Road Trip to Hell

INTERVIEW. Euphoria quickly turned to tragedy for Syrian radio host Obaidah Zytoon, who started filming the Syrian uprising in 2011 and continued during the personal journey she and her friends made through the war-torn country. "The War Show" co-director Andreas Dalsgaard talks about the work involved in turning their story into a film.

For radio host Obaidah Zytoon and her friends from the Damascus art scene, the Syrian uprising begins with euphoria and the dream of a democratic Syria – even if they know the road will be long and hard. But the struggle soon turns into chaos, tragedy and disillusionment. Several of her friends are arrested and killed. After three years on the road with her camera in hand, Zytoon flees to Turkey, carrying 300 hours of footage as her most precious cargo. 

I hope the film will provide some understanding of who these people are who board rubber rafts to get to Europe – why they're coming here and the kind of baggage they're carrying.

The extensive footage tracks her journey from the early demonstrations in Al-Zabadani to the rebel city of Homs and on to northern Syria, an area rife with extremism. Working with the Danish director Andreas Dalsgaard and the editor Adam Nielsen, she made the footage into a documentary, "The War Show."

A Complex Conflict

"Obaidah was psychologically impacted by her experiences. At the same time, she was adamant that the story be told in a way that was respectful of how she and her friends saw the war," Dalsgaard says. He and Zytoon met up in Denmark during the editing process. For both, it was important to keep a firm grip on the reality and nuances of the war rather than be seduced by a "good story."

"As documentarians and journalists we have these ingrained ideas about what angles, images and dramatic moments to communicate. Take the scene in the film where there's shooting in the streets. Typically, it would be dramatised as a war scene, showing the rebels risking their lives. But Obaidah told us that these rebels like to act up for the camera. Knowing that, you view the situation in a completely different light, with added nuances."

The War Show Photo: Fridthjof Film

The further you dive into the nuances, the more complex the conflict appears, he learned as he worked on the film. The war isn't about "good guys versus bad guys." It's distinguished by complicated groupings of rebels, each with its own agenda, the Assad regime cunningly pitting one against the other. For many, what started as political goals has been replaced by a struggle for weapons, money and survival. 

The chaotic atmosphere is illustrated in a scene from the city of Kafr Nabl, which flies the black banner of ISIS. During a demonstration in the streets, a boy is waving a flag with the message "We want a secular government" even as he loudly calls for Islamic rule. "What do you really want?" the kid next to him asks, and the boy says he got confused and basically just wanted to be in front of the camera. 

"The film shows how confusing the whole thing is in the extreme situation created by the Assad regime's brutality. The reaction of individuals is expressed in the boy, who is basically bewildered and concerned about whom to ally with to just get through the next week." 

Now, They Could Breathe

Rewind to 2011, when Zytoon is a popular radio host at an independent radio station in Damascus and a member of the capital city's traditionally strong art and bohemian scene. She uses her platform to inspire her listeners to think differently and listen to different music, deftly balancing on the edge of what the regime will allow. While she isn't among the first to demonstrate, once she starts taking part in the demonstrations in her hometown of Al-Zabadani, she goes all in. Believing it's important to capture the events, she films like her life depends on it, while also training others to use a camera. 

When the conflict escalates, the radio station forces her to choose between demonstrating and keeping her job. So she quits. With a large group of other young people, she lives an underground existence, first in Damascus, then all over the country, staying in each other's apartments and constantly moving around to hide from the regime. 

"Part of what Obaidah is struggling with today is having felt this incredible energy in a country that was oppressed for four decades at an almost North Korean level. At long last, people could breathe and speak their minds publicly alongside a lot of other people. And then, feeling that power suddenly being switched off. That's tough to move on from," Dalsgaard says. 

In the film, we see Zytoon and her friends hanging out on the beach, partying, making out and having fun together like any other group of young people bursting with energy and spirit. Watching the spark go out in their eyes, one after one, is almost the most heart-rending part of the film. 

The War Show Photo: Fridthjof Film

"As war photographers, we typically look for conflict, war and political agendas. But we run the risk of forgetting what kind of country Syria is and who the people coming out of that chaos are. The film shows us musicians, artists, students – secular, nonviolent young people – being put through the grinder. Some are politicised, others aren't, but all are marked for life by the war. That touched me deeply when I watched the footage for the first time," Dalsgaard says.

Today, Zytoon is in Denmark, unsure of her future and weighed down by memories of the people she has lost and the ongoing tragedy in her home country, including the regime's siege of her hometown, Al-Zabadani, and the ensuing hunger crisis. 

"The crazy thing is she can Skype her friends there, because the Internet is working even while people are starving to death. Living in security here and having to deal with a nonstop stream of tragedies produces heavy survivor's guilt, like it does for so many others, because she's thinking, 'Do I even have the right to be well?'" Dalsgaard says.

"I hope the film will provide a window into the journey through hell that Syrians have undergone and some understanding of who these people are who board rubber rafts to get to Europe – why they're coming here and the kind of baggage they're carrying." 

The Camera As Friend and Enemy 

Before the uprising, a video camera was something Syrians used to film weddings. Using a camera to criticise the system was a new discovery that quickly caught on. Even so, the film shows the radical change in people's attitude to Zytoon's camera. In the early days of the uprising, demonstrators are eager to be filmed. Later on, it makes them angry.

"In the beginning, the camera is a way to share the euphoria. Demonstrations are held largely for the sake of the camera. The secret police show up so quickly that the camera is essential to document that a demonstration even took place, and videos are posted online to counter the regime's narrative," Dalsgaard says.

"Over time, the rebels realise that the camera is dangerous, that the images can be used against them in court and during interrogations and torture. People turn against the camera when they realise it's no longer harmless but can be a huge risk. That was a big challenge for the film: how do we deal with the shots of these people? Where are they today, what do they risk by showing their faces and can it be used against them?" 

The War Show Photo: Fridthjof Film

The filmmakers' solution is to only show the faces of the people they were able to get hold of, who gave their consent, and blur those whom the film might put in danger. 

The role of the camera also gave the film its name, "The War Show." 

"The title implies how much of the war is really a show, where the camera helps to shape reality. People play roles they have learned from movies and social media, seeing how other rebels behave. That creates trends that define how the uprising moves. Syria is the most documented conflict ever. That doesn't mean we're any closer to the truth. It only means we have access to feel that we're part of it. But the camera not only provides access to reality. It is also used to manipulate reality, both by the regime and the rebels," Dalsgaard says. 

Moreover, he says, the word "show" refers to showing the war. "The film presents the war in a raw way, taking you through moments you can piece together yourself like a puzzle in your head. It's a unique kind of war film, because it shows a lot of what happens in between the moments of high drama. There's a strength to that, I think" •

Revised version of an article originally published in August 2016

More about the film

"The War Show" is directed by Andreas Dalsgaard and Obaidah Zytoon and produced by Miriam Nørgaard and Alaa Hassan for Fridthjof Film. The film has received funding from the Danish Film Institute. DR Sales handles international distribution rights.

"The War Show" premiered in Venice Days i September, where it won the top award. Later in September, it screened to a North American audience at the Toronto Film Festival. Selected for the festivals in London, Warsaw (Against Gravity) and Mumbai, among others, the film was also picked for IDFA 2016, showcasing in the Best of Fests series.