Demonstrating To Breathe: Heartbreaking Spiral Into Syrian Oblivion Moves in Micro-Operatic Movements
Syria and the Arab Spring are not exactly new subjects for a documentary film, yet first time filmmaker Obaidah Zytoon and her experienced Danish collaborator Andreas Dalsgaard have collected a wealth of on-the-ground personal footage that Zytoon shot throughout the violent transition, as the subtitle states, From Revolution to War in Damascus, Zabadani, Homs and beyond in their deeply moving, intimately grounded The War Show. Where we are regularly privy to anonymous depictions of inspiring mass protests and terrifying combat, here we’re introduced to Zytoon’s small network of artist and activist friends and taken on a fragmented road trip through their own tragic trajectory to heartrending, lo-fi effect.
Having had a successful career in radio under the oppressive regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad prior to taking to the streets with camera in hand, Zytoon knew the power of one’s own voice, both aural and visual. When the revolution broke out around her, it became imperative to document the happenings as her own way of combating the governmental and social censorship, arbitrary arrests, and eventual torture and executions that would not only affect the nameless, doomed to go missing, but also her dear friends swept up in the danger.
Broken into seven loosely descriptive chapters – revolution, suppression, resistance, siege, memories, frontlines, extremism – The War Show begins on a wave of hopeful spirits, with a little girl amidst a chanting crowd exuberantly proclaiming, “I’m not demonstrating to be suffocated, I’m demonstrating to breathe!” But it isn’t long before that very same headscarfless little girl heartbreakingly admits before Zytoon’s raucously waving camera that her parents have been jobless for quite some time and that she’d prefer to die over enduring these continued hardships under Bashar’s regime. It’s a moment among many so breathtaking in its unexpected gravity that even the filmmaker herself is stunned into silence.
But as you’ve no doubt heard from the news, things have not improved since that harrowing day back in the spring of 2011 when the revolution reached Damascus. The peaceful protests were short lived. The attempted governmental media cover-ups failed miserably thanks to folks like Zytoon and her friends. As freelance militia were hired by Bashar to beat down the resistance movement and Western governments failed to provide support to the revolution, all out war broke out across the nation, and Islamic extremist groups such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and the much publicized Islamic State of Iraq and Syria took this moment of political weakness to establish itself as a major force of political influence in the region.
With a dreamy sense of living in the moment through warm and agonizing memories via Zytoon’s personal footage and Dalsgaard’s keen editorial eye, The War Show reminds us that there are indeed living, breathing, and loving individuals just trying their best to endure this war-torn time period in their homeland. Sometimes just trying to stay out of the way of war is blatantly impossible, and the only thing left to do is embrace those you love and hope to live another day, or take up arms knowing that death is ready to rear its ugly head at a moment’s notice.
Reviewed on September 10th at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival – TIFF Docs Programme. 100 Minutes