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Q+A: ‘Aleppo: Notes from the Dark,’ Changing the Syrian Narrative

A new documentary tells the city’s story from seven points of view. Its filmmakers posit that it’s changed the way we look at the civilian experience.

Written by Katarina Montgomery Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

As fighting intensified in Aleppo in the summer of 2013, filmmakers Michal Przedlacki and Wojciech Szumowski arrived for a 44-day stint in which they documented the lives of seven civilians living in the midst of worsening conflict.

The result is “Aleppo: Notes from the Dark,” in which life is seen through the eyes of media activist Mohammed Sayeed, Imam Qasim, a cleric in a poor neighborhood, Dr. Ammar Zakaria, a former Syrian army officer now working in a field hospital, and others.

Here, Przedlacki explains how his film changes the narrative on Syria.

Syria Deeply: Why was this the right time to make the documentary?

Michal Przdelacki: Once I had finished establishing a humanitarian program in northern Syria, I wanted to show the world what was happening to civilians, common people and communities inside Syria. I believed that the best way to capture the daily struggle was through film.

We went to Aleppo to show how civilians are taking the impact of the war; how Aleppians are fighting and struggling for survival – who they really are and what they hope for. We simply wanted to give Syrians enough space to tell their story and cope. We withdrew ourselves from the commentary, because it was not about us.

You have to live with the people so they can see that you are witnessing, what they are going through. Trust is the best protection you have.

We were in Aleppo for 44 days, filming, living in our own house. We stayed long enough so we could narrate the story through their eyes, and so we could develop observations from inside.

Syria Deeply: How have people’s lives been transformed by war, and how did this translate into film?

Przdelacki: At the beginning of the revolution, the media narrated the human story, but now its focus is almost strictly on the violence, and images of fighters and tanks. It doesn’t show that these fighters have a past – they used to be vegetable sellers, librarians, students – and they took up arms for reasons we often don’t see in the news. They were being oppressed, some lost family members, and some always dreamed of freedom.

The seven characters portrayed in the film were not born on the first day of the conflict. There is a fighter with the Free Syrian Army who used to repair household appliances, and he said his biggest dream was to buy a Harley Davidson so he could take his wife on a 2,000-mile journey, after the war ends. To him, this is freedom.

We portray a vegetable seller who became a commander in Bustan al-Qasr. We have a squad leader from the Islamic Doctrine Fighters Movement, which is affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra. The guy used to sell women’s clothes and then turned to religion and God to cope with the atrocities of war.

We also focus on the daily lives of nonfighting characters: Dr. Ammar Zakaria, who used to be an army officer in Assad’s regime, whose father used to be a general brigadier of the airport. He talks about being afraid of the West, because he feels like there is a lack of understanding of what is happening inside Syria.

Mohammad Sayeed is a journalist from Aleppo Media Center who is trying to show how war wreaks havoc on day-to-day life, and a man who is struggling to deliver bread to families in Aleppo. Imam Qasim was a respected Islamic cleric who died earlier this year on a local strike on a bread distribution center.

Syria Deeply: How are people living day to day, and how is this changing?

Przdelacki: The first time I was in Aleppo was in 2012, when I was starting a humanitarian program. I was visiting with families living in basements trying to survive the bombardment.

The families were surviving through the solidarity and generosity of their neighbors, but the situation has gotten much worse, because people have run out of their savings. There are unbelievable levels of poverty: I saw families who weren’t even able to afford salt. People are collecting trash, they don’t have money to buy bread. They are eating once a day, maybe twice, and in places like Yarmouk starvation is being used as tactic for submission.

On August 5, 2013, while we were there and in the middle of Ramadan, a charity market was organized at a local elementary school. The event was heavily advertised and mostly children and women were there looking for ways to help their neighbors.

Mortar shells from a regime military base landed in the middle of that crowd of women and children. They were shelled so accurately that all of the shells came very close to one another.

And again, just a couple days ago, a heavily advertised drawing competition was organized at a local school, and it was met with bombs launched by Syrian army government aircraft.

I’ve never seen people pushed to the edge so much as I saw in Aleppo. But the solidarity hasn’t died in Syria. I would argue it has actually gotten stronger. I haven’t seen such solidarity in my life, in a decade of working in war zones. The aid that Syrians inside and the diaspora outside is giving each other is on a far, far larger scale than what the external world has given Syrians.

What I saw in Aleppo was that people found inner strength from one another, and by turning to God for answers, inner strength and compassion. You will not find the answer to why your neighbor is killing your family, why an airplane is dropping bombs on school, from others.

Syria Deeply: How can we change the narrative on Syria?

Przdelacki: We need to see Syrians in the same lens as we see ourselves and outside the context of radicalization. By only showing Syria under the lens of extremism, we can make the justification for not doing enough.

If we turned this narrative upside down, and showed attacks on schools, people would be absolutely shocked about what is going on inside Syria. To us, the most important thing is to bring the film to as many people as possible, to remind people of what is happening in Syria, to people caught up in the midst of war, trying to survive and exist. The film is about showing the real image of the war and how it transforms the lives of ordinary people.

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