Distorting Syria

Orientalism, and what Western film productions get wrong about Syria

What happens to perceptions of Syria when films directed and shot by Syrians themselves are later produced and distributed in the West? What is lost along the way?

23 July 2020

Orwa Al-Mokdad

Orwa Al-Mokdad is a Syrian film director. His latest work is called '300 Miles' (2016).

Translated by: Pascale Menassa

A version of this essay was originally published in Arabic here

International conflicts, including those playing out on Syrian soil, raise questions over how the West chooses to portray this turbulence. If the Levant, Egypt and Iraq constitute the core of the so-called “old East,” Syria is then at the heart of this “East.” 

Regional disputes preyed on Syria’s emerging revolution and developed over the past years into an international, multilateral conflict. How is this struggle depicted in Western film productions about Syria? Many Western institutionsboth cultural and artistichave contributed to building certain narratives about the Syrian revolution, producing films that have managed to achieve wide-scale international reach. 

What, then, lies beneath a now terrifying indifference towards Syrians despite global dissemination of images of the revolution? 

From beautiful to ugly, revolutionary to victim

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During its first years, the Syrian revolution sowed an image of beauty, of self-discovery and the discovery of others, of a popular desire for freedom, justice and equality, of citizenship. People expressed themselves through dancing, singing, sarcasm, protests, banners and street art

The beautiful clashed with the ugly: namely, the regime, and the violence that it used as a tool for its own self-expression. 

This relationship of opposites was reflected in art about the revolution. Despite, at times, a lack of professionalism, artistic work at the time resonated with the beautiful side of the self and its attempt to express its aspirations. In this tug-of-war between the ugly and the beautiful, the individual was only important as part of the collective self with which he or she identified. 

Beauty, at the time, rejected notions of heroes or exceptional super-humans, while the ugly represented absolute individualism—an individualism that translated into sanctifying the president, and the selfish personal desires that prevailed over the public interest. 

Since the revolution broke out, the West has dealt coldly with this idea of beauty, doubting its ability to create a substitute for dictatorship. All the while, the regime has waged public violence against Syrians at a scale that is unprecedented in modern times. Despite ongoing calls and reassurance from the revolution’s youth and the massive visual documentation of massacres committed by the regime, captured on camera in an attempt to earn the sympathy of the West and push it to help topple the regime, the West has washed its hands clean of Syrians’ blood. It has pushed their revolution towards a complex web of infighting, fueled by regional conflict and the West’s own political intervention, in addition to the problems that arise within a society torn by decades of Baathist rule. The regime threw these dilemmas in the face of Syria’s nascent revolution. 

This political coldness was reflected in a global media frenzy that began highlighting the notions of violent conflict and civil war

But conflict, as an idea, invokes two equal parties locked in battle with each other, leaving behind civilian victims who hold no real political and moral standing. This inclination constituted the first cornerstone for justifying the Western coldness towards the massacres and violence that began ripping through the revolution. 

The notion of the beautiful, of the revolutionary, turned into that of the victim: a third party in the conflict, one devoid of any political or moral opinion. When this narrative rooted itself globally, the international community’s stance started to decline to the lowest levels of coldness in dealing with the regime’s escalating violence. 

We found ourselves amid what the world saw as a political conflict between two equal parties, in which victims fall and are in need of an impartial, supportive space to survive.

According to this depiction, victims turn into ghosts. They hold no agency. Revolutionaries become fugitives, displaced persons, refugees who need a hand to come rescue them from the hell of the conflict. 

Differences between cities, characters and the nature of each region almost vanish. We cannot feel the difference between Homs, Aleppo and Idlib. We cannot know the nature and particularity of each area, its cultural and social heritage and the momentum of the revolution in each.

At this stage, collective beauty was replaced with the individual heroism of war survivors who escaped towards the other side, to exile, integrated abroad and overcame the war. During this phase, civil society organizations and media and cultural institutions that had adopted the so-called "impartial" humanitarian stance were established to promote this narrative, and spread a social and cultural product expressing it. 

Covering genocide

The Syrian revolution is not the only one in history to have been met with indifference. But it is perhaps the first to be documented by such a massive trove of publicly available photos, videos and films

Noam Chomsky writes in his book Year 501 of the West’s indifference to massacres against alleged communists by Indonesia's Western-aligned Suharto regime in the 1960's. Some estimates placed the number of killed at above one million. “When victims are considered less human, savages in the form of human beings, terrorist communists or any à la mode description, their genocide no longer stings the conscience,” Chomsky writes.

This paragraph contains an initial route to understanding Western coldness towards victims. It is based on balancing its own interests first and foremost, then drawing up an image that suits a stance of either indifference or compassion towards those victims. Chomsky writes of the praise of Suharto by international media, and of mass indifference towards the murders of millions of supporters of the Communist Party. To complete this coldness, the victim is seemingly deprived of their agency, of their ability to act on their own future. 

