Reading Through the Cryptic Messages of ‘The War Show’

Unlike most documentaries produced in Syria since 2011, the filmmaker doesn't follow a single character story. She attempts to tell Syria's story through her own experiences, convictions and emotions.

31 July 2017

Maya Abyad

Syrian journalist and trainer, PhD candidate in media.

“The first part was not so good, I didn't get much of the Zabadani story. I'm also tired of this constant display of secular activists as junkies,” said my friend after wwe finished watching Obaidah Zytoon & Andreas Mol Dalsgaard's ‘The War Show.’ “But it got really good in the second half. You can't miss a minute.” I smiled back. “In 2011-12, in demonstrations in regime-held Damascus, she must have been high to film like that!”

Jokes aside, in many ways, the film tools and technical qualities very much reflect the story and its stages of development.  From varying low-res cameras, odd angles, clumsy close-ups and fragmented storytelling, we watch as the chaos and randomly flowing energy of the first days of revolt gradually take shape in a clearer storyline and refined filming techniques.

Two years of shooting, and probably more in editing on and off, are barely a single piece of work. Like many such long documentaries, this is a journey. However, unlike most films focusing on Syria’s smoke and mirrors for a distant audience, the filmmaker here tells us: This “reality” has turned into a mere show, while ‘The War Show’ tells you my reality at least. For according to her slow, pensive, almost dictating narration, Syria has today become a big stage for a war display, fitting all sorts of random actors coming in from across the world, but it no longer has place for Syrians.

The documentary is chaptered into seven stages: revolution, oppression, resistance, siege, memories, frontline, extremism. I wonder if “memories” is meant as farewell or displacement, and “frontline” as the final battle before exile? This chain of events is perhaps so overly known for most Syrians today that we simply debate vocabulary.

However, it is ‘The War Show’’s ability to cover all stages that makes the film so rich. Unlike most documentaries produced in Syria since 2011, the filmmaker doesn't follow a single character story. She attempts to tell Syria's story through her own experiences, convictions and emotions. Zytoon’s group of friends flow along, appearing and disappearing as the tides get high, which eventually makes us appreciate the anchoring of her narration.

But her story is not as monotone as her voice can seem. Looking back at her past, she tells us of the lies and deceptions she met on her war journey within "our" side of dissidence. The film is so immersed into the nuances and diversities of that world that it reflects, deciphers and categorizes its array of components. A tricky and sensitive task the filmmaker seems to smoothly handle with relaxed certainty.

But some of these deceptions left me wondering, “Had they really dropped the second shell only to make sure she filmed it [as her narration explained]? Not because it's impossible, as hardly anything is in the hell-pit she gradually draws the making of, but questioning begs further questioning. What did the cabbage-chewing Free Syrian Army fighter really think of the topics Zytoon was debating? How confident can a person be of the correctness of their political choices to consider the confusion of others as childish?

Among the aides of the filmmaker, was anyone uncomfortable with her confrontational approach or the risks she took? The long list of “anonymous” credits is telling of all those who took risks in helping make this film. I smile at its length, remembering the fleeting faces hovering around the edges of the shaky frames.

In war times, to represent an entire nation in all its diversity is not only impossible, even if it wasn't, it would result in a film too cryptic even for Syrians. Yet with each new Syrian documentary released, the debate on representation continues. Like the wave of former political prisoners shown on camera as they display their torture wounds in the streets of Homs in 2012, ‘The War Show’ confronts the impossible task of representing a handful of those literally dying for their voices to be heard -- a very likely result if they are identifiable in the film.

However, the filmmaker and her friends do not attempt to hide their "otherness" in many places they visit. Rather she tells of the many vibrant souls they encounter that embrace this difference and play along with their colors, all the while not forgetting to highlight the role played by the camera's presence in such dynamics.

"But it's still too cryptic to a foreign audience," insists my friend. Here I remember my disappointment at watching great stories undergo ‘McDonaldization’ to suit a foreign audience. ‘The War Show’ raises many questions among its viewers, but they will probably be a new set of questions about Syria, and perhaps a little closer to those boiling in the sleepless minds of Syrians all over the world.

[Main photo: A video frame from 'The War Show' by Obaidah Zytoon & Andreas Mol Dalsgaard (Screenanarchy/Fair use. All rights reserved to the author)].

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Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad