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Filmmakers Find A Different Way To Show The Syrian Conflict


A film said to be made in Syria shows a man on a chair. You can't really see where he is - maybe some cafe. But it's quiet. The camera never moves. The man looks at his hands. He stays silent for 40 seconds. At last, he speaks.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Foreign language spoken as character).

INSKEEP: He has to die, the man says, then says it again.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (Foreign language spoken as character).

INSKEEP: He's talking of Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad. The man seems to have been interrogated at some point in a Syrian prison. This is one of scores of short, simple films put on the Internet by an anonymous Syrian group. At the end of this film, the man says Assad should be beaten to death. He adds, you've uncovered the monster inside me - happy now? - and then stands to leave.

We do not know the name of the filmmaker. In fact, it's hard to verify much about the anonymous group called Abu-Nadara. But they've been putting films on the Internet since 2010. By 2014, they'd won a prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Abu-Nadara films rarely show Syria's destruction - ruined buildings or bodies. They typically show one person talking. A Syrian now in Paris, Charif Kiwan, serves as the group's spokesperson.

CHARIF KIWAN: 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.

INSKEEP: The filmmakers feature many people opposed to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. They say they were working against his rule even before the uprising. Yet their films feature Syrians with every point of view, even regime supporters. One film plays off a Western TV clip. It takes a statement made by a Fox News host about Muslim extremists and sets it to music.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWS REPORTER: We need to kill them. We need to kill them. We need to kill them. We need to kill them.

INSKEEP: The film does not clarify if the filmmaker approves or disapproves of that statement. When depicting life inside Syria, the films tend to be quiet. One shows men in a music store debating the quality of pirated CDs. Another shows a woman telling her story as she sits in the light from a window. It's called "The Woman In Pants." That's a dangerous thing for her to wear in an area run by the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

How did you get a film out of the ISIS controlled area of Syria?

KIWAN: Oh, it's our secret. I cannot tell you. We are everywhere in Syria. We are anonymous. So we can film everywhere we want.

INSKEEP: But the woman tells an amazing story. She appears to be describing going out to protest in public in an ISIS-controlled zone.

KIWAN: Right.

INSKEEP: Who is she?

KIWAN: She's an ordinary woman, one representative of our civil society again. She's Muslim. And as you may know, the Muslim people are the main victims of ISIS. So she decided, when ISIS took the control of her city, to protest. And she did so, every day until she couldn't continue. Then she exiled. And during months, she protested alone. Nobody help her. It's to prove that we can resist, but we need just a little help.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about the fact that you began in 2010. So you began at a time when your country was at peace - continued through 2011, when your country was a scene of many protests and into 2012 and beyond when it's become a bloody civil war. How have your films changed as the country of Syria has changed?

KIWAN: Look, before the revolution and when the revolution began, people wanted dignity. So we began with this idee. We have to represent people in a dignified way. We are not against the regime. We are not pro-regime. It's not our problem. At the beginning, it was quite easy to film people. Now it's too bloody. It's too horrific. But the idee is still the same. We avoid graphic images. We try to find human details to tell small stories that give you the sense of the complexity but also of the shared humanity of people. We cannot stop the war. But we can protect people dignity.

INSKEEP: Do you feel you've done any good?

KIWAN: Of course. Look, if we want to rebuild Syria, if we want to prepare reconciliation, we have to let people feel their shared humanity.

INSKEEP: Charif Kiwan says he feels so strongly about this he has turned against other depictions of the horrors of Syria's war. He brought this up at the end of our interview.

KIWAN: May I ask you one question?


KIWAN: Why people of New York could accept that our image - Syrian victims - are being exhibiting right now in the United Nations?

INSKEEP: He was referring to graphic images of dead Syrians recently put on display. They were meant to call attention to the horrors of the war. Yet Charif Kiwan does not like them at all, calling them undignified.

KIWAN: People are going to pity us. We don't need your pity. You need your comprehension, your understanding, your help - but not your pity.

INSKEEP: With the Syrian group's less graphic films, he is hoping to persuade people to see and respect each other as human beings. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.