“Why did I cut someone’s throat?” a Syrian opposition fighter asks himself on screen. “I don’t know. I cut his throat and went out crying. My body cut his throat. It wasn’t my soul. Like there was a dissociation. Like my soul left my body.” He exhales.
The Unknown Soldier is a four-part interview by Abounaddara, a growing collective of self-taught Syrian film-makers who started posting videos online from Damascus in April 2011, just a month after anti-Assad protests began. Since then, the group has been uploading a snapshot of life in Syria to Vimeo every Friday.
The individual film-makers are all anonymous, except two: Osama al-Habali, who was arrested at the Syrian-Lebanese border two years ago, at the age of 24, and is still being held; and Charif Kiwan, who has managed to leave the country and acts as the group’s public spokesman.
Kiwan arrived in New York this week to speak at the launch of Here and Elsewhere, a three-floor exhibition of contemporary Arab art that will be at New York City’s New Museum until late September. Twelve of Abounaddara’s videos, including The Unknown Soldier, are on view, along with work by the Egyptian installation artist Wael Shawky, Lebanese poet and abstract painter Etel Adnan, Tunisian siblings and dancers Sofiane and Selma Ouissi, and more than 40 others.
At this point, Abounaddara have almost 250 videos online, ranging between one and six minutes. Some of the earliest footage captures ordinary life with long, static shots: a mosque being cleaned at dawn, a metalworker chiselling out a repetitive pattern, an argument over sound quality at a cassette shop. A video uploaded in the summer of 2011 shows kids raucously singing along to a live cover of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
Two of the videos chosen for the New Museum show are from this earlier period, and are wordless and open-ended, but the rest are all more recent interviews with people caught up in the Syrian conflict. They feature a sniper, a gang of resistance fighters and a self-described “girl of the revolution” who refuses to wear what she’s told or to leave the country while others are trapped inside.
“We have to do something to let you see and feel this society in an accurate way,” Kiwan said at the launch on Wednesday. He continued:
If we accept the mainstream representation of the conflict in Syria we just have two actors. A gentleman who is a dictator but he is very polite, he smiles, a very attractive guy, but he is a criminal – and the ugly jihadists. But we don’t see the society. We don’t see ordinary people. So we try to show those people who are not victims, not heroes, they just try to struggle for freedom and to live with dignity.
The interviewees come from different regions of Syria, and they represent a broad spectrum of religious and political beliefs. No explicit violence is shown, and no judgments are made. “We always try to film people with empathy,” Kiwan said. He summed it up at a talk last week in Beirut: “We are always looking for the form that allows the viewer to have faith in a shared humanity.
Even Abounaddara’s most emotionally raw films often have glimmers of this optimism. In Children of Halfaya, another video in the New Museum show, a pre-teen refugee recounts a story about his neighbour running from a bombing, stopping only to pick up his own severed hand. Around the boy, smaller children play in a cramped room. One of them picks up a baseball cap, and points to the Free Syria flag painted on its peak – puts it on, and beams.
Here and Elsewhere will be at the New Museum until 28 September. www.newmuseum.org