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


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.

The war will be uploaded

Since the outbreak of popular 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 vernacular images working as graphic testimonies of the crucial events taking place in the country. Some of these images invaded the virtual space, from Facebook to YouTube, where they were massively self-published and circulated at great speed within this networked revolution. Others are still stored in telephones and memory cards waiting to be discovered. This heterogeneous, instable and dynamic corpus of images has been named under different expressions: ‘emergency cinema’ (Elias 2017; McLelland 2014); ‘vernacular video’ (Snowdon 2014); ‘liminal images’ (Boëx 2017); ‘video activism’ (Wessels 2019), ‘controversial archive’ (De Angelis 2019); ‘citizen camera-witnessing’ (Andén-Papadopoulos 2014); ‘digital media practices’ (Al-Ghazzi 2014), among many others…Footnote 1 Regardless of the difficulty to find an expression that does justice to this multifaceted phenomenon, such an audiovisual explosion meant, without any doubt, a transcendental event in the history of Syria and, actually, also in global history: never before has a war been filmed by its actors and witnesses to this extent.Footnote 2

From the start of the revolts, this singular audiovisual explosion on social media created ‘a dangerous illusion of unmediated information flows,’ as if it allowed a ‘ground truth’ to emerge, when, in fact, ‘these flows are carefully curated by networks of activists and designed to craft particular narratives’ (Lynch 2014, 5). Indeed, ‘media reliance on activist-generated online content in the absence of journalists present on the ground’ (Lynch 2014, 7) frequently ignored the insularity of online social networks, the existence of gatekeepers and curators and the potential systemic, motivated biases in online information. In this sense, it is worth thinking about what could be the role of cinema in this media landscape also determined by the algorithmic governmentality of digital platforms.

While the historical context has had enormous consequences on Syrian documentary cinema, it has been enriched, augmented and recognized worldwide and programmed in the largest and most prestigious film festivalsFootnote 3: ‘Syrian feature documentary films firmly arrived on the international stage in 2014 and since then trailblazed the international film festivals, culminating with […] the first Oscar nomination in Syrian history […] for best feature documentary for Last Men in Aleppo (2017) by Firas Fayyad.’ (Wessels 2019, xiii). As clarified by Wessels, this production was notably facilitated by the raise of Arab film festivals, arts funds, programs and artists residencies.Footnote 4 Among the large number of films produced on the Syrian situation, especially between 2013 and 2017, one of the films with the greatest media and artistic impact was the documentary essay Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, co-directed by veteran Syrian director Ossama Mohammed and first-time director Wiam Simav Bedirxan in 2014.

This article is an aesthetic and sociocultural analysis of the film—which has been chosen for its emblematic and central role in recent Syrian cinematography and for its use of user-generated vernacular videos filmed by different actors of the conflict within a professional film—with the aim of proposing a series of notes on the role of cameras and the power of images in relation to a conflict such as the Syrian war. The objective of this text is therefore to adopt a critical point of view toward the film, proposing an approach that underlines the political and aesthetic inconsistencies of the film and of the position of its director, aiming to add new dimensions to the reflections and debates started by Gabriel Bortzmeyer (2014), Julie Savelli (2016), Dork Zabunyan (2017) and Joshka Wessels (2019). The raison d’être of this paper is therefore to align with them and enrich with new thoughts on their positions, arguing that the political capacity of images depends to a great extent on mediations such as the material conditions of their production and dissemination but also 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. Hence, this paper examines the value and potentialities of vernacular conflict imagery as it is used in cinema, trying to identify modes in which cinema can create counter-narratives to dominant media narratives by using this vernacular imagery, massively used by the media, in different ways. Accordingly, I take as my empirical point of departure the case of the film Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait. In this regard, my enquiry is guided by a principal research question, namely: 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? Proceeding in three main sections, the article first presents a general insight on cameras and audiovisual contents in the context of the Syrian conflict to illuminate several issues regarding their power and their limitations; then, in the second section, presents my empirical case study, the film Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait before analyzing from an aesthetic perspective its use of vernacular video and finally, in the third section, its discourse about this particular vernacular imagery and its relations with cinematographic art that emerges throughout the film. The conclusion includes a few brief notes of possible solutions to these problems, propositions of subterfuges for precisely increasing the transformative force of the images, their capacity to subvert collective imaginations on a conflict and to create and inhabit new mental spaces, individual, collective, social and psychological. Theoretically, the article draws upon texts by film critics and film scholars about this specific film and interviews with its director (Vivarelli, Burdeau, Chaudhuri, Bortzmeyer, Savelli, Badt, Garraud, Lamy-Rested, Pyreire, Mandelbaum), more general film and art theory literature and political aesthetics essays (Agamben, Rivette, Sontag, Rancière, Arendt, Steyerl, Deleuze, Barthes, Chouliaraki) and studies on vernacular videos, mediatized conflict and film production during the Arab spring and the Syrian war (Zabunyan, Snowdon, Elias, De Angelis, Della Ratta, Wessels, Boëx, Chaudhuri, Abounaddara, Cottle, Mortensen, Lynch et al., Blaagaard et al.).

