Through YouTube and Vimeo, these artists give their fellow Syrians a voice.
Over spectral, plaintive clarinet notes, the outline of a human form emerges. Time suspends, and the figure morphs into a sphere, traveling towards a faint brightness on the upper right of the screen. There’s a tension between light and dark, and a vague threat of violence. A small structure appears low on the horizon and its corners expand outward, eventually taking up most of the frame. Three-and-a-half minutes in, whiteness begins to circle outwards, finally erasing everything.
The context would likely escape you if the video, uploaded to YouTube at the beginning of March, wasn’t accompanied by a brief description: “A little prayer for home. Dedicated to all those who have fallen in Syria in the past year.”
“This is disaster. It’s inhuman. It’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen that my country is going through,” Syrian-born artist Kevork Mourad said recently over Skype from his Brooklyn studio. “If people are suffering, if people are getting killed, I want to help them in any way. Period. I don’t know anything about politics, I don’t want to deal with all those things.”
Mourad created the visual narrative in the video, titled “A Sad Morning, Every Morning,” with the situation in his home country in mind, and in response to music by Kinan Azmeh, a Syrian-born clarinetist and composer who now splits his time between Damascus and Harlem. “The title says it all for me,” Azmeh wrote in an email from Damascus. “It is an artist’s sad reaction to all the lives that have been lost, to how numb some of us have become watching the terrible news every morning.”
Their video is part of an outpouring of video artistic responses to the ongoing violence in Syria. These videos add another dimension to what some call the “YouTube Revolution,” a reference to the fact that, with traditional media largely blocked from the country, much of our visual knowledge of the events comes by way of sites like YouTube and Vimeo.
In tone, these videos range from the stylized abstractions of “A Sad Morning, Every Morning,” to the brazenly satirical, like the series “Top Goon.” The thirteen-part series stars a hand-puppet named “Beeshu” that bears a not-so-subtle resemblance to Bashar al-Assad. The series mixes real events with imagined and allegorical ones.
One episode shows a distracted Beeshu in a game show called “Who wants to kill a million?” The first question, posed by a puppet based on an actual game show host and Assad sympathizer, lists four high-ups in Syria’s government and asks which one puppet-Assad would ask to spearhead a massacre in Damascus. He picks his brother Maher, pointing to his track record of success in such endeavors. He’s awarded a thousand killed.
The point here isn’t just to highlight the Assad regime’s brutalities and contradictions. In an email, Jamil, a member of the twelve-person group behind Top Goon, said it was also about giving some agency back to Syrian people. “We do not want to be perceived as victims only,” he wrote. “We want to show our people, the regime, and the rest of the world that we are a strong people, with our own strong will, willing to determine the future of our country.”
Donatella Della Ratta, a PhD fellow at Copenhagen University and the Danish Institute in Damascus who studies Syrian media and creativity, sees strong will like this everywhere in the grassroots creativity that’s sprung up during the uprising. “It’s the first time I see citizens becoming creators. For me this is the most important result,” she said over Skype from Copenhagen. Della Ratta said that, while Syria has always been a deeply creative culture, the uprising seems to have brought these impulses out into the open.
The “Top Goon” creators are, to be sure, still very cautious. Jamil writes that they live in constant fear of being discovered. Many have fled Syria. But they’re not slowing down production. They’ve mounted a Kickstarter campaign to help fund a second season, which they hope to start rolling out in June and optimistically say “will look at Syria after the regime has fallen.”
The Syrian-based collective Abou Naddara uploads videos weekly; their way of supporting the protests. Their works are small and visually rich and generally deal only obliquely with the fighting in the country. In one, called “My People Love Me,” two pigeons chase each other back and forth on a wall while a rollicking song plays.
In an email, Charif Kiwan, a spokesperson for the collective, explained that the video was a response to Bashar al-Assad’s dismissive attitude in his interview with Barbara Walters. Kiwan describes the song, by Lebanese singer Khaled Al Haber, as funny and subversive. The lyrics, he explains, basically say: “If you make me president of the republic, I would do away with the constitution, the opposition, and democracy. I would change people.”
In another Abou Naddara video, titled “Everything is under control Mr. President,” we peer out a doorway at a man standing silently in a sun-drenched alley. After 45 seconds, the view shifts to the same man in a courtyard, seen first from a few feet away, then closer. As the image dissolves to white, a single gunshot is heard.
Maybe one of the most significant things works like this can give someone sitting at a computer 5,700 miles away is a new way of emotionally grasping events that seem in many ways very distant. Syrian-born painter Khaled Abdulwahed added his film “Bullet” to YouTube at the end of December. Subtitled “A Syrian short story,” it uses stop-animation frames of paint on a concrete wall, following a bullet through a chain of metamorphoses into and out of human form, eventually spilling blood that rises into a butterfly.
I’ve watched it over a dozen times now but the gunshots still startle me, the butterfly taking flight still uplifts.
This week, as the U.N.-brokered ceasefire faltered and then, by Friday, showed tentative signs of taking hold, the outcome of the events in Syria remains impossible to predict. Speaking in London in March at a panel on the subject Syrian creative resistance, the Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat, who was attacked and had his hands broken in August, apparently for authoring work critical of Assad, suggested that creativity like this pointed to one resolution. “I think the revolution is victorious,” he said. “The revolution was concluded and was victorious when we broke the fear.”