While Hongkongers are complaining about the weather, people from war-torn countries have bigger problems to worry about. Last year, 1.2 million people entered Europe from Syria, Afghanistan and other places in search of a safer place to live. As part of World Refugee Day on June 20, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Hong Kong has launched its ninth Charity Refugee Film Festival. It will showcase three documentaries, Young Syrian Lenses, Boxing for Freedom and Fire At Sea. The films will be shown at selected cinemas from now until June 19.
Directed by Ruben Lagattolla and Filippo Biagianti, Young Syrian Lenses follows a group of young media-activists in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, who help the Resistance fight against president Bashar al-Assad’s Regime using their cameras. Lagattolla talks to Young Post about filming in the war zone.
What inspired you to make Young Syrian Lenses ?
The will to make this documentary comes from my previous experience in Iraqi Kurdistan Refugee Camps. I’ve been working with an agency named EPOS, where I was working as a documentary filmmaker. I met so many refugees who shared their stories with us. I wanted to see the things they were talking about with my own eyes. I was also very disappointed by the way western media was and still is covering the conflict. Syria is a black hole for information today. The main reason for this is because it is extremely dangerous for journalists to go there if they want to come back alive.
What filming techniques did you use, and what effect did you want to achieve?
The technique I used is mainly inspired by Italian neo-realism in cinema, although I am also a big fan of Werner Herzog. I (along with Filippo Biagianti, co-director in the editing and scripting process) simply let the people speak. We didn’t enter the scene at all. I believe that this is the most honest and non-ideological way to tell this kind of story. I believe in the value of direct experience, and I would like the public to have the same feelings I had during this journey into hell, at least for the duration of the film. I use contrasts, such as irony and tragedy, to try to depict the absurdity of life in its banal normality.
What impact do you hope to achieve with your documentary?
I want to inspire people, not scare them. I want the public to think and understand that the people committing this bloodshed are as human as we are (while distinguishing their differences, of course). I want the public to reflect on what causes humans to do this and I want people to wake up and work to stop all of this.
Tell us about the first time you met subjects? What did they say or do that made you want to feature them?
The unexpected source of this story is an Italian photographer named Enea Discepoli. We met each other at a photo exhibition about his journey to Aleppo. He said he was about to go back to hold a photo exhibition there together with media activists, under the bombs! So I asked him to take me with him to document his crazy event.
At the beginning all I wanted to do was to interview the media activists inside the exhibition, use their pictures to show the situation and go back. But once we arrived in Aleppo we realiaed the impossibility of everything. The place that was supposed to host the exhibition, a 16th century caravanserai (a traditional inn with a central courtyard, typically for travellers), had been bombed two days before our arrival, so I had to reinvent the story. I decided to follow local news channel Halab News Network and to work with them, while still preserving my point of view and my critical thinking.
How important is the role of media activists in the civil war in Syria?
The role of the media activist is an interesting figure. Media activists are the new agents in modern conflicts. Each brigade has at least one filmmaker and photographer and they know the importance of this role. But it is important not to confuse them with journalists. They are activists because they cannot ask for the other side of the story, so their account is inevitably biased, and it’s not always possible to verify the information they give us.
What were the biggest challenges in making the documentary?
There have been so many challenges. The first and most obvious concerns security. We were in a city that was, and still is, constantly under attack by helicopters, bombings and snipers.
Another challenge was discretion. We had to enter Syria illegally and under cover as Muslims, with long beards and the proper clothing. To avoid drawing too much attention to ourselves, we could never stay in the same place for too long. Nobody in Italy knew we were there, so if we had been kidnapped or ran into other problems we would have had to rely on ourselves.
Hygiene is another issue. I was sick for two days after drinking dirty water.
What’s one of your favourite moments in making the documentary?
One memorable moment was the night we were invited to the house of an ancient Syrian singer. He showed us some DVDs singing in front of president Hafez al-Assad and Bashar al-Assad, in times of peace. We learned a lot about Syria, the past, and the spirit of the revolution. We spent a whole night dancing and singing holy Islamic music, while helicopters were dropping bombs overhead. We could have been killed at any time, but the human spirit we felt that night is something that can’t be explained.
What of the subjects stuck out to you the most?
What really impressed me, although I didn’t mention it in the documentary, is the reason why people decide not to flee, but to stay and fight. More than once I asked, “Why don’t you go somewhere else as a refugee?” and the answer was always the same – because they love their land and their city, and they are that land. This is very important to understand how crucial Syria is all over the Muslim world. Syria is the core of religions in history and as a consequence it has always had a dominant role in culture.
Were there any moments of real danger during the shooting?
The biggest danger was on the first day. There had been an attack with barrel bombs in town. We went to see what had happened. When we got there, there were dozens of corpses in flames, together with buildings and cars. A helicopter then dropped a second barrel to try and hit us, and maximise the number of victims, but fortunately the strong wind meant the barrel fell and exploded on the street behind us, so we didn’t die.
Facing death is an interesting experience. It really made me realise the importance and responsibility of me being there. I also had a thought about what is important in my life.
What equipment did you use?
I just used a Canon DSLR, a mobile phone and a portable sound recorder. This is a real no-budget film. I travelled on my expenses and all the work we did was volunteer.
Was it difficult to get subjects to open up? What do you do to make them feel more comfortable speaking to the camera?
The main difficulty was that I couldn’t really speak Arabic, and we didn’t have the budget to hire a professional translator. Our translator had a very good understanding of English, but was not great at speaking, so I had to say the questions in lots of different ways to make sure he understood properly.
The only people I didn’t manage to interview were the al Qaeda fighters. I met them and for a whole week I tried to convince them that I was genuinely interested in them, but they didn’t trust me. It’s a pity, because I wanted to explore the humanity in the actions they do, but they didn’t trust me, probably because I do not agree with their methods.
How do you decide what footage to include or cut from the documentary?
I always knew I wanted to focus on the living conditions of the civilians. I didn’t want to make a war show as many broadcasters do; I focused on daily life. Unfortunately I was forced to witness extremely tough and violent situations, and we decided not to show anything too cruel or go into details about death, as I think it is unnecessary. I was impressed by how dignified people were, given their situation.
How do you think young people in Hong Kong can contribute to the situation?
Following news of the situation is a step in the right direction. Raising awareness is another thing people can do. China has a big responsibility in Syria, together with Russia. China has put the veto more than once in the United Nations resolutions for Syria and this is a shame! How can so many countries support the bloodbath that the Syrian regime is perpetrating since five years?
For more details and ticketing information about the Refugee Film Festival, click here.