Friends Face Down Syrian Regime in The War Show, Airing July 3, 2017 on POV
Film depicts ongoing destruction in strife-torn country
Syria’s Arab Spring, like other similar movements in the region, began with hope. In early 2011, autocratic governments throughout the Middle East and North Africa seemed to be on the verge of receding peacefully, and Syrian protestors massed to demonstrate against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. The uprising quickly gave way to conflict, however, and by 2016 the Syrian civil war had claimed 470,000 lives and displaced 11 million people.
The new documentary The War Show focuses on some of the idealists who joined the early Syrian resistance. Co-director and narrator Obaidah Zytoon, a Damascus activist and radio broadcaster, turns her camera on her friends, a close-knit group of millennials who like listening to classic rock, hanging out on the beach and organizing anti-Assad protests. “We were united in hatred of subordination and love of uniqueness,” Zytoon says.
Zytoon and Andreas Dalsgaard’s The War Show has its national broadcast premiere on the PBS documentary series POV (Point of View) on July 3, 2017 at 10 p.m. (check local listings). POV is American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, now in its 30th season. The War Show, which premiered at the 2016 Venice Film Festival and won the Venice Days Award, is the second feature film in a special POV series highlighting the ongoing Syrian and refugee crises.
The War Show begins in 2011. Civil war has not yet engulfed Syria, and activists demonstrate peacefully. In one early scene, a boisterous group of protesters sing and chant anti-Assad slogans. Zytoon’s friends, also carrying cameras, are grinning ear to ear as the early optimism of the Arab Spring seems to foretell a peaceful, secular revolution: “Muslims and Christians, freedom for all!” they cry.
Zytoon describes her young friends as they hang out and discuss plans. Houssam is an architecture student, Rabea a drummer, Lulu a law student. The men have long hair and dress stylishly. The women do not wear hijabs. The friends mount a protest that ends in confusion. “The plan was to have a flash demonstration, videotape it and go home,” Zytoon says later. But they start the protest before enough participants have arrived, and government thugs break it up.
At one intimate gathering, the group discusses the future. “We can’t show this footage until 2014, when we will all be free,” someone says. Someone else adds, “We will all be dead.”
A road movie, The War Show depicts scenes of resistance and destruction throughout the country, from Zabadani to Homs to Qassab. Cities lie in ruins. People scurry through the streets to avoid sniper fire. Children are wounded in bombings. Interview subjects, their faces blurred, describe the effects of war. In Kafranbel in northern Syria, the camera rolls as secular protestors encounter a group demonstrating for religious rule. In one wry scene, a young boy carries a secularist placard but, seemingly confused, shouts a religious slogan. Questioned, he responds with a sheepish grin, “I just want to be filmed.”
The War Show is, in part, about the power of the camera, not only to record events, but to prompt them. “The regime’s biggest fear was those who held cameras, so they were the first to be eliminated,” Zytoon says. In one agonizing sequence, young men in the street are drawn to her camera, and one by one they pull up their sleeves and pull down their waistbands in order to display the hideous injuries that, they say, they received at the hands of the regime. “The camera was an event in itself and seemed like salvation for the people. But it was also a source of danger,” Zytoon says. “We couldn’t be in one place for too long.”
A shattering portrait of a country engulfed in tragedy, The War Show depicts the ongoing toll the conflict has taken on Syria—and, devastatingly, on a committed group of friends.
“The war in Syria is hard for many to comprehend,” said Dalsgaard. “When we are fed daily with news about streams of refugees, death and destruction, we sometimes need to close our eyes to protect ourselves. The War Show does not dwell on graphic images of blood and corpses. Instead it follows seven nonviolent young men and women ́s dreams of freedom. For us, it has been important to tell the story about these young people, to give them a voice.”
“This film is a bold celebration of youthful zeal engulfed in tragedy,” said POV executive producer Justine Nagan. “The War Show reveals how quickly things went wrong in Syria, and we see how bravely the youth stood by their ideals in the face of violence. With a strong female voice providing us glimpses into the earliest days of the Arab Spring, this film is a significant cinematic addition to our series on the Syrian conflict.”
* * * *