The War Show
(Denmark/Finland/Syria, 100 min.)
Dir. Andreas Dalsgaard, Obaidah Zytoo
Programme: TIFF Docs (North American Premiere)
There have been a myriad of stories that have come out of the so-called “Arab Spring,” resulting in some of the most powerful non-fiction films of the last half-decade. Works like the Oscar nominated The Square demonstrated beautifully how the idealism of the initial uprising in Egypt resulted in fractured alliances as the political reality of changing circumstances made what once were allies grow in opposing directions as the reality of governance set in.
The regional manifestation calling for an overthrow of local leadership has affected Syria like few other places in the Middle East. Resistance has resulted in an ongoing civil war that’s become not only the site of human misery but also geopolitical machinations. From ISIS to the pernicious influence of conventional superpowers, the area has been awash in tales often too terrible to even contemplate. For a country with such a rich history, Syria feels like little more than a zone of death, an island of despair with no end in sight to the conflict.
Yet the demand for President Bashar al-Assad to step aside wasn’t called for by a group of extremists or opportunists but by a generation of Syrians looking for more freedom, more tolerance. These individuals love their country but rail against their political masters, looking for a way to make a better nation for everyone. And it’s this story, of a group of idealistic and perhaps slightly naïve individuals, that gives The War Show its immense power.
Beyond the new headlines, there are individual stories that get buried under the rubble of statistics and soundbites. That’s what The War Show documents. Obaidah Zytoon, a young local radio host chose to document the lives of her friends on camera, playing witness to the sparks of revolution and repression. From the early, hopeful, demonstrations in 2011, we meet a ragtag band of friendly looking individuals who seem intoxicated with their newfound political voice. There’s optimism at play in the early footage, a genuine enthusiasm that what’s to come may be the remaking of Syria for the better.
Culled from hundreds of hours of ostensibly home video, The War Show provides a unique and intimate insight into the front lines of life in Syria since the protests began. From grand street demonstrations to discussions in living rooms, we meet Zytoon’s friends as they come to terms with the increasing tension in their land. The tragedy that unfolds is made all the more personal as faces and names are giving to those caught up in the cause, where visits to places like Homs or Zytoon’s hometown of Zabadani become at once pilgrimages and memorials to entire communities now destroyed by the continuing fighting.
Narrated by Zytoon, the film is a powerful memoir of the last half-decade, a diary of despair and destruction that’s often heartbreaking. Still, this isn’t anything approaching destruction porn, and the film itself is surprisingly free from being polemical or overbearing. We see the simple acts of lying on a beach or climbing the hills that separate Syria from their neighbours have greater meaning. The lives of Zytoon’s friends and the country of their birth become something more than a black mark on a map. Syria turns into a location and place where there are people and stories and dreams and wishes that are akin to anyone else in the world.
It’s perhaps an unfortunate aspect of our humanity that we respond more sharply to those that remind us of ourselves, yet it’s undeniable that the effectiveness of The War Show lies in the universality of its narrative. We see ourselves in Zytoon’s retinue of friends, finding ourselves caught up in their own discussions. As many of them are killed, we grieve along with the filmmaker, not just for the individuals lost but for the ideas and conversations that will no longer be shared.
The War Show is a captivating, moving document of this troubled region. Thanks to the skill of Andreas Dalsgaard, who co-directed the film with Zytoon, the disparate footage has been edited into a workable whole. It’s an exceptional look at a Syrian generation that’s being obliterated by the ongoing civil war.
As both testimony and memorial, The War Show provides a voice for those no longer with us, showcasing that spark of optimism that’s still fostering in Syria while darker forces move in to co-opt the movement. You can feel the waves of cynicism and opportunism crash over those captured on film, and it makes for a very sobering watch. Yet despite this feeling of despair, there remains in Zytoon’s voice a note of hope, that by remembering these true martyrs to a cause they may yet find a way of making the dark light again.
The War Show screened at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.