Cinema of emergency is a particular type of interdisciplinary cinema that was recently brought to public attention and can be scholarly approached from multiple angles. The term was launched by the Syrian Abounaddara Collective, a group of self-taught filmmakers based in Damascus, formed in 2010 by friends from the same generation and attending the same artistic millieux. After the revolution came along with a multitude of changes, this informal and anonymous group started to release one short film every Friday, usually as brief as one or two minutes, via Twitter, Facebook and Vimeo, as a contribution to the weekly revolutionary protests. According to the existing interviews, all the group’s members have a computer and an occasional job. When asked about their number, they gave different responses, one of them being that they are not as numerous, but they must live the impression that they are everywhere. They have a board that tries to maintain a certain coherence and they have several contributors. The decisions are taken collectively as they try to educate themselves to create, watch, and think together. ii The collective communicates with the media / public via a spokesperson, Charif Kiwan, and occasionally releases statements signed only ‘Abounaddara’. Its members are working fast in extreme conditions, without any financial support, and facing the danger of being imprisoned or killed by the Assad regime. They occasionally presented themselves as being “artisans of cinema” and they also compared their films with bullets, referring to themselves as “snipers” attempting to ambush the Syrian regime from behind the apparently harmless videos distributed on the internet and using the cinematic language to produce “a form of counter information”. iii Their films are under copyright, although not systematically, meaning that they will ask money from television channels, museums or universities, but not from activist organizations.
The Aesthetics of Emergency Cinema
Up to date, there is no clear definition of emergency cinema; in addition, the scholarly work on Abounaddara is very scarce, despite the fact that researchers and art institutions are starting to manifest interest in the phenomenon. Therefore, at this point, a more thoroughly analysis of the concept must rely primarily on information provided by interviews, most of them available through the implication of Charif Kiwan, the media representative who tries to communicate to the public the filmmakers’ aesthetic and social agenda. Also available are a few press declarations collectively signed Abounaddara. Although incomplete and too general in my opinion, probably the closest to a definition of emergency cinema would be the one unintentionally offered by Zainab Saleh in his commentary to Abounaddara's films, included in In Media Res: a media commons project. Emergency Cinema is a cinema that combines visual culture and film with philosophy, history, science, sociology (and more) to provide in-depth analyses of cultural phenomena linked to visuality. iv
Also, a good starting point for a discussion on the Abounaddara’s aesthetics would be the film collective’s declared aim to create ‘contrasting images’ and to ‘invent new rules of representation’. v First of all, emergency cinema consciously deploy multiple cinematic devices so the look, feel and nature of their work can’t be fully ascribed and often creates difficulties with situating it in a certain geographical or biographical context. For example, they have interviewed ordinary Syrians on all sides of the conflict and have filmed children and citizens in the streets without commentary, but they have also remixed Russian or Syrian TV news broadcasts into absurdist, incendiary music videos. vi As Carin Kuoni, the director of the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, observed, their cinema vérité style, which occasionally includes images from Western media, “plays in a very, very sophisticated way with the history of filmmaking, subverts it, toys with it and advances it”. vii Particularly the way the film subjects openly acknowledge moral ambivalence and uncertainty, combined with little narrative and background and the use of close-ups is what sets Abounaddara’s films apart from other traditional media. People who are interviewed are often questioning their own memories or event evaluations. This way, the Syrian film collective offers a more considerate image of ordinary Syrians without relying exclusively on their political or religious affiliations as Western media often does, and focusing instead on the details of daily life or evoking fear, shock, and disgust without ever showing it. Therefore, the films are not seeking to impose a certain point of view, but rather to (re)present the nameless and their right to an undistorted image. Referring to this idea, Charif Kiwan said in an interview:
We try not to obey the media agenda. You are surprised because usually you see Syrian - always, always they are defined as Muslim against Christians, Sunni against Alawites. And in our films, people are represented as human beings. We try to hear them, to look at their eyes and just let you make your opinion. viii
There are around 400 films up to the present. As already suggested, these films are quite diverse, depicting fragments of life under siege, monologues from victims and survivors, or ironic montages of the depressing realities faced by people involved in the conflict. ix They are short, ranging from a minute or so to under ten, and each one is different, be it in content, motive, or style. The videos often focus on the power of testimony—not so much over that of the image as much as a counterpoint to it. x Many films feature children — children playing and chatting about how their neighbors lost their limbs in the bombings, children working, scavenging in ruins and garbage, children taking their vows to Assad at school etc. — and their constant presence terrifies and suggests a certain failure of human race to avoid violent conflicts and protect itself from evil.
