Mokdad’s 300 Miles: the Dilemma of Activist Documentaries

"The tricky thing about art, particularly about Syria, is that I always imagined that you make art for change."

28 April 2017

Nathalie Rosa Bucher

Nathalie Rosa Bucher is a features writer with a passion for cinema and cycling, a keen interest in culture and means of transport, as well as social and environmental subjects. Her mixed French-German origins possibly explain why she is drawn to divided countries and diverse societies: she called Cape Town in South Africa home for 15 years before coming to Beirut in early 2012.

(Beirut, Lebanon) The shift from non-violent to violent action, as for the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa, has been a watershed moment for revolutionary and liberation movements across the world.

In his documentary 300 Miles (2016), Syrian filmmaker Orwa al-Mokdad’s quest was to go beyond the political and ideological considerations, distilling personal convictions and focusing on the effect that taking up arms had on individuals instead.

“News stories are the brief chronicles of contemporary death and destruction. Documentaries, which require more engagement, allow us to comprehend why people are fighting each other. They also define the character of war, giving an insight into the chaos of combat,” film editor Nick Fraser wrote in an overview of recent documentaries on Syria.

A witness to the revolution, Mokdad (b. 1985) lived all the subsequent stages leading from revolt to war. “I wanted to work on a film that would show when people die, the death of the spirit.”

As a result, 300 Miles boldly delves into existential questions and explores the turning point that lead civilians to pick up weapons and fight while also asking pertinent questions about an uncertain future. It does so through three main characters: Mokdad’s niece Nur, whose Iraqi mother fled to Syria in the wake of the American invasion, Adnan, a young civil activist from Aleppo who recently moved to France, and Abu Yaarub, the leader of a small group of Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in Aleppo.

Though part of what Mokdad labels a “new family”, united by shared deprivations, language, vision and spirit, the three characters seem to be fatefully bound together, echoing Hemingway’s Spanish civil war epic ‘For Whom the Bell Tollsʼ as much as Sartre’s existentialist play ‘No Exitʼ.

Nur is in regime-controlled Daraa, in south-western Syria, and Mokdad in rebel-held Eastern Aleppo, separated by a mere 300 miles but “divided by frontlines, suicide bombers, missiles, scuds, soldiers, gangs and murderers.” Being in the same country seems to have become irrelevant in times of internal displacement, strife and division. This was most obvious in Aleppo, a city long divided within itself throughout the Syrian conflict.

In Search of the Revolution

“One of the basic reasons for Nur’s presence is that at the beginning of the revolution, when it was peaceful and there was hope, I took her to two demonstrations,” the filmmaker recalled. At that time, Mokdad was based between Damascus and Daraa until he was detained in April 2011. “She has a strong memory of the revolution, it gave her this memory of a beautiful carnival type of experience. Related to me, she would wonder, where this magician who took her to this carnival had disappeared to.”

Handling the camera for the first time, then six-year old Nur positions the device in full backlight. The person she excitedly starts speaking to, is Mokdad, her uncle and a second father to her. True to her name (Nur means “light” in Arabic), she brings light and a wary glimmer of hope into Mokdad’s documentary.

Abu Yaarub’s face and the outlines of his beard tell the story – and fate – of his city. The leader of a small group of revolutionary fighters in Aleppo, who took up weapons out of love for his city and the revolution, first appeared in front of Mokdad’s camera clean-shaven. He would go to the barbershop under shelling.

Three years later, the complexion of his skin, like his spirit, has darkened: He has a full beard, the furrows in his face suggest hardship and deprivation and, worst of all, the slow death of his spirit.

When Mokdad asks Abu Yaarub: “Where is the revolution?”, the rebel leader, sitting outside, defiantly replies: “I won’t answer you. I am not going to answer you,” his gaze firm, his dark eyes looking straight into the camera. Later on, when Mokdad challenges him again, asking: “Are rebels destined to die in order to be free?”, Abu Yaarub, now sitting in a semi-dark confined space, repeatedly strokes his moustache before shifting away and waving a hand in front of the camera.