The camera as the eye of history

In a beautiful moment of the film, Simav’s voice-over pronounces one of the most repeated expressions when talking about the current conflict in Syrian: that the camera is a weapon against the regime (Fig. 1). This idea was deeply imbued in my memory after the first viewing of the film, the echo of which resonated through my personal reflections on the transformative power of images and my attempts to construct a political theory of cinema in my research and creative practice. At some point near the end of the film, Mohammed, talking to Simav, mentions the camera again. ‘I have cleaned your tear with the camera lens’; he declares, poetically evoking the healing and cathartic capacity of this small digital device. The prosthetic portable video camera definitely plays an important role in a war that has been waged in both physical and virtual spaces. As Peter Snowdon argues, observing how people held their digital cameras to film the demonstrations during the Arab Spring, ‘the camera is not an extension of your eye, it is an extension of your arm. It is not a lens through which to see, it is a tool with which to act upon the world’ (Snowdon 2014, 418). Numerous questions repeatedly assailed me during the following months, further fueling my desire for answers—answers that I still do not have today: How can a video camera harm a dictatorial regime? How to define the complex and ambivalent relationship between a totalitarian regime in conflict and the images produced by the different actors active within it? What can a video camera do within a dictatorship? To what extent can images be used as political weapons in a hyper-mediatized era, in which, having proliferated to infinity, images have lost their strength? Can cinema actually ‘do the opposite of the media’ which give only ‘the fact, without its possibility, its power,’ a fact ‘before which we are powerless’ (Agamben 2004, 316)?

Fig. 1

‘For the regime, the camera is a weapon.’ Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan (dir.), Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (2014). Syria/France. © Les Films d’Ici

Susan Sontag could introduce our discussion, when she identifies, along with Ernst Jünger, the camera and the gun, both ‘shooting’ subjects: ‘war-making and picture-taking are congruent activities: “It is the same intelligence, whose weapons of annihilation can locate the enemy to the exact second and and meter”’ (Sontag 2003, 66–67). An image can be a threat to a political regime, but can never bring it down on its own: Needless to say, it is people who bring down dictators. Yet images have a clear and indisputable political force. For centuries, they have been used by power precisely to influence public opinion, to preserve its privileges and authority, and by the people to disseminate revolutionary ideas, to incite the fight for the recovery of popular sovereignty. Today, more than ever, images influence the digitally mediated visibility of conflicts. The images ceaselessly posted online by anonymous Syrian citizens had a tremendous power in this revolution of images. Vernacular video aimed to record important history-making processes and to make them accessible online in quasi-real time.Footnote 5 Those protesters filming became ‘martyr-witnesses’ (Boëx 2018): putting their lives at risk was the cost of recording the reality of their country. Moreover, as it has been shown, recording is already a performative action producing reality: ‘The media are capable of enacting and performing conflicts as well as reporting and representing them […] the media’s relationship to conflict, therefore, is often not best thought of in terms of “reflection” or even “representation” given its more active performative involvement and constitutive role within them’ (Cottle 2006, 9). These videos became not only a way of recording the revolution, but a way of producing it. They were not only image documents, but also image forces, as Snowdon (2014) and Zabunyan (2017) have shown in detail in their works: ‘a floating boundary between the reality of an uprising and the vernacular images that allow it to be seen, these images carry within them the energy of the people’ (Zabunyan 2017, 10, translation author’s own). Capable of containing in themselves and of transmitting to the spectators the energy and force of the revolt, these images were filmed with a central objective: to infect the spirit of the revolution to the greatest possible number of Syrians, who, simultaneously, were becoming through them a collective subject. However, the images were also meant to transcend the Syrian borders, to create an awareness in the international community about the violations of human rights, the acts of brutal violence that the military forces of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were committing against the civilian population. Nonetheless, another part of the images produced, filmed by the regime military forces and jihadists, had yet other goals: spreading terror or become regime’s propaganda.

Unfortunately, as Joshka Wessels asserts, ‘after many years of misery in Syria, many young video activists have come to a realization and conclusion that indeed the camera is not the effective weapon they believed it would be at first’ (Wessels 2019, 177). On the one hand, the Habermasian concept of the public sphere, with which the virtual space of the Internet is often defined, is a concept constructed in its origins from bourgeois, capitalist European circles and theories of deliberative democracy. In a non-European context, the development of these new online public spaces does not have to imply further democratization, freedom or rationality: Multiple agents and practices are active in this sphere, and it is also important to situate it in a specific national context with cultural particularities (Hammami 2015). Ideas such as the ‘Facebook revolution’ ‘seem to be closer to the popular views circulated by the media’ and ‘may mask the unique interaction between the new media and its specific cultural environment’ (Hammami 2015, 59). Similarly, as Omar Al-Ghazzi clarifies, the Western news media narrative on Syrian citizen journalism was simplistic, ignoring the complexity of the digital media practices within the conflict, projecting authenticity and democratizing credentials on the selected media output of Syrian activists. As he recalls, the camera is not ontologically a revolutionary weapon, as ‘there are no intrinsic social and political values within new technologies; rather, the values projected onto their use are dependent on larger questions related to world politics and the global circulation of hegemonic discourses’ (Al-Ghazzi 2014, 442).

On the other hand, and as it has broadly been proven by scandals such as Cambridge Analytica or by violent episodes as the Toronto van attack, the Internet can also be a ‘tool to inflame violence and increased citizen surveillance’ (Wessels 2019, 178). For example, Chad Elias has demonstrated that in the Syrian war, digital cameras are not ‘merely a recording device,’ but ‘rather function as an integral component within the regime’s mise-en-scène of humiliation and torture’ (Elias 2017, n.pag.). The presence of cameras can actually be a trigger for violence: ‘The cellphone video, in its clear reliance on cinematic tropes, is directly implicated in the imagination and execution of political violence’ (Elias 2017, n.pag.). Violent videos can provide an imaginative resource for the further reproduction of violence. The belief, defended by the international media and Western human rights organizations, in the democratic effectiveness of video activism in authoritarian contexts could naïvely overemphasize the new digital media and generate a ‘false sense of protection imparted by a phone or a camera’ (Wessels 2019, 246). This Western conception does not take into consideration the deadly risks that citizens face in Syria on a daily basis, but it has also impregnated the Syrian imagination. As described by Donatella Della Ratta, ‘the use of the camera phone as a counterpart to weapons—which symbolically makes it into a weapon in its own right—is so intrinsically intertwined with the imagination of the Syrian conflict that a little girl can surrender to a camera thinking it is a gun’ (Della Ratta 2018, 131).

