“What can be done faced with the spectacle of indignity streamed almost live from Syria since 2011? This spectacle is unprecedented. Never before in history has a crime against humanity been filmed day by day, turned into a spectacle with the cooperation of both victims and executioners, broadcast by the big television networks and streamed on social media, intercut with ad breaks, consumed by the general public, and commodified by the art market.” —Abounaddara
Born in Damascus in 2010, Abounaddara is an anonymous (and wholly volunteer) collective of Syrian filmmakers working on “emergency cinema”—that is, films of daily life that demonstrate the urgent state of affairs in this beleaguered country. The group takes its name from the first Arabic-language satirical revue, founded in Cairo in the nineteenth century; the word “abounaddara” means literally, “the man with glasses.”
Every week, Abounaddara releases a short video portrait and posts it to the internet. The aim is to show individual Syrians on all sides of the conflict, thus providing an immediate image of Syrian society. Unlike so much crisis image-making, the collective’s aim is not to shock international viewers into action but rather empower local, civil society to independently produce its own images about itself. Indeed, the collective is engaged deeply with its film subjects’ “right to the image,” which they pronounce to be universal human right.
Raw and grainy or sometimes discontinuous and pastiche, there is something about the collective’s aesthetic that has struck a broad-based chord. In the country itself, Abounaddara’s films are shared by Syrians from all sides, with even pro-regime media outlets admitting that the films represent the contemporary society in a balanced way. Further afield, the films have garnered widening international recognition, being shown at film festivals, biennials, museum and more. Despite their success in broadcasting their message, the group’s means of production are ever-tenuous as they depend exclusively on the voluntary involvement of their filmmakers, while the horrific situation in Syria still has no clear end in sight.
Regardless of the collective’s future, their weekly accomplishment over the past five years has been nothing short of heroic. Amidst one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 21st century, a dedicated team of individuals has showcased, once more, the power of the image. As the group itself wrote in a powerful essay in The Nation, “Syrians are caught in a double bind: They are indefensible because they are represented without dignity, and the spectacle of their indignity imposes itself as evidence of that.” Although the group’s films can’t change that dynamic singlehandedly, they have still done something essential: offer a small measure of taking back control. As Charif Kiwan, the group’s spokesperson, said in an interview, “What we want is nothing less than to change perception.” Not all at once, but one week, one film at a time.
To see the full film archive from Abounaddara, visit the collective’s Vimeo channel, which contains over 400 films and counting.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also like one of these previous features: Nish Nalbandian’s stunning documentary photographs from the Battle of Aleppo; Women of War, portraits of the women who fight in an all-female unit in Syria; and Outside Syria, Yet Outside the Camps, a project on the close quarters—and inherent tensions—in the refugee camps and surrounding villages on the border between Syria and Turkey.