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Syria in its Own Image


The documentarian and journalist on the nation’s portrayal in the global media, the power of emergency cinema, and the role of the intellectual in revolution.

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Image courtesy of Bidyyat for Audiovisual Arts.

Mohammad Ali Atassi’s new documentary about Syria, Our Terrible Country, (Baladna Alraheeb) defines itself by what it is not. It is not a tutorial on the Syrian civil war. It is not a macabre spectacle of bodies, victims of either the Assad regime or ISIS. Instead, it’s a portrait of two very different faces of the Syrian left—one, the film’s co-director Ziad Homsi, a young filmmaker turned soldier in the Free Syrian Army; and the other, Yassin al-Haj Saleh, a former political prisoner and a writer and intellectual. Together, they embark on a tripartite journey from the wreckage of Douma, to the claustrophobia of Raqqa, to the cosmopolis of Istanbul. Atassi, the man behind the camera, bears witness.

Atassi’s quest to understand the minds and spirits of political actors began when he was a child. His father, President Nureddin al-Atassi, governed Syria from 1966 until 1970, when he was overthrown by Hafez Al-Assad and imprisoned. At the time, Ali Atassi was three years old. Nureddin al-Atassi remained in prison for twenty-two years. Just weeks after his release, in 1992, he died of cancer. “I was always a la recherche,” says Atassi in the interview that follows. “In search of a father.”

Atassi grants that each of his documentaries attend to his longing for a spiritual, intellectual, and political hero. Ibn al Am (The Cousin, 2001) and Ibn al Am Online (The Cousin Online, 2012) focused on Riad al-Turk, a renowned Syrian dissident and a political prisoner who spent eighteen years in solitary confinement. Waiting for Abu Zaid (2010), explored the life of Abu Zaid, the Egyptian scholar and prominent critic of radical Islam. “All my films have the theme of political engagement, the relationship between the intellectual and the public.”

In Our Terrible Country, he and co-director Ziad Homsi strive to resist easy answers. In tracing Saleh and Homsi’s odyssey from Douma to Raqqa to Istanbul, the filmmakers question and come to regret the revolution in which they all participated. In one scene in Douma, against a backdrop of buildings razed by the regime, Homsi asks Saleh, “Is this the freedom you want?” Saleh replies: “If we were free to choose, then no. I would have preferred a more chic and less costly freedom.” We watch the radical spirit dim in Homsi, too. In the beginning of the film, he says of being a journalist and a fighter that he sometimes has to put down his camera in order to pick up his gun. But later he wonders aloud whether the revolutionary movement that toppled the regime also paved the way for ISIS. The film’s characters mourn, mostly offscreen, for the fate Syria suffers at the hands of Islamist extremists. During the making of the film, Homsi himself was captured and detained by ISIS for a month. Saleh’s wife Samira Khalil was also kidnapped, possibly by the Islamic Army, and remains missing.

For its urgency and unique vision, Our Terrible Country won last year’s Grand Prix of the International Competition at FIDMarseille. The New York Times flinched at the documentary’s “painful honesty.” In an insightful and ambivalent review, Artforum’s Kaelen Wilson-Goldie said, “Our Terrible Country is…volatile, overwhelming, and unresolved because Syria today is all of those things.”

I met Atassi at a cafe near The Museum of the Moving Image in New York, where Our Terrible Country made its North American debut last month. Despite the trauma and complexity that pervades his film, Atassi was tranquil and clear-eyed. He spoke with me in English, though having studied at the Sorbonne, his usual lingua franca is French. While discussing documentary storytelling, emergency cinema, and the intersection of culture and Syrian politics, he relied on the occasional French cognate, using any means necessary to be understood.

Grace Bello for Guernica

Guernica: Can you tell me a little bit about your previous films?