As Della Ratta explains, historical events are often given a value based on their potential to transform into images, since it is only as images that they can circulate through our contemporary digital capitalism. However, the visual saturation of our media ecology causes the hypervisibility of certain events to end up producing a paradoxical invisibility: ‘the proliferation of images and a fast-growing visual economy are matched with the loss of influence over the reality of events’ (Morrey cited by Della Ratta 2018, 146). The partial failure of the power of the cameras that Syrian citizens carried in their pockets and lifted in their hands has thus currently been confirmed and should make us question, as film scholars, the role of professional cinema, such as the one Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait represents, in this context.

As Cécile Boëx claims, part of this failure crystallizes in the fact that, gradually during the uprising, some video activists actually replaced the camera with a real weapon, or combined the two: ‘many image shooters embark on combat groups to film the fights […] The tributes posted online between 2012 and 2014 illustrate an evolution of the figure of the martyr to the camera that gradually approaches that of the fighter’ (Boëx 2018, 108, translation author’s own). If some activists decided to switch to real weapons, it is perhaps because despite their flooding YouTube with tens of thousands of videos showing atrocities, the reality they were living every day did not seem to improve—their suffering did not diminish and the political actions undertaken by the international community were scarce.Footnote 6 However, despite the difficult perspective we have today on the actions of protesters in those early years of the conflict, the camera did indeed play an important role in the struggle in many ways: to begin with, the fact that the regime very soon banned cameras in public space and that the military forces had orders to take as a primary target anyone who was filming shows that the cameras that proliferated in the streets represented a serious danger for al-Assad. Indeed, filming the events was an act of rebellion against the policies of erasure, the strategies of oblivion and amnesia carried out by the state authorities, which tried to clear the collective memory of what was happening. In this regard, Susan Sontag enlightens us on the importance of having control and shaping collective memory:

Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as collective memory […]- All memory is individual, unreproducible - it dies with each person. What is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened, with the pictures that lock the story in our minds (Sontag 2003, 86, emphasis added).

The scenes of shootings, tortures, murders and other state violence that were being recorded by the cameras simply made visible an ordinary violence and abuses of power that had been implanted and normalized for decades in the dictatorship—but in the dark. The videos of massive demonstrations were showing an unprecedented and impressive collective strength and cohesion. All of these were new images, new representations for the Syrian people. To represent what had previously been unrepresented is indeed revolutionary, as it helps shift collective memory and shared imaginations. It actually participates in troubling the ‘distribution of the sensible.’ The concept of distribution of the sensible of philosopher Jacques Rancière (2000) addresses the links between the political dimension and the aesthetic dimension of the real: It is the ‘division of the sensible experience’ on which leans any existence in common, which means who can participate in the common, who is visible or not in the common space, who is gifted with a common speech. These vernacular images disturbed the distribution of the sensible and thus were already initiating and enabling political change, prefiguring a new order that is indissolubly political and sensory. Peter Snowdon mentions this intimate union between a political revolution and a formal, sensory one: ‘[These videos], by challenging the aesthetic limitations which popular culture, the mass media and intellectual condescension, have sought to place on the forms of experience the people are supposed to be able to imagine, enact and enjoy’ (Snowdon 2014, 413). With the videos of demonstrations and social struggle, people’s performance of a collective subject becomes ‘the possible subject of another history’ (Snowdon 2014, 411). Indeed, as thinkers such as Michel Foucault (1969), Paul Ricoeur (2000) or Judith Butler (2003) have long shown, memory, history or people are not unequivocal concepts or universal realities, but are changing and relative entities, which are self-constituted by performative elements such as narratives, discourses, epistemological categories and representations, historically and culturally constructed by instances and dispositifs of power and therefore infused with interests—partial, biased. The Syrian people as a collective political subject self-constituted itself, therefore, also through these new video representations of its protesting assembly, and starts writing its own history.

On the other hand, we have the conception of memory oriented to the future, memory as a significant factor in a struggle. From this point of view, these images are keys to the virtually inexhaustible future potential of an endless revolt through time. Therefore, at one point, they could return, as the aftershocks of an earthquake, throughout the unpredictable writing of history:

The images captured in the heat of an uprising are also directed at other individuals who may take over the torch of the revolt at a later and indefinite time. The memory of struggles is […] the condition for a regeneration of struggles by themselves (Zabunyan 2017, 7, translation author’s own).

By becoming masters of their own image, controlling the representation they give to the world of themselves and their struggle, Syrian protesters and witnesses appropriate their capacity for enunciation and thus triumph over any attempt to speak for them, any discursive, epistemological or visual colonialism. In this sense, it is possible that the learning of audiovisual language by many Syrians helped the creation and consolidation of new political subjectivities. Further on this idea, the psychoanalytic study of the compulsive gesture of filming made by Élise Lamy-Rested allows us to affirm that the camera can transform the real into scene. With the help of the prosthetic camera, videographers ‘extract themselves from the situation and protect themselves from it, fantastically making it an object of control’ (Lamy-Rested 2015, emphasis added). Camera can then work as an effective shield: Lamy-Rested’s analysis shows another positive, intimate and therapeutic dimension of these digital devices.