There is a particular format that is more visible in some of their videos; it begins with the silhouette of a man in close-up, usually backlit against a bright window. There is little background and it usually begins quite sudden, then we hear somebody speaking. Although the video’s beginning or end might seem random, the concise narrative attempts to provide a conventional structure. One example would be The Child Who Saw the Islamic State where the father of two kids narrates a simple family episode. As he talks, the camera, mostly steady, stays focused on his head, framed by the window. Jump cuts punctuate his story like chapters, making the video feel much longer than it is and drawing attention to the details he describes. xi
By contrast, some of Abounaddara’s films are ironic or make use of a biting satire. The Chickens (2015) for example, remixes a Slovenian advert for chicken, in which a family crowds on the couch to watch TV. Suddenly, the footage is replaced by still images of a truck advertising the same brand of chicken, but being opened up by police in hazmat suits and the viewers are informed that this was the truck were 71 Syrian refugees were left to die on the side of an Austrian highway in 2015. xii Another film, All the Syria’s Futures (2015), makes use of irony and features a television transmission of Syria’s autocratic leader Bashar al-Assad during an official broadcast; he is shown walking past Syrian troupes and entering the Presidential Palace, then the transmission is suddenly interrupted.
Other films are more poetic, don’t have a narrative, and are intentionally avoiding cruel realism, a good example being City Lights (2013). xiii The film makes use of a beautiful Syrian song and panoramic images of Damascus, taken at dawn, when the city starts to awaken. Being dedicated to “our mate who was taken away by soldiers”, City Lights simply illustrates how life imperturbably continues despite the tragedies that shaken the world. The title is a reference to Charlie Chaplin's 1931 film and this is not the only reference to Chaplin's work. Another one is The Kid (2015) xiv that features music from the original film and contrasts two Syrian children: one that asks Assad what wrong does he did to him and why is he destroying his family and his happiness and another one enrolled in the Islamic State, holding a gun and promising he will kill all the state’s enemies.
The aesthetics of emergency cinema are also influenced by the technology it incorporates; being more digitally oriented, the collective chose to make shorter films, in serial formats and to distribute them through social media. Also, as a promoter of the power of “smaller screens” like computers and smartphones xv, and by subtitling all the films from the original Arabic to French and English, Abounaddara succeeded in making the entire project very accessible.
Abounaddara's Place Within the Tradition of Social Cinema
There are several connections that can be made between Abounaddara’s emergency cinema and previous forms of social cinema. However, the only influence that the Syrian Film Collective openly acknowledges is that of the Russian director Dziga Vertov. Abounaddara means in Syrian “a man with glasses”. In Arab cities, ordinary people are identified by their profession or by the names that are associated with the latter, therefore Abounaddara is a direct reference to Vertov’s film Man with the Movie Camera (1929); at the same time, the directors wanted to “sound their rallying cry for the world republic of documentary cinema”, whose early pioneer Dziga Vertov was. xvi In 1919, Dziga Vertov created a leftist group called Kinoks or Kino Eye, which in the following years published a number of manifestos in avant-garde journals. The group rejected “staged” cinema with its stars, plots, props and studio shooting. They insisted that the cinema of the future be the cinema of fact: newsreels recording the real world, as “life caught unawares”. xvii Vertov also proclaimed the primacy of the camera itself (the “Kino-Eye”) over the human eye. His checklist for a Kino Eye filmmaker included: rapid means of transport, highly sensitive film stock, light handheld film cameras, equally light lighting equipment, a crew of super-swift cinema reporters. All these suggest the importance of high mobility, which is also essential for Abounaddara. Created from documentary footage, Vertov’s films represented an intricate blend of art and political and poetic rhetoric, a feature that we can also identify in Abounaddara’s work. Dziga Vertov, of course, considered his films to be documentaries, records of actuality, but all his work reflected his personal, highly poetic vision of Soviet reality, a vision he maintained throughout his life. xviii Although Vertov was a true believer and he considered Marxism the only objective and scientific tool of analysis, the Soviet authorities quickly fed up with his experiments and didn’t support his work, on the contrary. Six years after his death, the French documentary filmmakers Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin adopted Vertov’s theory and practice into their methode of cinéma vérité. In recent years Vertov’s heritage of poetic documentary has influenced many filmmakers all over the world and almost a century later his films still look revolutionary.
