lines,” Olly Lambert.

Well, welcome to you.

Tell us first what you were after in this approach of spending time with protagonists on both sides of the civil war.

OLLY LAMBERT, “Syria: Behind the Lines”: Well, there’s been a lot of coverage of the rebel side of the conflict.

And it’s now relatively easy to get into rebel-held areas, particularly around Aleppo. And the conflict is now entering its third year. And I think we’re really interested in looking at not just the up-close, what the conflict is looking from both sides, but it was a way of being able to see where the conflict might go in the future, and the forces that are acting on it and the motivations of both sides that might give some indication of where things are going to go in the months and years which it’s looking like this conflict is going to take.

JEFFREY BROWN: How hard was it to find these two, especially the two main protagonists, one on either side, to gain their trust, to capture their sense of the war?

OLLY LAMBERT: Well, the hard thing was actually getting to that location.

Once I was there, it was relatively easy to — like with any documentary, you want to meet people as quickly as you can and you can explain as clearly as you can about who you are and what you’re doing. And you want them to trust you. And, ultimately, when people trust you, then both sides were very, very keen to tell their stories and to give their perspective on where the conflict was going.

The hardest bit was actually getting to that location. And that was — it was a very complex procedure. Ultimately, I was filming in two areas that were in places less than a mile between them. And yet I had to do a sort of 3,000 or 4,000 round-trip to get to those two places. It was impossible to cross just one from one place to the other.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, the camera takes us right into the war, right into the violence.

Can you give us an anecdote or a key moment for you in filming this and kind of getting a real sense of what was going on?

OLLY LAMBERT: Well, I mean, I have made documentaries in areas of conflict for on and off for about 10 years now.

And this was far and away the most bitter and most violent conflict zone I have ever been to, I mean, by a very — by a long margin. Every day, I was witnessing death and bloodshed. I was either seeing people get killed or I was seeing the aftermath of people being killed or I was seeing people being buried.

Nothing really rammed to home how awful this conflict has become than the airstrike that is a significant part of the film. I was actually filming with a rebel commander called Jamal Maarouf. He was one of the most powerful rebel leaders in the region that I was staying in.

And while I was filming him, as the camera was running, a regime jet flew overhead and dropped what was clearly a very large bomb on the very village that I was in. And it landed just less than 300 meters from where I was sitting.

The force of it threw me to the ground. And it killed 17 people. And there were many more injured. And there weren’t any other journalists, any either Arab or Western, for many, many miles. And to witness the sort of destruction and the bloodshed on that scale was quite horrific.

But it was — more than that, it was the indiscriminate attacks on civilians and the civilian population, many of whom were actually refugees. The people in the villages that I was staying in, many of them had fled to these villages from the cities. They thought that the villages were safer.

And then their worlds are literally blown apart in front of them. It was a really shocking experience. I have never — I never really witnessed or experienced anything like that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I want to ask you finally, we hear so much about a stalemate. That’s the word that is often used in our coverage here.

And I wonder what sense you came away with of the relative state of play, the strengths and weaknesses of both sides, and also their — their desire and ability to carry on with this fight. What is your sense of it?

OLLY LAMBERT: It’s a good question, because it’s a paradox, really.

On the surface, when you look at this conflict, it seems very kinetic, very energetic. There are all sort of things happening. There’s munitions falling. There’s a lot of weaponry being used up. Many, many people are dying. A staggering number of people are getting killed.

And yet somehow this is also — it is a stalemate. Although both sides are fighting very, very heavily and taking casualties on both sides every day, what we’re actually seeing is that — is a stalemate because neither side can win and neither side is actually going to lose at the moment. And this will just continue like a sort of churn on both sides of human lives.

There’s lots of talk about whether we should — in the West, whether we should or shouldn’t arm the rebels. And to my mind, seeing it up close, your first instinct is, on the rebel side, they are taking such a punishing, that one’s instinct is that you — we should be giving them weapons to defend themselves.

And yet, the more you think about that and you pull back — and I’m no military strategist — but it did seem clear that pumping in lots of weapons to try and force a change, giving weapons to one side will probably not solve anything, because the regime itself has got absolutely no shortage of weapons.

It’s getting weapons quite easily from Iran and training from Iran and also from Russia. And so it would merely up the ante on both sides. How to force the regime and President Assad to come to the negotiating table, indeed, how to make the rebels really accept any kind of conversation with him, given the destruction that he’s wreaked on his own people, these are impossible questions. And I really have no idea.

It’s — usually, one comes out of these situations, of any situation as a filmmaker, with some idea of how things might be — might be cleaned up or might be resolved. But I came away — every day that I spent there, I just felt more and more bleak about it. It’s — I think the country, a very civilized country with a great deal of history, is facing an incredibly bleak future.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the FRONTLINE documentary “Syria: Behind the Lines.”

Olly Lambert, thank you so much.

OLLY LAMBERT: It’s a pleasure. Thanks for having me.

GWEN IFILL: You can watch more videos and hear more Syrian voices on our home page, where we have a link to FRONTLINE’s website.

“Syria: Behind the Lines” airs on most PBS stations later this evening.