Concerning (in)dignity

Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait premiered in a Special Screening at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and was released in French theaters during Christmas that year. A French (Les Films d’Ici, Arte) and Syrian (Proaction Films) co-production, the documentary is divided into two parts: The first is mainly a remix of Syrian vernacular videos that the director downloaded from the Internet; the second is articulated around the transnational intimate dialogue between Mohammed and Simav, alternating images filmed by Mohammed in Paris, by Simav in Homs and some other anonymous vernacular videos of popular demonstrations, the regime’s repression and violence, tortures and executions.

Ossama Mohammed went into exile in Paris in 2011. After attending the Cannes film festival Director’s Fortnight to give a talk and show some of the images that would later make up the film, he decided not to return to his country, following warnings from friends that his life was in danger because he had defended regime-critical ideas. In the meantime, Simav, a young Kurdish teacher, managed to introduce a small video camera to the city of Homs, which was under siege between 2011 and 2014—and she wished to film her country with it.Footnote 7 Living in diaspora, Ossama Mohammed engaged with the events taking place in his home country by compulsively watching the videos his compatriots posted online. He would follow the events closely haunted by a feeling of guilt and cowardice; until he was contacted by Simav, who, living among the ruins of the besieged city of Homs, asked one of his country’s historically most relevant filmmakers for advice on what to record with her camera. The creative relationship established between the two was marked by strong sociocultural asymmetries: Mohammed comes from an elitist, upper-class, cultured background, having had film education and experience—which gives him much greater discursive, artistic and technical control than his co-director, and Simav has no film school education or experience within the cinematic medium. Nonetheless, the encounter between the two seemed to be beneficial for both, allowing Mohammed to have eyes and hands in Syria that he could, to some extent, control from a distance. As he said in an interview, ‘Simav saved me, she really saved me, she saved my life.’Footnote 8 Simav in turn once alleged: ‘Ossama in Paris was the umbilical cord that connected me to life’ (Mandelbaum 2014, n.pag). Somehow, Simav removed Mohammed from the anguish of his own absence, while, on the contrary, Mohammed gave Simav the sensation of having eyes and ears attentive to her, and the impression that her images could somehow find their place and their public later on. The two did not physically meet until 2014 when Simav traveled to the Cannes film festival for the film’s premiere—this encounter was later added to the DVD version of the film.

The danger of working with material filmed in the brutal and fierce context of war is the risk of sometimes touching the frontiers of war pornography. The horror images have emerged from Syria number in the thousands. The cameras have recorded terrible moments, moments that demonstrate the aberrations of which human beings are capable and which circulated on the web with few filters—despite the fact that the algorithms of platforms such as YouTube increasingly seek to eliminate this type of content that violates their terms of service.Footnote 9 Unfortunately, this death imagery has become especially popular in the collective imagination of the Syrian conflict, since violence, spreadability and visibility often go together in the virtual space: ‘As Henry Jenkins famously stated with regard to the functioning mechanism of the networks: “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” Instead Syria’s networked environment seems to tragically suggest: “If it’s dead, it spreads”’ (Della Ratta 2018, 187). Yet we should not feed their dissemination. It is well known that in many Western countries, for example, in France when tragedies such as the terrorist attacks of the 13 November 2015 occur, mass media are particularly careful not to distribute images showing violent, bloody scenes in order to protect the victims’ right to one’s own image, their dignity and that of their families, invoking journalistic ethics and juridical limitations.Footnote 10 The same media, however, do not apply the same considerations when the victims are non-Western. Dignity seems to be a criterion that varies depending on the country of origin of the subject, as Sontag pointed referring to North-American media:

The more remote or exotic the place, the more likely we are to have full frontal views of the dead and dying. […] The ubiquity of those photographs, and those horrors, cannot help but nourish belief in the inevitability of tragedy in the benighted or backward—that is, poor-parts of the world. (Sontag 2003, 70–71, emphasis added).

One could argue that there is a moral obligation to stare at the horror, to inform and to stay informed. The right to one’s own image and to one own dignity could then be opposed to the right to create a visual memory for future generations, for the writing of History and, conversely, the right of collecting war evidence for forthcoming war criminals’ trials. A possible third way would be the one involving the creation of half-public archives to collect all those images, order them and preserve them, without these images being exploited massively by the media. The Syrian Archive,Footnote 11 hosting today more than three million videos of the war in the aim of using them as war crime evidence is currently the greatest example of such an archive. It shows a possible path to solve the confrontation between the right to one’s own image and the right to information.

As for Ossama Mohammed, he includes in the film images of children’s and adults’ corpses and wounded bodies, anonymous images, some even viral on the Internet. He has not asked the victims or their families or friends for permission to include those recognizable faces in the film. In this regard, while Judith Butler defends vulnerability, grievability and mourning as the political and ethical basis for the ties that form a community (2003), I argue that Mohammed’s film confuses grievability with abjection, relying, as do the mass media, the state and the jihadists, on the symbolic power of a dead body.