Although Abounaddara has never mentioned such influence, I consider that cinema of emergency can be easily discussed in the context of the cinema of intervention which is rooted in Bertolt Brecht’s theories on “epic theater” and has been constantly revisited in relation with social injustice and social activism. Bertolt Brecht manifested interest in the new media of film and radio as early as during the 20’s and at about the same time when he developed an interest in Marxism and started writing and directing plays that brought in the limelight social commentaries. His intent was to use drama to educate the working class about how their social environment can be criticized and changed, and for this purpose he developed a new type of theater (“epic theater”) as opposed to the dominant theater of the time (“Aristotelian dramatic theater”). When film started to draw attention, Brecht quickly realized its immense potential of reaching the masses and tried to prove that the principles that were shaping his epic theater can be successfully and more efficiently applied to film. xix Closer to the present, many film and art activists share Brecht’s interest in investigating art as an instrument for learning and knowledge, and value the notion of critical engagement. However, what Brecht apparently hoped to achieve was to subordinate art to a political belief. In this context, film is envisioned as a mean of converting minds, creating a force, and ultimately an instrument of exercising power. This would be a first point of departure from Brecht’s theories on cinema of intervention, because Abounaddara doesn’t seek power or propaganda, but resistance and a balanced representation. A second point of departure would be Brecht’s strong rejection of any empathy or identification of the audience with the characters. In his opinion, the viewers needed to be kept “at distance” so that they could see the action from multiple points of view and form a critical opinion. It is not the case with Abounaddara, which rely on their audiences empathetic reactions in order to change the current perception of what’s happening in Syria. However, there are also similarities, the most important being the negation of individualism: the artist / author and her unique ways of expressing feelings, ideas etc. is becoming irrelevant, of no particular interest, therefore individualism must disappear and the artist must become part of a collective, a force driven by a superior ideal.
More anchored in Brecht’s cinema of intervention are the Ciné-Tracts, which are often, but mistakenly compared with Abounaddara films. The project was undertaken by a number of French directors, including Jean-Luc Goddard and Alain Resnais, as a means of taking direct revolutionary action during and after the events of May 1968 in Paris. The Ciné-Tracts consisted of 16mm black and white silent film equaling a projection-time of 2 minutes and 50 seconds. The films were made available for purchase at the production cost, which at the time was fifty francs. As part of the prescription for the making of the films, the director was to self-produce, self-edit, be the cinematographer, ensuring that each film was shot in one day. Their purpose was to offer a critically alternative source of information in contrast to the commercially offered mediums available. xx
Building on the same idea, we might say that Abounaddara also echoes Lars Von Trier’s Dogma ‘95 and its manifesto, especially when it states,
“To DOGME 95, cinema is not individual! Today a technological storm is raging, the result of which will be the ultimate democratization of the cinema. For the first time, anyone can make movies. But the more accessible the medium becomes, the more important the avant-garde. It is no accident that the phrase ‘avant-garde’ has military connotations. Discipline is the answer...we must put our films into uniform, because the individual film will be decadent by definition!” xxiAll these correlations can be helpful when attempting to situate cinema of emergency in the tradition of social cinema; however, they are also clear indicatives of the departures from this type of cinema which has been constantly revisited since the beginning of twentieth century and remains of actuality in our days, being particularly connected with activism and leftist cultural movements.
Another aspect that needs to be thoroughly explored in the future is Abounaddara’s aesthetic position within the context of virtuality vs. actuality of the image (representational vs mimetic), a theoretical tension central to the work of film theorists such as Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Ranciere, which stresses the transformative power of cinema even when it aims to present reality as it is. xxii , xxiii
The Right to Image or the Juridical Dimension of Abounaddara Films
Since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, Abounaddara has engaged in an international debate using filmmaking strategies and releasing its films into the global discourse via social media every single Friday. These films are actively working to bring back a dignified image to the Syrian people and aim to build new platforms for civil society to meet, without regard to religion, politics, or national borders. Moreover, the key to their artistic project is the specific political demand for an expansion of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to amend it with the right to a dignified image. xxiv Their work has a significant juridical dimension since emergency cinema calls for a more balanced image — one in which the Syrian people portray themselves rather than allowing Western media to represent them either as victims or extremists. Also, Abounaddara refuses to use images taken by amateurs and published on social platforms, presenting unidentified victims, in an attempt to draw attention upon media’s extensive use of such imagery and the right to human dignity. xxv
What Abounaddara aims for is to empower civil society to independently produce its own image. Such an artistic project makes use of the aesthetics of cinema in a spirit of do-it-yourself and spontaneity. At the same time, Abounaddara is a political project that relies on anonymity and dis-identification in order to construct a space of resistance. “Anonymity is really a great space to invent a new world,” Mr. Kiwan said. “You can be American, Muslim, Jewish — it's a way for us to say that art is beyond all sorts of political issues.” xxvi Last but not least, by employing the framework of collaborative consumption, Abounaddara also attempts to exceed the consumer society.
