The film opens with a quote from George Orwell’s 1984, “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past.” Three survivors of the Syrian Revolution, Odai, Rani and Yadan, meet to share their stories. They try to tell what happened in the beginning, when the protests were met with violence, suppression, and state propaganda. Before every world power or extremist group hijacked the narrative for their own ends.
A harddrive was smuggled out of Syria and into the hands of the director. On it were countless hours of film, tracing the very first protests against the Asad regime in the birthplace of the Revolution, the city of Daraa. The majority was shot by a handful of friends, who were just ordinary neighbourhood guys, but were forced by the brutality of the regime to become citizen journalists, documenting the atrocities being inflicted on the people of their community. After 10 years, the director gathers the surviving journalists together to view the footage and put in context the events they show.
It’s a hard watch. These films were not made by career journalists just trying to put together an interesting package for the nightly news. They were filming the arrest, torture, and massacre of their neighbours, their friends. They were filming as an act of survival. And the violence and trauma is something they endured directly. Which is why watching them review the footage is so difficult, watching them relive that trauma. You feel what a sacrifice it is for them to go back over what they shot, how emotionally exhausting. But from that, you understand how important it is for this story to be told right.
Propaganda is something they are keenly aware of. The Assad government held all the power, controlled all the media. Their grainy cameraphone footage floated like balloons up into the ether of the internet, hoping someone would see. The official story was that the army was simply protecting the people from terrorist groups who were killing indiscriminately. The film of unarmed peaceful protestors being fired upon tells otherwise. The images of children playing among the activists, with women dancing, tells of how unthreatening they were. It is only after the authorities begin murdering protestors, Odai, Rani and Yadan join an activist group, and try to hide their faces in their films. But even that can be used by the regime, so they can point to it and say to the West, “See! They are terrorists!”, knowing that brown-skinned men speaking Arabic in balaclavas will always be read as terrorist, no matter how much they are fighting for democracy non-violently, and hiding their identities out of necessity.
When the deaths of innocents start piling up, the handful of personal weapons in the city are donated to be used to protect the protestors when RPGs and tank shells start firing. They are used merely to cover the protestors’ retreat, to give people time to escape unharmed, but again, that’s not the story the regime gives to those images. As the journalists themselves say, they knew where we were firing from, they could have taken the building in minutes, but they let us stay, because we were worth more as images of armed terrorists firing on government forces. They were damned if they do and damned if they don’t, their choices were let the authorities massacre their people with impunity or become fodder for propaganda.
They couldn’t understand how the world would not come to their aid. In those days, before Daesh, before ISIS, before every world power had staked its claim in what Syria represented for their interests, it was ordinary citizens trying to overthrow a notorious, human rights-abusing tyranny. One guy remembers dumping the body of a murdered child on the front of a UN truck, while Kofi Annan, the envoy to Syria, was visiting. He demanded Annan come and speak to the family, and after he did, the military bombed the family home. They even opened fire on the delegation. And he tells Kofi Annan, they are showing you exactly what they are doing, and daring you to do something about it; they are not doing this for my benefit, I see it every day. And in the end, he is astonished to see them leave and no aid being given.
From all the documentaries about Syria I have seen, everyone seems to agree there was this moment, where if there had been the support, things could have gone another way. And instead everything falls to shit. And the remainder of the footage shows the Assad government determined to destroy everything on the face of Syria, and kill every Syrian citizen, if it means they still rule the rubble and bones.
Of particular difficulty is watching the fate of their friend, Abou Nasir, who was with them from the very start, and became a reporter for Al Jazeera under his full name Mohammed Hourani, and who was murdered by a sniper while making a report. He was 33. Many of the films in the movie were of his making. They stand, the three of them watching his face, and you feel the absence of him next to them, as tangible as the presence of a ghost.
A hard watch, but one you feel is owed to both the living and the dead.