Apr 18th, 2016, 04:34 PM

AUP Students See The Hidden Side of the Syrian War

By Julie Robelot
Image credit: Alethia Films & Cinema Veritas
"This is a window for you; a chance to see what war looks like, what it sounds like, what it feels like and what it smells like. "

7 Days in Syria gives a window into the lives of families struggling to survive on the frontline of the Syria conflict. Their courage and resilience shines through in impossible circumstances. I hope their stories will inspire greater efforts by all sides to end the bloodshed.” -Angelina Jolie Pitt

Last week AUP presented 7 Days in Syria, a documentary by Newsweek Middle East editor Janine di Giovanni. (Unfortunately, Giovanni herself had to make an emergency trip and was unable to attend.) To a packed room, Professor Ziad Majed, who teaches Middle Eastern studies and writes on Lebanese, Syrian and Arab affairs, presented an overview on the background of the war in Syria. It had never been clear to me how everything started, but listening to Professor Majed and watching the film gave me a better idea of how complicated the war in Syria is, with the multiple sides each fighting for their own interests.

In the film, we follow Giovanni as she covers the war on Syria, despite the newspaper's refusal of her 'dangerous' request. She and her crew journey through Aleppo, documenting the Syrian people’s struggle to survive amidst the conflict. There is a constant danger from shelling, bombardment, sniper fire and kidnappings. Along the way they meet many people such as the carpenter-turned-baker who bakes to keep his neighbors alive, a young woman who videos injuries and deaths of soldiers and civilians, Free Syrian Army fighters on the front lines, and other journalists, both foreign and native.

Image credit: Julie Robelot

After viewing the film, I asked a few students what their impressions were and what stood out to them. Their responses included:

“The most striking thing for me was how real the documentary was, in the sense that it was not over dramatized. The suffering of the people portrayed in the film was genuine. The director did not have to emphasize or point out sorry things to get the viewers attention and make us sympathize with the people.” -Anna Kiroyants

“I definitely felt more sympathy for them [Syrians], just because I learned a lot about all the sides and I had no idea really who was fighting who or why. All the civilians who have to take part involuntarily just by living in an occupied territory. The entire Syrian refugee status makes complete sense to me. I understood there was war in Syria, and that people don't want to be around war, but just how brutal it is there and how desperate people are to leave. It's disgusting honestly that no one has helped them. It's awful.” –Riki Davis

AUP Film Professor Marie Regan expressed that what she found interesting is how the film shifts position as it progresses so that we are getting more direct interviews with the Syrian people. She also emphasizes how the film challenges the viewer, “I think as spectators it’s interesting for us to watch and say what does it take for these images to become real, who is creating them, what’s our position, what’s my position in this chair?”

There is an important moment in the film when a Free Syrian Army fighter says, “Look at the cat. Maybe if people see the cat, they’ll care about the cat and care for Syria.” The whole room laughed at this, but at the same time it was impossible to escape the sad truth of his statement. What does it take for us to pay attention?

Image credit: Alethia Films & Cinema Veritas

Later on in the film we meet Nour Kelze, a Syrian video journalist who goes to the front lines to document the war. Kelze is the first Syrian winner of the IWMF Courage in Journalism Award. She says, “We had with his [Assad’s] father back in the 80’s a real massacre that happened, but nobody knew what was going on, even inside Syria. That’s because nobody made a video or took a picture or something, nobody knew. So we’re making sure that this mistake doesn’t happen again, and it’s up to us, here from this country, to take that responsibility.”

The film seeks to provide a picture of what living in Syria today looks like. People are just trying to survive, but everything is a struggle. Something that stuck out to me is that the film does not show the Syrian people as helpless individuals waiting for a savior. Yes, they do ask for help to be sent, but they are not idle. They have agency and are fighting to live and expose to the world what is actually going on. Syria in the past has been called a “Kingdom of Silence”, due to the fear of speaking out against the government, which could get you arrested, or much worse. In 2011, this ‘silence’ was broken and there was an explosion of the arts including paintings, films, photographs, poems, jokes, etc. There are several websites dedicated to creating an archive, or ‘memory’, if you will, of the war in Syria that are available in several languages. A few of these sites include the Creative Memory of the Syrian Revolution, the Syria Campaign, and Planet Syria.

After the film, Professor Majed expressed what he believes is needed in the Syrian crisis: “Anything is better than war, so a political solution should be negotiated. Nevertheless, in the Middle East there is a big problem that is, has and will continue to create frustration if impunity is always there. If some actors, international actors, consider a deal with a war criminal as fine as long as it’s the Middle East, we keep injustice and impunity there for war criminals we keep feeding frustrations and that every 10 years creates a monster, like Daesh, before that is was Al-Qaeda, and before that it was another group. What is needed in the Syrian case is to put an end to impunity, to turn the page of that regime and allow the Syrians themselves to draft a new constitution, think of a form of reconciliation and to try something else.”

Update: The post originally stated that AUP hosted Newsweek's Janine di Giovanni, but she was unable to attend. We've corrected that information in the article. 

7 Days in Syria - Official Trailer via Robert Rippberger on Vimeo.