Edward Said explains this idea further in Orientalism. He includes a part of the Balfour Declaration about the need to occupy Egypt, to analyze the relationship of subjugation based on the supposedly deep knowledge that the othernamely, the Westhas about us, the East. This knowledge hands the superior power the reins to control to handle the East’s affairs.

This supposed knowledge ensures key disparities between the West and East. The West has the power of self-rule, while the East is at the mercy of absolute tyranny. 

Nearly one hundred years passed between the Balfour Declaration and the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, and we find that the so-called “old East” of the Levant, Egypt and Iraq is still caught in the claws of some sort of tyrannical rule. Popular movements born under this rule nevertheless still lack sufficient expertise for self-rule, the West tells us, or the ability to outline personal perspectives of their ideas, projects and dreams, and are not worthy of real and active support. Perhaps the modern-day equivalent of the narrative espoused within the Balfour Declaration lies in the discourse of most active players in Western politics, when they speak of there being no alternative to Bashar al-Assad’s rule. 

To entrench this idea, they emphasized that Syrians demanding change are unable to produce a moral and political alternative. Portraying Syrians as helpless, passive victims only feeds this narrative. 

Filmed on location, but produced abroad

Syrian filmmaking during the revolution started with local efforts, then reached a stage of international production

Production companies in particular constituted the main pillar in shaping the images we see in these films. It is worth noting that films are based on production. British director Paul Rotha wrote: “Cinema is the biggest problematic equation between art and industry.” And in the words of American critic Geoffrey Nowell Smith, “cinema is an art dyed with an industrial hue. We cannot understand films without understanding cinema, and we cannot understand cinema without realizing that, more than any other form of art, it is always at the mercy of forces outside its control.” 

Smith adds: “The demands of cinematic art and industry are unequal and necessarily conflicting. They are incongruous, as cinema is an artistic industrial form that developed industrial methods for art production. There are many films whose artistic value is questionable, while other films violate the values of the industry.” 

We can add that one cannot separate cinematic production as an industrial art documenting the history of modern life, from the political decision-making circles of the day. This idea, which Smith also refers to, is key to understanding the relationship between production and content in Syrian films that are produced in the West. 

Film copyrights and ensuing legal terms are registered in the country of production. On both legal and production levels, these films are represented by the country of their registration, and they abide by that country’s laws and conditions for attending festivals and appearing on television broadcasts. 

This issue is highly sensitive, since these works are presented as Western films about Syria, rather than as Syrian films. We cannot compare these films only from the perspective of the director, especially since some producers started out by partnering with foreign directors on huge productions with massive budgets. The result: Western productions that have been shaping images of the Syrian revolution since its early years, and showing them to Western audiences. 

Selling heroes

When producing a film, one question is always present: what is the nature of the target audience? 

Since the audience for these films is Western, production companies often suggest simplifying complex narrative for viewers. Most films feature a protagonist struggling in a bloody war we know nothing about, except for what is written in the main headlines, which all Syrians opposing the regime are already familiar with. 

The question once again is the following: What does the world know exactly? It does not know the Syrians who started the revolution, their motives or the nature of their conflict with the authorities.

The protagonist fights to be victorious, but the key underlying issues he faces are not tackled. Addressing such issues would push the audience to pose complex questions that would confuse them. For that reason, production companies dismiss such dilemmas and limit any conflict to one simple equation: the hero is alone in confronting death. The only focus is the courage of the hero amid the randomness and haziness of events around him. 

Seeing the exceptional courage of the hero, who is an individual in this situation, the audience feels excessive sympathy. We do not know whether the individual’s struggle for freedom and justice is a collective demand. 

The Western audience is divided into different categories when it comes to the impression that films leave behind. As a consequence, different narratives exist: The revolution turns into a violent armed conflict controlled by Islamist groups, public demands and protests taking place under an Islamic identity develop into a conflict between a secular system and Islamist groups trying to rule the country, extremist Islamist terrorists attempt to control Syria after the revolution, or civil rebels try to survive in an atmosphere riddled with violence and identity crises. Another last category consists of a group that is introduced for the first time to Syria and its conflict.

The notion of the hero is therefore the most successful and bestselling narrative in film production. 

Production companies work with the market. They watch the box office and global viewershipthey aren’t here to defend revolutions and human rights. The viewer simply identifies with their favorite character, who saves them from the moral downfall of anonymous victims. The hero is either the film creator or a main character in an impartial contexta victimwho abstains from engaging in the war and conducts humanitarian work.

Most of these films revolve around some humanitarian tragedy that concerns a third party: the victim, the film’s hero. Of course, the humanitarian tragedy depicted on screen exists in real life, but it has numerous causes and underlying issues. We face both victim and murderer, but we are unable to understand the background of this violence and killing. In this sense, there are only doctors, victims operating in humanitarian organizations and activists.  

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Discrepancies between cities, characters and the nature of each region likewise almost vanish in these films. We cannot feel the difference between Homs, Aleppo and Idlib if we compare the places and characters depicted on screen. We cannot know the nature and particularity of each area, its cultural and social heritage and the momentum of the revolution in each. The films are cosmopolitan, which is to say that the authenticity of each place is absent. 