Long ago, filmmaker Jacques Rivette warned us on the overrepresentation of horror: ‘Everyone is getting used to horror, it is gradually becoming a moral norm, and will soon become part of the mental landscape of the modern man […] what can humans not get used to?’ (Rivette 1961, 54, translation author’s own). Surrounded by death, Syrians are far from feeling impostors when filming it. As Cécile Boëx states, the exhibition of the wounded bodies of the martyrs is a way of supporting the veracity of the victims’ accounts, ‘in the hope of reparation’ (Boëx 2012, n.pag., translation author’s own). That search for reparation through the visual evidence of the crime is the reason why it is so important to create archives that preserve these images. Nonetheless, people get habituated to it so easily that horror can be inefficient in creating awareness and launch political reflections. A strategy of accumulation and saturation of horror, like the one adopted by the film, can anesthetize viewers and make them insensitive to the image of a corpse when plenty have been seen in a row, preventing them from thinking or feeling. This is what Raphaëlle Pireyre underlines when she describes the film as a ‘burial film’ and states: ‘These images all end up looking the same, making one body equal to another’ (Pireyre 2014, n.pag., translation author’s own).

Enrico De Angelis calls these online horror images ‘controversial archive.’ He exposes the ethical contradictions that this archive of horror provokes. It is important not to reduce the person represented to a ‘pre-fixed meaning that ruling systems of vision try to impose’ (De Angelis 2019, n.pag.). Indeed, often seeing Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, one has the feeling that Mohammed ‘condemns the victim to be a symbol of any victim, a ghost of the real photographed person’ (De Angelis 2019, n.pag.). Mohammed tends to use categorical and simple labels such as victim, murderer, martyr and soldier without contextualizing the place and the moment filmed or telling the story of the individuals who appear in the image. The vision it gives of the Syrian conflict could be considered essentialist, simplistic and Manichean, the same vision as the one given by the Western media or the jihadists, where everyone is ‘ultimately reduced to the position they are meant to occupy either upstream or downstream in the great chain of slaughter’ (Abounaddara 2018, n.pag.). This clearly happens in the sequence entitled ‘Ciné-club’ where he uses ‘assassin’ and ‘victim’ to categorize two shots of two anonymous persons, or also later, when he shows an anonymous soldier filming himself and says ‘The soldier films his own ballad of a soldier, the tragedy of a soldier’ (Fig. 2). This specific soldier becomes the symbol of any soldier, an icon: an abstract idea instead of a singular individual. The criteria to select the videos remain unknown, and the spectators, if they are not already familiar with the conflict and its images, can easily be lost in this theater of victims and torturers.

Fig. 2

The tragedy of the soldier. Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan (dir.), Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (2014). Syria/France. © Les Films d’Ici

Concerning this mechanism of essentialization, it is worth recalling philosopher Hannah Arendt. She called the spectacle and glorification of distant suffering ‘politics of pity.’ Politics of pity occur in the distant observation of the unfortunate by the lucky ones. Pity, according to Arendt, is an abstract compassion toward a multitude, toward a suffering en masse, and is dangerous because it ‘has proved to possess a greater capacity for cruelty than cruelty itself’ (Arendt 1963, 89). Guided by sentiment, pity is opposed to an ethos of solidarity leading to action, ‘for [solidarity] remains committed to “ideas”—to greatness, or honor, or dignity—rather than to any “love” of men’ (Arendt 1963, 89). This distinction between emotion and ideas is a matter of proximity and distance toward the representation also commented on by Lilie Chouliaraki when she writes about the spectatorship of suffering in television:

Rather than seeking to moralize spectators by bringing the suffering of ‘others’ as close as possible to spectators’ life-worlds, we should ask instead which is the proper distance from which television should invite us to contemplate the humanness of sufferers and the historicity of their suffering (Silverstone 2003, 469)? […] The demand for historicity requires that each instance of suffering is placed in a meaningful (though not tiresomely exhaustive) context of explanation and understanding that addresses the question of why this suffering is important and what there is to do about it (Chouliaraki 2006, 43)

It is the generalization, characteristic of the politics of pity—instead of individualization, contextualization and historicity—which could be related to the abstract tagging of Mohammed’s voice-over in the film. If we believe that ‘fear and pity are not political affects’ (Rancière 2004, 210), politics of pity may move us but it will not make us reflect, thus it will never be truly political: ‘Harrowing photographs […] are not much help if the task is to understand. Narratives can make us understand. Photographs do something else: they haunt us’ (Sontag 2003, 89, emphasis added). Tagging every shot with his own personal categories through the voice-over, videos become photographs, clichés—which in my native Spanish means both a photography and a stereotype—empty of meaning and full of pathos. The image of the pain and death of others may function as a screen that blocks thought but activates sympathy. Sympathy which allows us, in some way, to cleanse ourselves of any guilt, to repair ourselves cathartically, and, paradoxically, to finally get rid of our real link with what is shown in the image, to morally disengage: ‘So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering’ (Sontag 2003, 102). The over-exhibition of dead bodies resembles an ‘ancestral ritual that aggregates the community around the public sacrifice whose astonishing effect founds the social order below or beyond all rationality, all criticism, that is to say, all politics’ (Garraud Antoine 2017, n.pag., translation author’s own, emphasis added).

