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Abounaddara: Voices from a different Syria


For the New York Review of Books, Robyn Creswell writes about the Syrian film collective Abounaddara and their weekly videos. Their depiction of Syria, she writes, provides a dramatically different and needed picture of the war-torn country that is usually offered in the media. Read her in partial below, or the full version here.

As the Syrian conflict passes its fifth anniversary, a partial cease-fire and the withdrawal of some Russian forces has brought what many are calling the best chance in years for peace to begin to take hold. And yet as international negotiators try to bring together the government with dozens of different opposition groups, a larger question about the deeply divided country remains: What do Syrians themselves want? The lead-up to possible talks has been dominated by geopolitical and strategic considerations rather than appeals to popular will. Many foreign observers, confronted by daily images of violence and its victims, may wonder if there still is a Syria at all beyond the war.

The work of the anonymous Syrian film collective Abounaddara provides a strikingly different picture of Syrians and their country. The members of Abounaddara, an Arabic phrase meaning “the man with glasses,” began making films in 2010, but it was Syria’s version of the Arab Spring that gave them an urgent sense of purpose. For the past five years, they have posted a new documentary film every week, resulting in an archive of nearly four hundred shorts that can be watched for free on Vimeo. By contrast with the ghoulish habits of television coverage of the war, Abounaddara’s films, which typically run two to three minutes, show individual Syrians who speak—often directly to the camera—rather than mute collectives of the dead.

These films, whose subjects include soccer players for the Syrian national team, bereaved parents, former prisoners of ISIS, intellectuals, and refugees, are powerful portraits of individual Syrians, yet they can also be hard to read, in part because we’re told so little about the subjects and settings. This withholding of information is clearly by design. The films often begin and end in medias res, leaving the viewer to puzzle out their significance. They require one to think as well as to look.

Other Abounaddara films offer glimpses into quotidian life: boys playing video games, a man trying on a jacket, merchants talking shop. But there is invariably some friction between the actions we see and where they are taking place. The gloomy labyrinths of first-person shooter video games are made more sinister by their revealed similarity to the gloomy labyrinths of a makeshift camp for Syrians that have had to flee their homes. (What sort of fun, we ask ourselves, what sort of escape do these games truly offer?) The gestures of a man trying on a jacket are subtly different when he does it in a migrant processing center: he’s not buying the jacket, it’s being given to him second-hand, so what counts as a good fit? In these films, the everyday is rendered strange by war, yet war itself takes place among the stubborn routines of daily life.

*Screenshot of Abounaddara video via Dazed