In his book Poetics of Space, French philosopher Gaston Bachelard writes that the intimacy a home creates is an integral part of the quality, depth and magic of literature. This is the common ground with cinema. The space and its particularity are part of the structure of the film’s aesthetic world. 

Within this understanding of place, Syria’s cities have no particularity in these films. Destruction strikes at random, and it deprives the places and characters of any deeper significance in the viewer's subconscious. The scenes of destruction and murder are the same in all places of the world and refer to the unknown. Such images are used in commercial films that depict victims and disasters as a background setting against which the hero, fighting off evil, wins. 

Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet, was attentive to this type of estrangement. In his poem “Qutla wa Majhouloun,” or “Dead and Unknown,”  he writes:

The dead and unknown. No forgetfulness unites them 
And no memory disperses them. They are forgotten in
The winter grass on the high road between
Stories of heroism and torture.

This poetic imagery carries deep symbolism, seen also in films about victims. They are dead and unknown, lost between the image of the hero trying to survive and the torments of a terrible war.

What about the images of the dead?

Aristotle believed that “beautiful art should not be a mere copy of the familiar course of experience. Art should create whatever nature could not. The artist’s work is not limited to copying an image of natural events, but rather also in changing this nature.”

The old definition of simulation is what constitutes the core of cinema, and it is at the same time the core of what is so problematic for certain film genres. The daily documentation of bloodshed in Syria wrought by regime forces and their allies created the notion of the citizen journalist, one who films these violations with his mobile phone camera. This was the only way to tell what was happening and to show the context in which the victims died. 

Consequently, it became widely accepted to capture images of the victims without any consideration for the sanctity of their bodies. The photographer documenting their deaths could be their brother, friend or son. This closeness grants the photographer a sort of moral permission to capture such photos and show them to the world.

But as this kind of documentation became a part of film productions, the lines blurred between taking photos of the victims in a way that violates the sanctity of their bodies and their deaths, devoid of context and with no information on their identities or personal stories. 

Meanwhile, movie producers take these documentary images to the market, which is by nature tied to the movie industry. It is an ethically shocking process, often justified by some supposed need to expose violence, despite the fact that violence is only a fragment of what is actually happening on the ground. 

Such justifications are a mere promotional trick. The world has been aware of what is going on in Syria since the early years of the revolution. The destruction and death that cast their shadows over Syria are known to all. 

The question once again is the following: What does the world know exactly? It does not know the Syrians who started the revolution, their motives or the nature of their conflict with the authorities. The only proven truth is that Western viewers possess a foggy image of a war featuring different conflicts linked to regional and international agendas. 

These depictions have a dual and conflicting impact. On the one hand, films have testified to the tragic mass death and destruction in Syria, but on the other hand, they contributed to blurring the image of the Syrian revolution. Exceptions exist, as some images managed to maintain the core of documentation of the regime’s brutality, but they still haphazardly displayed the bodies of victims.

Cinema and production 

Production determines the final form of the film, making the relationship between production and the filmmaker is controversial and problematic. 

The formal decisionsset installation and restructuring of the storyare among the most controversial processes in the movie industry. They create a multi-faceted illusion that the viewer receives. Some enthusiastic spectators find themselves confused about the disconnect between the exceptional and courageous experience of the people who actually lived through the images seen in the film, and the production, which is subject to the whims and demands of the industry itself. 

This is a sort of emotional extortion of the audience, and it jeopardizes the sanctity of the film, which was the product of a long line of fragmentation and assembly. Consequently, films do not depict the authentic experiences of the characters. Rather, they reflect the deep layer of movie production which influences the viewer’s subconscious. 

Production companies realize that the purpose of these films is not to shape a global public opinion about the nature of the Syrian revolution, or to prompt real questions about a complex conflict in which thousands of people are suffering. The purpose is only to create sympathy and garner wider public acclaim for the film.

One film alone certainly cannot address all the complicated dilemmas of the Syrian revolution. However, it is enough to place the films in their production context to realize the implicit link between them. We realize the existing focus on violent stories and images. For the narrative produced within the film to be complete, we allow viewers to believe that violence alone is not the predominant factor over the conflict, but that it is supplemented by terrorism, which changed the revolutionary project into a ravaging war casting its dark shadow over generations.

Once again, the notion of the hero resurfaces.

Double standards

Double standards between the West and Syria are visible in the portrayal of the bodies of Syrians killed in war. European laws and ethical codes on television channels and in movie festivals prohibit the exploitation of victims’ bodies, and prosecuting and legally pursuing such acts. 

And yet, media corporations and festivals allow the display of such bodies in films about Syrians. The filmmaker drowns the audience in distressing and bloody scenes. The viewer buys a ticket to watch a commercial movie, to see violent incidents, places and characters that exist seemingly outside of history, time and space. 

This is the East as imagined by the West, which tolerates everything, commanding viewers to yet again recreate that violence under absolute tyranny. 

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