Mohammad Ali Atassi: The first film I made was in 2001. It was called The Cousin (Ibn al Am). It’s about Riad al-Turk, an important Syrian dissident. It’s the only film that I shot during the Damascus Spring. It’s about how Riad al-Turk spent eighteen years in [solitary confinement] and ultimately became a madman. Later, I worked for six years on Waiting for Abu Zaid, about the Egyptian thinker and professor of Islamic Studies. In 2011, I came back to Riad al-Turk, but I did something with him via Skype because, at the time, he was in Damascus fighting. The second film I made about him was called Ibn al Am Online. It’s a kind of homage. All my films have the theme of political engagement, the relationship between the intellectual and the public.

I always say that the reality today in Syria is much more powerful than any kind of fiction.

Guernica: You’ve said that you and your co-director Ziad Homsi didn’t know that Our Terrible Country would necessarily become a documentary. How did you two approach this collaboration?

Mohammad Ali Atassi: The idea in the beginning was to make a kind of visual archive of Yassin [al-Haj Saleh] in Douma. Yassin is a friend, and he is a prominent intellectual figure of the Syrian uprising. We wanted to do something visual with him without knowing exactly what it would be in the end, what kind of form it would take. We didn’t write a proposal or try to get funding to work on this film. We didn’t know that this would be a film.

Ziad started shooting with Yassin and sent me the footage. I saw that they were always indoors. It was a wide frame with no activity. It was an interview done in a very journalistic way. I was in Beirut when I received this first footage. I asked Ziad to keep shooting with Yassin but to go outside and not only to interview but to try to accompagner, to be with Yassin outside in his everyday life. Ziad went to several places with him and brought his camera. Yassin, he didn’t just sit and face the camera and do an interview. It was his own life, and the camera was the witness.

We didn’t always succeed. We were there two, three months in total. At the same time, Ziad was not able every day to go with Yassin, and Yassin was not always happy that the camera was there. But we succeeded in getting some footage from the everyday life of Yassin. I always say that the reality today in Syria is much more powerful than any kind of fiction. It’s always going faster and is more rich and complicated than any kind of fictional story could show.

The film begins in Douma. Yassin, he didn’t feel like himself at his place in Douma. You can see it in those scenes. It was clear to him that if his city, Raqqa, was liberated, he would move there to be with his family at his house. Ziad, he decided to go with Yassin on a trip [to Raqqa]. From the moment that Ziad chose to go with Yassin on his journey, it was clear that we were going to do something about Yassin, about his stay in Douma, and the trip. We didn’t know that Ziad would be part of the story, really.

When I saw the material, the raw footage, it was clear that some kind of relationship was being established between Yassin and Ziad. Yassin is an older man, a writer and a thinker. Ziad is a young man, a fighter [in the Free Syrian Army], a filmmaker. Each one was involved in his own way in the uprising.

Guernica: Ziad entered the project as your co-director but then became a major part of the film. What was your role in this story?

Mohammad Ali Atassi: It’s a difficult question. When I convinced Ziad to be a character in the film, when I went to Raqqa, when I started shooting with Ziad and Yassin, then I was part of it. But I decided from the beginning that I should be on the other side of the camera. I would be the one who would try to tell the story. I gave myself the “authority” to tell the story as an outsider, but I’m not an outsider. I know both of them as friends.

Guernica: Can you talk more about this notion of authority, and the divide between documentary filmmakers and their subjects?

Mohammad Ali Atassi: I am conscious of the problem of arming yourself with a camera. When you come with a camera and a crew and you and your subject are from different social backgrounds, then you should take that into consideration. If I want to shoot with ordinary people, then I will spend more time cultivating an understanding between us.

When you deal with people of power, then you can play with your camera. But when you deal with ordinary people or people who are suffering and who are on the other side of the power imbalance—to me, it’s immoral to play the game of power with them. You should be very conscious and build the relationship on respect and understanding and trust. I think this is so important in documentary film because you are dealing with the stories and the lives of human beings. It’s not fiction. You need to be conscious of these complications and not take it in an easy way.

There is one scene in which Yassin has a fight with the owner of a restaurant. We went there, we came with our camera, we were dressed differently, we had a kind of power. You could see that we belonged to two worlds within Syria. If you look at our role—we as intellectuals, we are completely disconnected from ordinary people. It was not only a failure of Yassin but also myself. To keep that scene in the story is also to offer a critique. It’s not very objective, but this is how I try.