Adnan, the young activist, caught Mokdad’s attention as he stood out for his sarcasm-towards life, death, and all the big issues happening around him. He’d never fail to come up with songs that would be derisive and infectious, prompting those around him to join.

He’s also never afraid of asking pertinent questions: “Where is justice?”, followed by a suggestion that “we could all share the suffering.” If someone in Japan cared, for example, Adnan is confident that Syria’s fate would be different. He goes on to concede that he should have cared more for Somalia though.

The young activist struggled to comprehend how Syrians could be left to their own devices, echoing John Donne’s Meditation XVII which is placed at the very beginning of Hemingway's ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’.

Encroaching Borders

Shot over four years, Mokdad’s film is a kaleidoscope that reflects the ruptured but also re-amalgamated geographical and social realities in the wake of the Syrian revolution.

By making reference to dramatic regional changes in the opening scenes, notably the creation of Israel in 1948 that would prevent his grandfather from traveling back and forth between Haifa and Daraa, but also the American invasion in Iraq in 2003, Mokdad embeds the present in a broader historiography and reminds us of the many cycles of war, conflict and displacement and eroded freedoms that have marred the region.

Besides alluding to the implications of these momentous developments, it also begs the question, as Mokdad probes right at the beginning, of what the future may hold: “Nur, where shall I start the story?”

The Artist’s Role in the Revolution

Prior to moving to Aleppo via Daraa, Jordan and Lebanon, Mokdad had already been capturing the fine fissures that ran through what once appeared to be seemingly banal and commonplace in Syria. “I wanted to make a film on what is going on, not documenting and not news either,” he elaborated.

As Chad Elias and Zaher Omareen write in Syria Speaks, many (semi-professional) documentaries and short films produced since 2012 “use allegory, satire and humor to express a range of affective states or experiences that resist straightforward documentation.” Mokdad often inserts highly aesthetic shots of sunsets or blue skies above ruins after tense emotional scenes. For the viewer, the effect of such juxtapositions, as well as the suggestive “lullabyesque” minimalist soundtrack, is rattling.

Nonetheless, Mokdad conceded that “the mission of art is tricky, you should have distance, take a distance…[but] I do not agree with it.” Instead, he fought with his camera.

“The tricky thing about art, particularly about Syria, is that I always imagined that you make art for change. I was always imaging people to jump up and go demonstrate, [after seeing that was happening in Syria].”

Wanting to pin down what drove Abou Yaarub and Adnan, Mokdad zoned in on his protagonists’ faces and ‘soulscapes’ rather than confronting audiences with the daily carnage. “I wanted to touch the audience and confuse the audience without inserting direct bloody scenes. It has more effect. I wanted to move the thinking -- you can move things more through thinking than emotions.”

Over time, Nur shifts from reading poems to reporting news. In a telling scene, she is rushing up the stairs to go to the roof, with the camera rolling, to capture the explosion of a bomb in the nearby town of Bosra. While Adnan wonders aloud: “Are we ever going to fix this again?”, Nur tells her uncle Firas that she wishes to stay alive, as life “might get more beautiful.”

Eventually, Mokdad captures both Abu Yaarub and Adnan at pivotal moments as they cling on to their convictions and refuse to break: The FSA soldier making a pained concession (“we got lost”) and the activist in a slight and painful nod affirming that he’d be leaving to Turkey to escape the regime advancing on Aleppo.

300 Miles will screen during this year’s Cairo Cinema Days, held between 9 and 16 May at Zawya Cinema, as well as at Olhar de Cinema Curitiba Intl. Film Festival (7-15 June). 

[Main photo: Nour, filmmaker Orwa al-Mokdad's niece, filming herself in the dark due to extended power cuts. (Image courtesy of Orwa al-Mokdad)].

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