Henceforth, the already ambiguous and malleable nature of images should be considered. As Chouliaraki states, images of suffering have to be accompanied by words that add information and context, precisely in order to ‘make us understand’ and be able to read the image properly. As Shohini Chaudhuri recalls, John Berger differentiated evidence and meaning: a photograph may function as proof of the existence of something, but it ‘tells us nothing of the significance of their existence’ (Berger cited in Chaudhuri 2018, 4). Chris Marker magnificently proved it in his Lettre de Sibérie (1957): Images can be manipulated to make them say what one wants.Footnote 12 The same image can mean one thing and its opposite, as ‘images from conflict propagate, manipulate, confuse, mobilize, glorify, degrade, illustrate, document, and provide different truths for different contexts and different audiences’ (Blaagaard et al. 2017, 8). Berger, and Chaudhuri, infer that ‘ambiguity arises from the fact that images “quote” from appearances, which, in themselves, are ambiguous, containing multiple meanings’ (Chaudhuri 2018, 4). This openness is indisputably one of the elements constructing the richness and uniqueness of art—especially of the essay genre, in which Marker excelled. But for this very same reason, one should keep it in mind when making a documentary essay about war. Mohammed’s voice-over interprets for us the anonymous images of Syrians, thus closing their meaning along the lines of his own ideological schemas. Instead of giving the viewer the autonomy to interpret the image freely, it de-territorializes and decontextualizes them, leaving us stripped of resources to understand and forcing us to fold to emotions. One of the central characteristics of the essay film genre is the strong presence of the author’s subjectivity through an extensive voice-over.Footnote 13 Nonetheless, Mohammed negates his central role by stating from the start that it is a ‘film made by 1001 Syrians.’ His voice-over flies over the entire footage of the film and, by its omnipresence, paradoxically silences the voice of the Syrians that Mohammed himself wishes so much to be heard: The filmmaker-demiurge places himself in the center of a film he has entitled ‘Syria Self-portrait.’ ‘Blinded by the belief that he can see perfectly, he ends up becoming a screen masking what he claims to show’ (Bortzmeyer 2014, n.pag.). I argue that Mohammed performs a narcissistic post-humanitarian sensibility (Chouliaraki 2013) in the film. Privileging a self-oriented form of solidarity over an other-oriented one, he does not focus on explaining and (de)constructing structures of (in)justice, which would need to subordinate oneself to higher causes, but instead develops a ‘textually conscious aesthetics of suffering’ (Chouliaraki 2013, 73), returning distant suffering to the domain of (his) individual, subjective, personal experience of it from diaspora and rendering ‘the emotions of the self the measure of our understanding of the sufferings of the world at large’ (Chouliaraki 2013, 76). In so doing, his own suffering and guilt caused by his absence are over-emotionalized and thus veils the suffering of the distant others, which seems to be the subject of the film.

Would the film have had more strength if, instead of focusing on images of horror, it had shown images of everyday life in Syria during the war? Is its portrayal of Syrians based on the dichotomy of victims and executioners the most efficient for its political statement? For Abounaddara, a Syrian filmmakers’ collective, resistance to the politics of images within the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the jihadists based on a banalization of evil and the so-called ‘war from the inside,’ requires a new kind of politics of images—one that is not focused on violence. As Syrians are reduced to ‘violators or violated bodies’ and foreign spectators to ‘obscene voyeurs’ (Abounaddara 2014, n.pag., translation author’s own), we seem to be witnessing the abuse of animals in a slaughterhouse instead of a revolution of human beings: ‘The flow of Syrian images brings to mind revolting animals more than revolution’ (Abounaddara 2018, n.pag.). A way to escape this reductionist and dangerous visual grammar is to represent the other in a way that allows them to speak, to ‘represent the other as an end in herself or himself and not as a means’ (Abounaddara 2017, n.pag., emphasis added). Rather, they propose showing the ‘network of social relations and forms of collective cultural and political life that sustains individuals in their struggle for life in dignity and peace’ (Abounaddara 2015, n.pag., emphasis added).

Abounaddara’s ideas resonate in the most touching and striking moment of the film, the appearance of Omar (Fig. 3), the orphaned child who brings flowers to his father’s grave and never ceases to play, to let his imagination run wild. ‘It is as if it was night, but there is light,’ says Omar while walking through the ruins of Homs surrounded by snipers, probably not realizing that he just made a touching and beautiful metaphor of war. ‘Life that is making its way through a ruined country moves much more in these few shots than the unbearable violence of the pile of corpses’ (Pireyre 2014, n.pag.). Indeed, Omar represents in the film the other way of depicting the Syrian people: lives that have not yielded their humanity in spite of the war, individuals who do not surrender, human beings who practice intimate, poetic or collective forms of resistance in the most hostile context imaginable. Omar is powerful, as is Simav—yet they are under-represented in social and dominant media narratives, being relegated to marginal spaces in the representation of the Syrian people. Knowing that ‘images do not simply float freely on digital media platforms, allowing equal access for all; much visual material remains invisible or appears to the public in an obscured fashion’ (Blaagaard et al. 2017, 8, 1117) and acknowledging ‘traditional media’s well-documented bias toward violence and sensationalism’ which can lead to the ‘eventual devaluing of story lines about peaceful protest’ (Lynch 2014, 12), artists should be especially aware of the politics and ethics contained in the decision of what images make visible with their art. Their choices could overthrow algorithmic governmentality and shed light on this hidden imagery, visual material marginalized by the media. In the film, both regimes of visibility—the dominant one, chosen by media, and the alternative one, chosen by Abounaddara—constantly intermingle, the first one embodied by the remix of vernacular videos and the second one in the visual answers filmed by Simav, which are the counter-image to the images of horror, acting as their negative. Simav’s images are indeed able to ‘testify with dignity to undignified situations’ (Zabunyan 2017, 180).