It was a little bit different from the classical way of doing a film—cinema d’auteur. That means that you have a writer, and you have somebody behind the film. It’s cinema of the filmmaker. The kind of filmmaking I do, cinema d’urgence, it questions the way that we do cinema, about how to deal with these realities. Who is the filmmaker? Who is the author?

Guernica: You’ve emphasized the importance of editing in documentary filmmaking. What did you cut out of this film, and why?

Mohammad Ali Atassi: The editing is the real writing of the film. I think what makes a strong film—you need to tell a story. Deciding what you discard—the choices can be artistic or intellectual or very technical. But you have other kinds of dimensions as to why you cut. With a documentary, you need to tell it in a way so that you don’t abuse all the details. It’s a reconstruction of reality.

This is an eternal question. Some schools of documentary film tell you that, because you are editing, it’s fiction and has nothing to do with reality. Other schools tell you that, because the story is about real people and their real lives, it can’t be fiction.

The way we edited, it was so important to tell the story, to make it accessible, and to not betray the characters. Yassin, he trusted us and accepted that I would not make a hagiography of him. In fact, I might critique him. But I would not put a knife in his back. He trusted me and he accepted the game. Then I had the freedom to do what I wanted to do from my point of view. He never interfered, he never asked what we would do with the footage. He knew that we would edit and make our film. We took some liberties to shine a light on several issues. But we didn’t play dirty games with him. This is important.

During the making of the film, his wife Samira was kidnapped. Afterward, I went to Istanbul, and I spent two days filming Yassin and asking him about the kidnapping. When I looked at the rushes, it was very, very problematic. It was very personal. It was very private, and it was very new. I didn’t feel like that part of his private life should be shared with the rest of the world. I decided to keep it out of the film. I just mentioned it in the end, that Samira was kidnapped. But I did try, with my camera, to shoot and see what we could get to help the film and to help Yassin. But you should decide what you want to show and not show. This is always a problem. Like when I asked Ziad, “Did you ever kill somebody?” It’s a problematic question. How can you pose this question to a fighter?

During the filmmaking, I allowed myself to ask the characters stupid or harsh questions. But later on, the real decision was whether to keep them in the film or not. I felt that if I kept them in, I would seem ugly. But it’s important to the film, so I decided to keep it in.

Perhaps I censored myself in other parts; I don’t know. I hope that we were honest with ourselves. You always have some parts where you did some cutting and didn’t tell the whole truth. It’s never the whole truth. It’s only part of the truth. It’s our part of the truth.

The images that were presented about Syria and the Syrians themselves in the mass media, it didn’t look or sound good to us. It was very violent. We deserve a different kind of image.

Guernica: I found the film to be more concerned with illustrating emotional and psychological reactions to violence than violence itself. As a character says in the film, “Assad is merely an illusion. The disaster is inside us.” Why did you choose to omit violence?

Mohammad Ali Atassi: I didn’t think about the viewer. I was thinking about our story and telling it in an honest way and in a cinematical way. We are Syrian people. We are a people who suffered a lot due to the war in the last three or four years. And the images that were presented about Syria and the Syrians themselves in the mass media, it didn’t look or sound good to us. It was very violent. We deserve a different kind of image.

With the international mass media, the way they showed the Syrian uprising, it always went to the sensational, to the violent. They didn’t pay attention to the story of ordinary people and what’s behind the violence. To give you an example, when you had the attack of the 11th of September, the media decided not to show any dead bodies out of respect for the victims and their families. And I think it was a good choice. But for us as Syrians, why are our dead bodies shown everywhere? Why are you showing our bodies and not your bodies?