Abounaddara’s approach, above all, is to amplify the multiple and disparate voices of the Syrian people and to embrace the directness and sincerity of the individual voice, in order to reflect the various aspects of the society and its conflicts. Abounaddara relies on stories of common people, and these everyday life moments make the viewer not only to reflect on the scenario, but also on the images of the same situations that other media choose to focus on. Abounaddara’s films shouldn’t be appreciated for their realism or authenticity as if they are informed artistic decisions, because the structure of the films is shaped mainly by necessity, as well as out of respect for the stories people have to share. xxvii Therefore, the films are supposed to make the viewer look at reality differently, to empathize, and demand for justice; however the message is intended to be open to interpretation, not merely reduced to the clash between good and evil.
Without any doubt, there is a growing interest for Abounaddara’s films. ‘Of God and Dogs’ won the Short Film Grand Jury prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in the United States. At the 2015 Venice Biennale in Italy, their work received a special mention; however, the collective has withdrawn from All the World’s Futures, the Biennale’s central exhibition, claiming that their opening short film, “All the Syria's Futures,” was “censored” by not being screened on the assigned day. Showing concern that they were awarded the special mention without their first film being screened, they refused the prize. In the same year of 2015, their work was the subject of a conference and exhibition, ‘The Right to the Image’, at the Vera List Center for Art and Politics at the New School in New York, USA, where they were awarded the Vera List Prize for Art and Politics. The entire archive of their films is viewable on Vimeo. Despite the large number of visualizations, international acclaim and interest translated in prizes and presence at film festivals, the Collective considers that the biggest challenge remains the perception of the public and the impact on people’s life. By promoting the right to a dignified image for all and by proposing that their strategies be adapted by image makers worldwide, Abounaddara turns their film gallery into a forum for debate and brings a fresh perspective on the role of cinema in today's geopolitical context, suggesting that innovative artistic and media forms can challenge the dominant representations of politics and events.
i Lynch, Mark , Deen Freelon, and Sean Aday. “Syria’s Socially Mediated Civil War.” January 13. 2014. United States Institute of Peace. March 2016. http://www.usip.org/publications/syria-s-socially-mediated-civil-war
ii Beghin, Cyril, and Dark Zabunyan. 2015. “Fragments d’une revolution.” Cahiers du Cinema 712, 68-73.
iii BOËX, Cécile. n.d. “Un cinéma d’urgence: Entretien avec le collectif syrien Abounaddara.” La vie des Idees.fr.
iv Saleh, Zainab. 2016. “ ‘A Dream's End’: Temporalities in Abounaddara's Emergency Cinema.” In Media Res: a media commons project. February 8. Accessed February 2016.
vii Ryzik, Melena. 2015. “Syrian Film Collective Offers View of Life Behind a Conflict.” The New York Times, Oct. 18: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/19/movies/syrian-film-collective-offers-view-of-life-behind-a-conflict.html?_r=0.
viii Fragment from an interview with Charif Kiwan heard on Morning Edition of NPR, on March 19th 2015. The transcript of the interview can be found at http://www.npr.org/2015/03/19/393982118/filmmakers-find-a-different-way-to-show-the-syrian-conflict
ix Saleh, Zainab. 2016. “ ‘A Dream's End’: Temporalities in Abounaddara's Emergency Cinema.” In Media Res: a media commons project. February 8. Accessed February 2016.
xv McLelland, Alex Key. 2014. “Emergency cinema in Syria: (re) envisioning documentary-as-witness.” Diss., Austin: University of Texas.
xvii Dawson, Jonathan. 2003. “Dziga Vertov.” Senses of Cinema. March. Accessed April 2016 http://sensesofcinema.com/2003/great-directors/vertov/
xix Brecht, Bertolt. 2000. Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Film and Radio, ed. and trans. M. Silberman. London: Methuen
xx Win, Joss. 2013. “CINÉTRACTS. REVOLUTIONARY FILMMAKING.” Joss Win. December 15. Accessed April 2016. http://josswinn.org/2013/12/15/cinetracts-revolutionary-filmmaking/
xxi Fragment from Dogma’95 manifesto; the full document can be found at http://pov.imv.au.dk/Issue_10/section_1/artc1A.html
xxii Ranciere, Jacques. 2006. Film Fables. Berg Publishers.
xxiii Colman, Felicity. 2011. Deleuze and Cinema. The Film Concepts. Berg Publishers.
xxiv The New School. 2015. “Abounaddara: The Right to the Image.” Accessed April 2016. https://events.newschool.edu/event/abounaddara_a_right_to_the_image#.V03qlRUrLIU
xxv Beghin, Cyril, and Dark Zabunyan. 2015. “Fragments d’une revolution.” Cahiers du Cinema 712, 68-73.
xxvi Ryzik, Melena. 2015. “Syrian Film Collective Offers View of Life Behind a Conflict.” The New York Times, Oct. 18: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/19/movies/syrian-film-collective-offers-view-of-life-behind-a-conflict.html?_r=0.