By Suresh Guptara
Alasdair Pinkerton recently led us through various uses of film in geopolitical studies; from reflecting on geopolitical representations in popular films (such as in Four Lions, or James Bond), to experientially embedding the audience in a specific context, or using film as a visual aid to an argument (many thanks to Dr Pinkerton for these examples). As we tried our hand at storyboarding, filming, and editing, while considering their use in the study of geopolitics, I reflected on a recent screening organised by Royal Holloway’s Media Studies department.
‘7 Days in Syria’ is the documentary of Newsweek Middle East editor, Janine di Giovanni, who submitted a proposal to cover the war in Syria. The newspaper rejected her request, deeming the situation too dangerous. She decided to go anyway.
Despite the dated context of 2012, when the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had not yet been largely swallowed up by radical Islamic factions including ISIS, and before Russia had started their bombing operations in the country, the film provides a snapshot into the everyday of those whose lives have been brought to a standstill because of the violence. Such practices reflect the politically hopeful yet personally realistic outlook many Syrians had, and the audience is confronted with aspects not seen in 30 second news clips shared on social media. Everyday geopolitics is shown in the homes through baking bread, the lack of medicine, in singing, in just living. The two journalists, Janine di Giovanni and Nicole Tung, have access to families, children, kitchens, as well as to local militia, Syrian journalists and mortar factories, and use film both as a means of documenting what is happening around them as well as capturing their own reflections in the moment.
There is a deep connection to place in the lives of the individuals in the film. Partly this stems from their sense of home, but it is also tied up with the history of the revolution and especially the price already paid. Particular corners are associated with the deaths of close friends and certain streets with enemy snipers. Even the sounds of warfare have become part of everyday life; locals can distinguish between Kalashnikovs and NATO standard weapons, between 12,7mm and 23mm rounds based solely on the sound. A young boy eats kebab and kicks his ball around a cemetery where his father works to bury the many dead. Each day 3 or 4 of the bodies are children his age, but this doesn’t seem to disturb him; it’s just part of his life.
“7 Days in Syria gives a window into the lives of families struggling to survive on the frontlines of the Syria conflict. Their courage and resilience shines through in impossible circumstances.”
– Angelina Jolie Pitt
The hope of those involved in the rebellion seems equally fuelled by a desire for a good future and a pride in the past. “These stones predate Columbus,” says the leader of one brigade of the FSA, referring to an archway that is older than the United States. In a rare interview-format scene he refers to Syria after the civil war, saying “it must be a democracy.” He beams jovial optimism, but this leader’s awareness of audience is unmistakable: “Show the cat,” he tells the cameraman as a stray crosses their path. “Perhaps people will be more willing to help if they see we have cats here in Syria.” Whether his joke is referring to Internet memes or something else is uncertain. What is clear is that although he is speaking with the journalists, he is consciously using the buzzwords of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ to appeal to Western decision makers. Moments such as this shown through a documentary can help sensitise audiences to the awareness of mediation by those in front of a camera, and prompts those watching to critically consider the chain of people and multiple audiences involved in transmitting his words into the room that evening: the man himself, the cameraman, the journalist, the editor, the producer, those hosting screenings.
But such vocabulary constitutes the periphery of the film. “Carrying a camera is just as important as carrying a weapon,” says Noura, reflecting on her role in the war. She used to be a student, but she has taken up her ‘weapon’ to document and to share what is happening. Janine and Nicole don’t have to tell her story for her, as she is a Syrian journalist in her own right. Instead, they use their film as an international platform for her, as an example of Syrians telling their own story.
In many ways Noura seems the archetype of individuals who take part in any rebellion: young, educated, politically active, with little to gain by staying within the system, and at the outset of civil war motivated by the sacrifice of her friends. She has no interest in guns, but she brought her talents and resources to serve in a way that she could. Similarly a local bakery, begging and bartering through loose networks even of those fighting each other, fights to bring together flour, salt and water in order to hand out bread to the many hungry hands.
And this is what the film-makers bring into our homes, or our classrooms, or wherever we might watch the film: Individuals, whose lives have been brought to a standstill, using whatever they have to fight. Some fight with guns and mortars against an authoritarian regime or Islamic terrorists; some fight with cameras and social media for the hearts and minds of their countrymen and an international audience; some fight with logistics and resources to bring food to the many; and some fight with songs and dancing to bring moments of normalcy and joy to the disrupted lives of their children.
For the audience in London watching the film that evening, the medium of film to portray the civil war was both familiar and foreign. Images and scenes were familiar from media coverage, but the lingering eye of the camera not restricted to sound-bite shots, and the closeness of the journalists not just reporting, but experiencing the scenes in the film brought an unfamiliar personal touch to those watching. The multiple layers of audience when Janine and Nicole show Noura’s work as a journalist in Syria invite us into the process of documenting what has been happening in Syria as well as the lived reactions of capturing moments. Even though the film is of course carefully produced for us as audience, the explicit audience-related documentary style draws us in, challenging us to not consume a mediated civil war in a foreign country, but through the film to co-live and digest the everyday geopolitical experiences, even from the safety of our seats.
Suresh Guptara is an MSc Geopolitics and Security student. He was previously an Infantry Officer in the Swiss Armed Forces, and before starting his master’s degree was at an international security policy organisation in Geneva.