The film starts with a street fight [in which Ziad and a combatant are shooting at each other from different buildings]. We filmed it with the help of a citizen journalist. Then you see the title of the film, and you no longer see this kind of fighting. If you notice, at the end of that first scene, a rocket is fired at them. Then the scene shifts. The man who was filming this scene with Ziad—he was hit in the head. He died. And the camera was still going. We decided to cut it. We didn’t show that image—the voice and the dead body. It was a choice that we made. It was a very sensational image. The media dealt with the Syrian uprising in a sensational way, and we decided to take a different kind of approach.

As a Syrian, I should look to different images and look much closer at our experiences. But at the same time, I have to take into consideration that the violence is a major part of what is happening today in Syria. Then I can deal with it; I can talk about the conflict in a way that doesn’t show such violent imagery.

Guernica: The images that you did choose to show in the film are very powerful. In Douma, for instance, the viewer sees the buildings destroyed by the Assad regime. It’s such a contrast to the other main locations in the movie, Raqqa and Istanbul. I wonder what kind of images you saw as someone who grew up in Syria.

Mohammad Ali Atassi: What you see in the film is not my own Syria. The Syria where I lived was Damascus, the residential area, the chic area. This is different from what I try to show in Douma.

For me, the images in the film show what the regime did to the civilians and to the city. It tells you a lot about the regime. Like Samira says in the film, when you see all these apartments, empty and destroyed, and all the personal objects, the furniture and the children’s toys, it tells you about the people who lived there. You don’t see the people, but it tells you a lot about how they suffered.

Guernica: And what about what you chose to show in Istanbul?

Mohammad Ali Atassi: For me, the scene in the metro when Yassin tries to use his ticket and he is confused and he doesn’t succeed, it says a lot on a visual level. For me, that scene is about the sixteen years he spent in prison. Sixteen years is a whole life. In the film, Yassin, he talks about the Palmyra prison. It’s a terrible prison. It’s a kind of concentration camp. He spent one year there before he was released. If you are outside prison like me, you are allowed to travel, to take the metro, to use technology. I know how to use the ticket and take the metro. For Yassin—no. He was completely cut off from the rest of the world.

Guernica: What is your relationship with Ziad and Yassin? How did you meet them?

Mohammad Ali Atassi: Yassin, he is an old friend of mine, a close friend. We met as two journalists. We have collaborated together. Via Yassin, I started to learn a little bit about the everyday life of a political prisoner. We are not the same age, but we are close; we have five years difference between us. Ziad, I met him in Beirut when he received training for filmmaking. We collaborated a little bit.

It’s clear to me that the future is on the side of Ziad and not the side of Yassin or myself. He is the youth, and he went so far with his own convictions. He was a student at the university, Ziad. He was not, in the beginning, a fighter. But he felt that Douma [which was attacked by the regime] was his city, and he decided to take it to the edge. He took up arms [in the Free Syrian Army]. It’s very dramatic, his parcours, his trajectory. I’m not ready to do that. Yassin, he is a writer. He gives commentary. He decided to go to the free zone and to become a writer. He didn’t have the same trajectory as Ziad.

In one of the last scenes in the film, the two of them have a conversation. We tried to show this relationship between the two generations. Yassin even says, “I am the age of his father.” It is interesting because Ziad suddenly takes up a big part of the screen, and Yassin recedes into the background. It goes from one generation to the other. But it was not decided like this. This was our last night of shooting. We stopped filming, but something happened: I provoked Ziad because of his admiration of Yassin, and he felt like he wanted to defend himself. I turned on the camera because I felt that something was happening.

Guernica: I found that to be one of the most powerful scenes in the film—where the two of them talk about their family members who were kidnapped or imprisoned.

Mohammad Ali Atassi: When I was filming it, I was trying not to give any reaction, but at the same time I was suffering. My two friends broke down in this way and were talking about something touching. I felt that they wanted to talk—not to me or to the camera but to themselves. It is a strong moment that told a lot about what they lost but also showed some kind of hope. They discovered suddenly that their own revolutionary uprising, it is lost. It was stolen by the Islamists. This is the moment that they should admit and accept it.

