5 Seasons of Revolution
(Germany/Syria/Netherlands/Norway/Qatar, 95 min.)
Programme: World Cinema Documentary Competition (World Premiere)
Numerous documentaries have tried to shed light on the state of Syria over the last decade. They’ve told emotional tales of human drama through stories that witness the shocking brutality of an ever-grinding conflict. What sets 5 Seasons of the Revolution apart is the focus upon a small group of individuals who use their voices and actions to try and make change in their nation, all while feeling the weight of responsibility. They share the real challenges of living in the relative safety of Damascus while trying to tell the story in dangerous places like Homs.
Executive produced by Laura Poitras, the film occupies a strange aesthetic space, in part due to the caution showed to the participants. This is hardly the first film to use blurred out or anonymous faces of major participants, and the likes of Flee got around this issue through the use of animation. Yet Lina (the director appears and credits herself with merely a given name) and her collaborators have used “deep fake” technology to essentially face swap over some of the people in the film. The device, on one hand, gives an appropriate level of surrealism to the events, but on the other, it sometimes makes even the most quotidian of events feel like scene cut from a video game.
Setting aside this aesthetic, 5 Seasons of Revolution is strongest when it recognizes the paradoxes and contradictions encountered by these young people as they attempt to speak out about the political violence wracking their city. Following from the first season of Revolution, the so-called Arab Spring, we’re witness to several other “seasons” over the years that speak to a general decrease in hope while the conflict carries on.
For some of Lina’s friends and colleagues, sitting still in the relative comfort of Damascus is akin to acquiescing to the actions of the ruling party. Others put themselves needlessly in harm’s way only to have their witnessing diluted by an indifferent world well aware of just how catastrophic the situation is, only to have no better solutions than those within Syria’s borders. When the real political challenges get articulated, such as when the likes of ISIS-backed troupes become the principal anti-regime forces in certain sectors, the entire circumstance feels existentially dire.
It’s not always clear what Lina and her colleagues are genuinely accomplishing, save for simply speaking out in a nation that has set its entire system against such actions. While this is certainly noble, there does come across a macabre naïveté born of youth, perhaps, where even jail time isn’t sufficient to dull the desire to do something, even if that something feels from this far away to be insignificant compared to the entrenched, powerful forces intent on keeping things in a state of militaristic chaos.
Lina herself undergoes various changes of identity, choosing at any given to take on a given identity that best fits with her circumstance. Sometimes this helps with the gathering of footage for her film, sometimes it’s surely a benefit of being able to sleep at night in the comfort of one’s own bed. These contradictory swings of situation give the film a bit more breadth aside from the simple tale of a bunch of young activists ground down by the incessant conflict. They also provide a richer context to illustrate the little lies one tells just to either engage or survive.
It’s hard to say what 5 Seasons adds to one’s understanding of life in Syria, any more than it’s easy to parse the true effectiveness of those protesting versus those who confront weapons with weapons. These are unanswerable questions in the midst of any war, but given the convoluted history of the region, and Syria in particular, these moral morasses are even more difficult to navigate. It’s clear that Lina’s courage is to tell the story despite all obstacles, a story of friendship and protest and sacrifice, but it’s a tale not yet written as to whether the actions of these few over the last decade were of consequence or merely a sideshow of a sideshow for the larger context of the nation’s upheaval.
5 Seasons takes us on a journey without a clear destination, and while along the way we meet interesting individuals, it’s all a bit up in the air what we’re to glean from the experience. At its best we’re treated to an inside look at this group of individuals and their fears and desires, while on the other, it has a real danger of feeling like we’re focussing on those with the privilege of being able to buy a decent camcorder with which to journal their quotidian concerns. At the least, we’re granted this perspective that many will no doubt find powerful. While the film may ask more questions than it ever even attempts to answer, the result is a flawed if fascinating portrait of these complicated times in Syria.