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An interview with Syrian filmmaker Saeed Al-Batal

Saeed Al-Batal in Duma
Saeed Al-Batal in Duma Photo: Sam Lenses

The 2018 documentary “Still Recording” tells the story of day-to-day survival during four years of siege in Eastern Ghouta, Syria. Alsharq and the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung spoke with one of its directors, Saeed Al-Batal, about art in times of resistance and why everyone should care about Syria.

Interview by Anna-Theresa Bachmann

Saeed, to protect your family in Syria you chose “Al-Batal”—the hero—as a synonym for your last name. To what extent do you consider yourself a hero who kept recording in war-torn East Ghouta for four years?

Saeed Al-Batal is the name of my mother’s uncle who was a part of the Palestinian revolution in the 1960s and was assassinated in the mid-1970s. I took his name when I began writing articles in the wake of the 2011 revolution. But I do not believe in individual heroes, I believe in the collective act of heroism…

…such as the people’s uprising against Bashar al-Assad in 2011?

The people were brave. Standing up for yourself and human rights is, however, not a heroic act but rather demonstrates that you are still alive. I understand that people are sometimes scared and fear the system. The Syrian regime managed to silence the public for such a long time. But the Arab Spring turned things upside down: people should not be afraid of their government; the government should be afraid of them.

In the documentary, you state that you do not carry weapons, but cameras could be regarded as guns as well. What do you mean by that?

I am sure that the Arab Spring’s first weapon was the camera—not just against the Syrian regime, but against any dictatorship. The regime controlled the media and its people for almost 40 years, and did not want Syrians and the outside world to see protestors in the streets. Therefore, Assad’s number one rebel on the wanted list was not the one with the gun but the one with the camera. If you got arrested while filming, you could expect higher levels of torture than anyone else.

You were also arrested for 20 days after joining and filming the first demonstration in Douma that took place in March 2011. Obviously, you continued filming once you were released, but did this experience impact your work in any way?

There was a lot of mistrust between people in 2011–2012. Everyone was afraid that someone could be working for the regime or the secret service. The arrest worked out well for me because after my release people trusted me more, especially the revolutionaries. This is how I started working with the youth of Douma, organizing demonstrations, filming and uploading them to the internet beginning in April 2011. I never stopped until I left Syria in August 2015.

Were there times when you felt you could no longer go on? Especially after the regime’s violent response, the massacre in Douma in 2012, which is part of the documentary?

This was the first time I regarded the camera as a shield protecting me from the horrific images playing out in front of me. The camera saved me from the ultimate question: what can I do in the face of death? From this day, the camera protected my psychological self from being broken amidst all the violence and blood.

What was your original intention when you and your team decided to film the rebels of Eastern Ghouta?

I began filming the demonstrations and uploaded the videos as an immediate response to what was going on in Syria. I had been working with the rebels of Douma for two years by the time they went to liberate the city after the big massacre committed by the regime. We thought that the liberation of Eastern Ghouta would continue on to Damascus through the neighbourhood of Jobar. One of our cameramen died during the liberation of Douma. But especially during the first year, we expected to make it all the way to the presidential palace in Mezzeh. I wanted to make a film about the city’s liberation, but the movie never finished until the military breakdown against the regime.

Where are the members of the film team now?

When I left in August 2015, the team kept filming until people were evacuated. All of us are now outside of Eastern Ghouta. Two people are in Idlib, another three in Turkey, one in Lebanon, I am in Europe, but almost all of us have continued recording until now. It became a habit, a reason to live. This is another reason why we called the movie Still Recording—because we literally are.

After being screened and awarded several prices at the Venice International Critics’ Week in Italy, the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, and the Valdivia International Film Festival in Chile, Still Recording will have its premier in Germany at the “Around the World in 14 Films”- Festival in Berlin on November 25, 2018. 

The documentary ends in 2015, after producing 450 hours of recorded material. How did you decide which scenes to include?

It was a long and very stressful process. Ghiath Ayoub (the second director) and I realized that the 450 hours could be used for all sorts of propaganda. Who controls the image rights? Who has the right to tell us what really happened? This was a big ethical question for us. We edited all of the scenes, and the first cut was 26 hours long. The second one was ten, the third seven hours and from there we were cutting down hours by eliminating similarities. It took us two years in the editing room to finally reach a version that was only two hours long. We knew this method meant taking the long road, so to speak, but we saw this as the best way to deal the material responsibly.