Fig. 3

Omar. Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan (dir.), Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (2014). Syria/France. © Les Films d’Ici

In order to preserve the humanity and ambiguity of images, opening up a space in which viewers can elaborate their own interpretations, it is now necessary to reflect on the images from an aesthetic point of view. Donatella Della Ratta warns of the false sense of proximity and authenticity that many of the low quality pixelated images of the Syrian generate (2018).Footnote 14 These blurry images can be appropriated and produced by different, opposite subjects within the conflict in order to serve their own political agendas. Nonetheless, I argue that the pixelization of low-resolution digital images can help to preserve the dignity of victims when these images are reused and appropriated in documentary films, as Mohammed’s. For example, in the case of the tortured young boy that appears half-naked at the beginning of the movie: his facial features are not identifiable and the texture of the image brings it closer to a pictorial dimension than to the realism of war documentary cinema. As Lamy-Rested writes, ‘the pixelized images offered to viewers appear almost like fantasy representations. The poor quality of the videos conceals the crudeness of reality. These videos soon appear as a series of scenes reconstructed by a memory that keeps repeating them (Lamy-Rested 2015, 110, translation author’s own). Having its figurative capacity diminished—meaning their capacity to realistically represent something, as opposed to abstraction—this type of video can indeed more closely resemble mental images and memories. The particular sensorial perception they depict can paradoxically reinforce its evocative power without signifying an attack on the dignity of the victims. Despite being largely determined by a moment of emergency, its precarious and unintelligible form can work in its favor. The unintentional details speak. Hito Steyerl calls it ‘the uncertainty principle of modern documentarism’ and reflects on its capacity to authentically represent a contemporary truth, a specific reality of our present:

What if […] it is precisely those blurred and unfocused pictures from the cell-phone camera that express the truth of the situation much better than any objectivist report could? Because these pictures do not really represent anything. They are just too unfocused. They are as post-representational as the majority of contemporary politics. But amazingly, we can still speak of truth with regard to them (Steyerl 2011, n.pag.).

Both this lack of focus and our era are described by Steyerl as post-representational. Going further, the blurriness of these cell phone images can function as Roland Barthes’s famous punctum: Its illegibility becomes its power. The French philosopher identified it in some photographs as ‘what leaves the scene, like an arrow, and comes to pierce me […] sting, small hole, small spot […] this chance that points me (but also bruises me, grips me)’ (Barthes 1980, 49, translation author’s own). Sontag also stresses that the illegibility of an image of war can be its greatest strength: ‘The quickest, driest way to convey the inner commotion caused by these photographs is by noting that one can’t always make out the subject, so thorough is the ruin of flesh and stone they depict’ (Sontag 2003, 4, emphasis added). Finally, Boëx echoes these same sentiments when she states that illegibility ‘produces a kinetic and emotional vision of the event, too radical to be represented in a coherent way’ (Boëx 2017, 141, translation author’s own). The dynamic and chaotic character of the moments filmed is transmitted through the image when it begins to shake, to rotate in all directions. The form and the content are then in full harmony, and that is when these videos gain their communicative effectiveness and emotional charge.

In his commentary on the work of painter Francis Bacon, Gilles Deleuzes defines an art that would escape figurative, illustrative and narrative rules, an overflowing of the figurative. In his book Logic of sensation, he differentiates the ‘figure’ from the abstract form: ‘the figure is the sensitive form related to the sensation […] This is why the sensation is the master of deformations, the agent of the body’s deformations’ (Deleuze 1981, 39–40, translation author’s own). Some of the videos used by Mohammed in his film come close to this definition of a non-figurative logic of sensation, marked by a strong presence of the body and its impressions and perceptions, by the unpredictable variation of pixels and the plasticity of forms that fluctuate unstably. By breaking the thread of the legible and the visible, a revelation is produced inside the viewers.Footnote 15 The formless, i.e., what resists their gaze, reveals to them their own gaze on the image—and that of the eye of the camera on the real. The logic of the act of seeing, what it actually means to see, is then naked to the spectator, who can therefore try to understand it, engage in a political reflection about it and maybe understand the thickness of the event—the history in the making.

This being said, even if some of the low-definition vernacular videos used in the film could be analyzed through the theoretical prism of a ‘cinema of sensation’ based on the Deleuzian concept, most of these images should not be addressed as ontologically being cinema. Since these images arise from a moment of critical tension and danger, and from the limited technological capacities of specific mobile phones and digital cameras, Mohammed’s discourse in the film about their cinematic nature seems particularly problematic.

To be or not to be cinema

Ossama Mohammed insists on calling these images cinema. In an interview for Variety, he affirmed: ‘For all the people, demonstrating against Assad was an explosion of cinema. […] It was a revolution of cinema, of images, of expression’ (Vivarelli 2014, n.pag.). During the film, he never ceases to make references to the history of cinema. The film begins with a first sentence, ‘I have seen it,’ echoing the famous ‘Je n’ai rien vu à Hiroshima’ from Hiroshima mon amour (1959) by Alain Resnais. Resnais’s film resonates again when Mohammed calls one of the chapters of the film ‘Douma mon amour’. Other expressions build the discourse about cinema that the director wants to transmit: ‘And cinema was, cinema has begun,’ ‘What is cinema?’, ‘Syrians have made the longest film in history, 1001 days,’ ‘The new filmmaker has become a martyr,’ ‘Cinema of realism, cinema of martyr, cinema of victim, cinema of the assassin,’ ‘Poetical cinema,’ ‘The musical of the assassin,’ ‘Ciné-club,’ etc. (Fig. 4). The sound of a film projector that is heard now and then during the film also indicates his intention of directly addressing cinema.

