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Notes on the role of the camera within a (virtual) war: the case of Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait

Abstract

Since the outbreak of uprisings in Syria in 2011, which later became the ongoing armed conflict, the Syrian population has been using small digital cameras and personal mobile phones to produce a vast number of images as graphic testimonies of the crucial events taking place in the country. The documentary essay Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (2014), co-directed by Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan, was partly made remixing these vernacular videos found online. This article is an aesthetic and sociocultural analysis of the film with the aim of remarking on the role of cameras and the power of images and cinema in a conflict such as the Syrian war, defined by a deep intermingling of actual and virtual struggle. How can the use of vernacular video of the Syrian conflict in film works influence the shaping of public perceptions of the conflict and launch a truly political reflection about it? To what extent can images be used as a political weapon in a hyper-mediatized era where, having proliferated to infinity, images have lost their strength? I argue that the political capacity of images is not only limited, it also depends to a great extent on mediations, gatekeepers and the material conditions of their production and dissemination, their motivations, creators and propagators, and on the aesthetical strategy used to (re)contextualize them and (re)shape the dominant representations of the conflict given by the mass media and by the authorities.

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Notes

  1. In this article, I will use the expression ‘vernacular video’ to refer to these images, following Peter Snowdon’s justification for the use of this terminology in his article ‘The Revolution Will Be Uploaded: Vernacular video and the Arab Spring’ (see references).

  2. For further reading on eyewitness images and mediated conflict, I recommend Mortensen, Mette (2015), Journalism and Eyewitness Images. Digital media, participation and conflict, New York and London: Routledge.

  3. For further reading on Syrian documentary cinema, I recommend Wessels, Joshka (2019), Documenting Syria. Film-making, Video Activism and Revolution, London and New York: Bloomsbury.

  4. According to Wessels, we would be living in a current ‘golden age of documentary film’ allowing a new amount of attention to documentary films from the Arab world: ‘The Gulf region has well-established Arab Film festivals in Doha, Dubai and Abu Dhabi and, in April 2018, the very first Arab-European Documentary Convention was organized in Leipzig, Germany, co-created by Dox Box and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) with a focus on documentary industries of the Arab Region and Europe.’ (Wessels 2019: xii).

  5. Furthermore, saving these videos is important for future transitional justice, as the archiving work of Syrian Archive (syrianarchive.org), Witness (www.witness.org/tag/syria) and Amnesty International shows.

  6. Many other geopolitical factors are obviously required to explain the lack of international political action.

  7. Although both Mohammed and Simav sign the film, I will address mostly Mohammed as the filmmaker. This seemingly radical choice is driven by several reasons. Mohammed monopolized interviews, public presentations of the film and everything linked to its circulation, while Simav was already back in Idlib, working in the nursery of a refugee camp, as it is shown in this video: https://www.trtworld.com/middle-east/many-syrians-have-not-given-up-hope-for-the-future-of-their-country-12642. As she said in many interviews, she actually discovered the film in the Cannes screening. She had never seen it before, apart from the videos she shot herself. Therefore, it is clear that Mohammed took all the decisions in the editing process, which, considering the essay nature of the film, corresponds to the most important artistic and authorial choices.

  8. This interview has no particular author, being signed by Agence France Presse, and is available at: https://www.thenational.ae/world/syrian-woman-s-film-on-horrors-of-homs-receives-standing-ovation-at-cannes-1.449905?videoId=5766484581001.

  9. Read more about this here https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/22/world/middleeast/syria-youtube-videos-isis.html or here https://www.wired.co.uk/article/chemical-weapons-in-syria-youtube-algorithm-delete-video.

  10. For further reading on the right to one’s own image, dignity and the right to inform in contemporary mediascape, I commend Zabunyan Dork (2017), ‘Devant l’effroyable—art des images et principe de dignité,’ in L'insistance des luttes, Lyon: De L'incidence Éditeur.

  11. Available online at: https://syrianarchive.org/. As stated in their website, their mission is to ‘support human rights investigators, advocates, media reporters, and journalists in their efforts to document human rights violations in Syria and worldwide through developing new open source tools as well as providing a transparent and replicable methodology for collecting, preserving, verifying and investigating visual documentation in conflict areas.’

  12. In a central sequence of Lettre de Sibérie (1957), Chris Marker edits the same images three times in a row, each time changing the comments made by the voice-over. Since the sense of the images differs in each version, the spectator can ‘measure the filtering created by the spoken text (in the voice-over) on the image’s significations’ (Blümlinger, Christa (2004), ‘Lire entre les images,’ in Liandrat-Guigues, Suzanne and Gagnebin, Murielle (eds), L’essai et le cinéma, Paris: Champ Vallon, translation author’s own).

  13. For further reading on the essay film genre, I recommend: Alter, Nora M. and Corrigan, Timothy (eds.) (2017), Essays on the Essay Film, New York: Columbia University Press; Corrigan, Timothy (2011), The Essay Film. From Montaigne, After Marker, New York: Oxford University Press, or Rascaroli, Laura (2010), The Personal Camera. Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film, New York: Columbia University Press.

  14. ‘The pixelated, low-fi image can no longer be deemed innocent. Its charming aesthetics, its poetic value, the sense of emotional proximity it renders, so close to the being there of its cameraperson, might distract from the exceptional material conditions in which it was generated, diverting attention from the power struggles it conceals, and of which it is a result.’ (Della Ratta 2018: 143).

  15. The notion of ‘figural’ coined by French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard and used afterward by some film theorists as Philippe Dubois and Jacques Aumont could also be useful in order to further analyzing the use of pixelating images and their ruptures of the legible.

  16. Anonymity is another way of intensifying this democratic nature, as does the Abounaddara collective.

  17. The vanishing of the author from the film is also probably easier for him, as, even if he lived some years in Egypt, Snowdon is British. Ossama Mohammed being Syrian, he may feel that he must embody the Syrian identity in the film. If this was the case, the film should not be called ‘Syria self-portrait’ and should not state at the beginning that it is made by ‘1001 Syrians,’ both statements seeming contradictory with his central position within the film.

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Correspondence to Gala Hernández López.

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Hernández López, G. Notes on the role of the camera within a (virtual) war: the case of Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait. Digi War 2, 77–91 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s42984-020-00026-7

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Keywords

  • Syrian war
  • Vernacular video
  • Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait
  • YouTube
  • Syrian documentary
  • User-generated content