Guernica: I’m curious about your portrayal of Yassin. If I had not read about him before viewing the film, I wouldn’t necessarily have known how well-established he is as an intellectual and how powerful his voice has been in the Syrian revolution. How did you approach crafting him as a character?

Mohammad Ali Atassi: This is an important critique that several people have made of the film. It was not my role to say how important he is. But it’s clear in the film, two things—that he’s a writer and an intellectual and that Ziad has an admiration for him. He calls him “the doctor of the revolution.” It’s clear that Yassin is a dissident, he spent sixteen years in prison, and he arrived in the liberated zone. It’s true that he played an important role in the uprising: he’s the one who wrote the most important pieces on the revolution. He was very well-known among the youth, especially in the peaceful movement. But we don’t tell a lot about him.

This is not a film about Yassin and not a film about the work of Yassin. I know it can be a weak part of the film. But if you want to know about Yassin, you can go to Google and find his articles. Some of them are translated into English. He published several in the New York Times.

Also, Yassin is not very well-known among ordinary people. He is not like Václav Havel. He is not like Andrei Sakharov. Yassin is important, but it tells you a lot about the split between the intellectuals and the ordinary people. He says himself that he’s not very well-known because they don’t read.

Guernica: To what extent do you see yourself in your characters?

Mohammad Ali Atassi: It’s always about myself. The Cousin and The Cousin Online, in those films I try to find a political and spiritual father. In Waiting for Abu Zaid, I was looking for an intellectual father. And in this film, I am not sure. It was the first time I was able to see myself between Ziad and Yassin—in this school of thought and that one.

My father was a political man, and he spent twenty-two years in prison. I didn’t have the opportunity to know him because after he was released, he died of cancer two months later. I was always a la recherche—in search of a father.

It’s true that part of myself is in this film, but that is also true for Ziad. Every interaction with Ziad and Yassin is influenced by the fact that the father of Ziad is in prison. Ziad is looking for a spiritual father, too.

It’s not unique. Anyone who makes a film injects part of his own story through the subject he chooses, the way he deals with the subject, the filming or cutting or editing of the film. You have a kind of personal dimension everywhere.

You have this period of war, of chaos in Syria. Does that mean that you should stay and wait to make your film? Or that you should do it in a different way?

Guernica: I want to go back to this concept of cinema d’urgence. Do you think that filmmakers have a moral obligation to create films with a sense of political or social urgency?

Mohammad Ali Atassi: It’s not a moral obligation, but I think it is an important personal choice. Some filmmakers decide to wait in order to approach the material in a more classical way; the characters are not ready now and they can’t work in these conditions. My point of view is for us to question all the categories of doing a film: the need to write proposals, the way to shoot, the need to work with a crew. The new technologies today with the lightweight cameras—they allow us to be close to the reality. It was not the case during the ‘60s or ‘70s when you had to work with a crew with heavy equipment. It presents us with a multitude of possibilities.

I think the most important point is not to make concessions. If you decide to keep your ambition for the documentary and not to compromise the artistic vision, then you can adapt and try to work in different ways. That is what happened for us. You have this period of war, of chaos in Syria. Does that mean that you should stay and wait to make your film? Or that you should do it in a different way?

It’s not only our film; there are other films, too. I can mention our friends Abounaddara Collective. Every week, they create short movies. They have a very similar approach. They are dealing with the violence and the reality in a very special way. The film scene in Syria is evolving. It’s not one, two, three persons. It’s a movement with many people. And these films are being shown everywhere.

Guernica: What role does aesthetics play in this sort of filmmaking?

Mohammad Ali Atassi: The most important aesthetic approach in a film is how to tell the story. It’s the narration, it’s the vue d’ensemble of the work. What we are doing is more about emotion and interaction rather than the images themselves. This kind of approach questions the very classical way of making films. It problematizes it.

I know it’s cinema, it’s a documentary, and the image is so important. But the image can speak for itself even in a non-aesthetic way. If you only have the choice of either not shooting or shooting in a non-classical way, then go and film, and leave the aesthetics behind for another moment. The reality will not repeat itself.

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