To what extent does Still Recording challenge people’s perceptions about what living in a warzone means by including so many different aspects?

Usually when you make a movie about Syria you have one or two layers, eliminating anything else for the sake of clarity. But this movie is all about breaking stereotypes. Even if you are someone who lived in Douma all your life, you will discover something that surprises or even disturbs you. Reality is chaos, and we tried to be as realistic as we could. During seven years of siege in Eastern Ghouta, not everything was about war. 1.1 million people lived there. You cannot rely on misery and sadness alone. Any act of happiness or art is resistance to the non-stop killing machine.

How did you depict this constant emotional turmoil in the film?

There is not a lot of acting in war. You are always reacting, and you can never predict what is going to happen. This is what we wanted to show: now you are fighting, six minutes later you are dancing, six minutes later you bury a friend. Seven minutes later you are painting a wall. Six minutes later you are shot.

Many documentaries which capture longer periods of time use voice-overs to narrate the story for the audience—not so in Still Recording. Why?

Personally, I do not like voice-overs because they create a feeling of safety. If I am talking from the beginning to the end, it means that I am safe and so is the audience. Also, we did not want to think in the viewer’s place, to provide the answers. We wanted people to feel as if they were involved by watching, that they were the ones behind the camera. The political map of Syria changed during the two years we worked on the movie: another chemical attack took place, the people lost Eastern Ghouta in a massive battle and moved to Idlib. This was a reminder to us that if you want a documentary to live on forever, it should be independent from events and tell a full story. We depended on a lot of test screenings and brought in people who did not know anything about Syria to see their reactions. Because this is the closest to the reality of the children of tomorrow.

What do you mean by that?

The best way to protect the future is to record everything. We want to tell the children of tomorrow—not only in Syria but all over the world—what really happened in Eastern Ghouta as a part of Syria during this period. I do not believe in machines, I do not believe in cars, I do not believe that all the technological developments are presenting what human beings are about. The only thing is art. This is why I think that art will live as long as human beings exist.

After being screened and awarded several prices at the Venice International Critics’ Week in Italy, the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, and the Valdivia International Film Festival in Chile, Still Recording will have its premier in Germany at the “Around the World in 14 Films”- Festival in Berlin on November 25, 2018. 

Yet the movie is now showing in Italy and will soon be screened in Germany.* At the conference Connecting Resistances you expressed understanding for Europeans who are tired of hearing bad news about Syria. Why should they go see the movie nevertheless?

If you care about your future and the future of your children, you should care about Syria. Because if the regime goes unpunished for what it did to its people, this will be an invitation to anyone else. It is already happening: after the regime escaped punishment for burning people, torturing people, and even launching chemical attacks, similar regimes are emerging everywhere. Germany is selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, a country that kills children in Yemen. Europe supports Abdel Fatah al-Sisi who is another version of Hafez al-Assad. Hafez provided 30 years of peace in Syria. But was it really peace? We saw what happened after that. If you support al-Sisi now because it represents a short-term benefit for you, the future is going to be much worse.

How can the European left and the broader public show solidarity with the people in Syria and in exile, especially now that the situation on the ground appears so grim?

In comparison to today’s left, people on the right are mobilizing on a self-interested level. Right-wing politicians frame their struggles as if certain issues or events would have an actual and direct impact on their own lives and on the world around them. Leftists, on the other hand, have lost touch with the real world and pretend to not be affected by anything. This is what I have witnessed during my short time in Lebanon and Europe. Being left-wing is regarded as something cool and as having a certain level of education. If you do not care about what is happening around you on a personal level, maybe nothing will happen to you today. But tomorrow it will backfire.

What do you suggest?

I can’t tell anyone what to do, I can only show you the reality. But if you ask for advice I would say: do anything. Doing nothing is the problem. If you are thinking that another letter to someone in parliament will not do anything—it will. Send it. If you think another demonstration will not solve anything—no, it will. Also, stop making excuses for other people. People say they do not know who to replace Assad with. I don’t think anyone was thinking about who would replace Adolf Hitler. It is about stopping bad people from doing bad things. But before anything else, take it as something that concerns you personally. Do not act on it as if it was something that would be good for others. If you want to prevent something like this to happen to yourself, then do stop it from happening to others.

Thank you.