Why you should care
Big picture: Syria is an incomprehensible snake pit of conflict. Close-up: In a digital world, the ordinary folks who are caught up in civil war and their sufferings are amazingly accessible.
Syria’s bloodshed is playing out in real time all over YouTube . But while there’s plenty of footage of regime atrocities targeting children and civilians, the video that’s provoked the most breathless consternation in the West is the blurry film of a rebel fighter purportedly cutting out and biting into the heart of a dead government soldier.
The sensationalism dismays Orwa Nyrabia, the heralded Syrian actor turned film producer, who supports the opposition in the grinding civil war. But he tells OZY there’s also plenty that’s inspiring about the Syrian revolution and the response of average citizens. Far from stamping out expression, the conflict has produced a wave of creativity and entrepreneurialism as artists because activists, and activists artists.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Through his production company, ProAction Film , Nyrabia and his wife, the filmmaker Diana El Jeiroudi, helped fund and distribute the film Return to Homs . The film displays the destruction and despair of the war, and also the grit and humanity of the people trapped in it. The war has been a horrible stalemate of killing, in which the government side has recently regained some lost ground.
In Washington, D.C., for a screening of Return to Homs , Nyrabia took a few minutes to talk to OZY about Syria’s new generation of artists and journalists, and how cannibalism goes viral.
You’ve talked about the way people in rural areas are picking up cameras or film equipment, videotaping, taking pictures, becoming activists using art and media to communicate. Can you tell us more?
Return to Homs won the grand jury prize for documentary at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. ProAction Film’s latest production, Silvered Light , will debut at the Cannes Film Festival this spring.
Can I ask you a question just to help me answer the way I would want? What’s like, in D.C. or in L.A. or so on, an area or a town that everybody makes fun of because there’s nothing there?
Maybe Fresno [California]?
So what’s happened in the past three years was that in the many ”Fresnos” in Syria, suddenly, there are amazing talents doing amazing photography, amazing journalism.
In Fresno, you don’t expect to discover there 10 wonderful photographers and 10 wonderful journalists. Suddenly, they are there. Suddenly, you can’t make jokes about that town any more.
So it’s — in that sense — amazing, and needs to be really capitalized upon. We can’t leave these guys alone, because we don’t want to go back to that era where everyone is scared to express themselves. Now, suddenly, everybody has the courage to say it. This is a historical change that we need to cherish.
Despite all of the crackdowns, there’s video, there are still images emerging, even now. I’m in awe that people are able to get this stuff out, given everything that’s going on.
You can’t believe how young people are finding amazing work-arounds for everything.
In a besieged area, people will take all the risk of going, with their small 3G sticks, next to the front line just to get coverage from the regime side, just to upload a couple of photos every week, or videos.
All communciation happens mainly through Facebook and Skype. So if you’re not on Facebook, if you’re not on Skype, you don’t communicate.
It’s really a globalization of our problem, because for the very first time, every Syrian around the world is as close as Syrians inside Syria. If I’m in Damascus and something is happening — you know, 10 miles away from me — I have the same connectivity to them as a Syrian in the states, because I cannot go see them, I can only Skype with them, as much as a Syrian in Chicago.
In that sense, we became much more, we became many.
In the ’70s and ’80s, a dictator could go, shut off all the cameras, kick out all the international media, commit a massacre and nobody saw it. They could get away with it. Here, everyone is watching it — and yet, he’s still getting away with it. Why do you think that is?
I think what the regime did in the first two years is they realized they cannot stop us anymore from uploading to YouTube, at least. But what they did was to manipulate what is true versus what is fake.
It didn’t matter to them that many of the videos they published were clearly fake, because the overall impact was that everybody in the world became skeptical of everything that came out of Syria.
The Western media has been very interested in the extremist element in the opposition. What’s your reaction to that?
I think there’s an amazing level of consumerism that is ruling the Western media. And with that consumerism, news becomes like big Hollywood blockbusters. We’re bored of stories about peaceful people. It doesn’t sell anymore. We should have more sensational stories. Al-Qaida is extremely sensational. Fear is something to sell. And I think being that commercial in the approach is a real enemy of journalism, of media in general.
It’s normal that when a man eating a heart on YouTube is published, it’s normal that it go viral, especially because it’s blurred — you don’t really see the infamous, terrible act.
But on the other hand, it’s extremely selective and it doesn’t give the full coverage. It’s a man who needs to be hospitalized. It’s not a revolution that needs to be hospitalized.
Why do you think that video, as opposed to so many other atrocities on video, went viral?
I think cannibalism as some sort of kinky, strange, sick problem is very attractive. But on the other hand, I think what I just described is a very crucial point — it became viral because it’s blurred, out of focus and far, so you understand but you don’t see. If you saw the knife going into the corpse and the heart going out — or the liver, actually — you would have never forwarded it to your friends.
So I think it was a smart move from pro-Assad lobbyists in the states. It was pushed very well.
As people working in video in [and] around Syria, we discussed: Should we now make a counterattack? And we just didn’t want to. We still try not to publish and not suggest to the world watching the worst videos we have.
We don’t think that we should become distributors of this damage, because I think everybody who sees this gets affected. It doesn’t do good. We see it in ourselves.