Fig. 4

Poetical cinema. Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan (dir.), Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait (2014). Syria/France. © Les Films d’Ici

Mohammed declares that these videos are poetry, and he considers their authors filmmakers; however, he seems to be the one making cinema. He edits a film with those rushes and thus socially elevates them to the rank of art. He goes to Cannes, he gives interviews, he wins awards in festivals, and he poses for the cameras. He is definitely the main filmmaker in the picture. He declares it himself in the film: When he tells the story of his encounter with a young man who asks him for help setting up a ciné-club, he replies that ‘it is better for you to start without a filmmaker; when you need me, I’ll be there.’

Most of these videos, when on YouTube, have a symbolic and sociocultural status that is not that of cinema but rather that of testimonies, traces, documents—evidence at best. Some Syrian activists are filmmakers who have artistic expressions and ambitions, but they are a minority. When does an image cease to be a document and begin to be cinema? How does cinema and document differ? Is it in the author’s intention? Whoever film these images to share them, seek to denounce state violence, crimes against humanity, in the hope that these images will have repercussions: They want to change reality, to save lives. Most of their creators have no intention of making poetry or art, what they want is (re)actions. They are not thinking about cinema—because cinema is not a matter of life or death.

Cinema is not indispensable to life, even if sometimes it can change lives. Images, on the other hand, could be indispensable: It was the case, for example, for the Sonderkommandos who managed to clandestinely take four blurry photographs in the Auschwitz concentration camp in August 1944. For them, the image was a matter of life or death. They risked their lives to get an image, an evidence, that was worth more than life. When art historian Georges Didi-Huberman dedicates a book to them, Images in Spite of All (2012), it is not in quality of works of art, but in the condition of anthropological proofs of the great endurance of the human being in the most hostile situations. As acts of resistance through the image, as the Sonderkommandos’, the majority of Syrians vernacular videos are not primarily meant to be pieces of art.

In the opposite sense, to think that these videos are cinema even though they were not born with that intention leads us back to the initial question. What are the differences between cinema and document, between cinema and a call for help? Is it the context in which they are seen? Is it the gaze that the spectator places on them? I argue that when Mohammed performs the gesture of re-mediating those images, taking them from YouTube to bring them to the theater, he transforms them into cinema. However, Mohammed insists on treating these cell phones videos as products of an artistic and cinematographic gesture. In another interview, the director explained that his film ‘celebrates the human capacity for self-expression’:

This is real cinema. Cinema is not describing; it is not making a landscape; it’s not stereotyped beauty; it is not a sunset. Cinema is any moment when a deep and personal feeling participates in the image. These people were not thinking academically about framing, but they were choosing what to film: creating composition. (Badt 2014, n.pag.)

What is problematic about this statement is that it implies that those who filmed were concentrating on the composition of their images when the truth is that this composition and content is determined by necessity, constraints and limitations. When Mohammed gives the advice: ‘Don’t move the camera too much, stabilize it. A static shot is more beautiful,’ also points in that direction, as if the videographers had a range of possibilities to choose from. Documentarist and researcher Zaher Omareen also believes that the artistic characteristics of the videos differ from any previous manifestation of cinema, ‘although seeds can be found in movements such as cinéma-vérité and Dogma 95′: ‘I’m talking about low-resolution image, handheld camera and filmmaker body-language’ (Chaudhuri, n.d., n.pag.). Again, it is extremely problematic to mention the low resolution and the jerky camera-work as compared to cinematic movements and historical artistic currents in which the authors and directors made voluntary and premeditated stylistic choices in more or less safe and controlled shooting contexts—and whose primal intention was the making of a film.

Film critic Emmanuel Burdeau especially praised the fact that Mohammed’s film ‘dares to call “cinema” and even the new birth of cinema this scattered material’ (Burdeau 2014, n.pag., translation authors’ own). Burdeau explains that it is the ‘uncertainty’ of the film what makes it cinema:

It is not by transmitting these images, by reversing their sign like a pancake, that Ossama Mohammed makes them cinematographic or acquires the right to call them such. It is, on the contrary, by refusing to affect them with a stable sign. (Burdeau 2014, n.pag., translation author’s own)

Later, Burdeau criticizes those who think that cinema is a criterion, an index of value. I argue that cinema is an aesthetic, sociocultural and economic category of images among others: It is not better nor worse than other categories—and certainly no better than these vernacular videos. The same misunderstanding can be found in the reasoning of Chad Elias, when he analyses the differences between the images produced by the regime and those produced by the revolutionaries. The first ones are stable images, taken with tripods, which symbolize ‘the system’s strength and its power and permanence’ (Elias 2017, n.pag.). Indeed, there is something like a performance feeling in the mise-en-scène of the torturing, a sense of dramatization in the killings filmed by the regime and the jihadists that is clearly cinematic. In describing the revolutionaries’ videos, however, Elias again suggests that their aesthetic form is the result of voluntary choices:

The Syrian revolutionaries have adopted the opposite attitude. They realize that a ‘clear’ image, whether supportive of or antagonistic to their cause, can only corrupt the revolution. Rather, their political potential lies in the liberation of a cinematic imagination that had been stifled under a system of state-managed cultural production. (Elias 2017, n.pag., emphasis added)

As I have already noted, since this is the only possible way to shoot with the material and in the emergency conditions these people are filming, for most of them, the formal characteristic of the videos cannot be considered ‘aesthetic approaches and communicative strategies’ (Elias 2017, n.pag.). Della Ratta synthesizes very clearly why this reasoning is tricky when she states that ‘ultimately, the luxury of a static shot belongs to those who perform violence, not to those who risk their lives to document it’ (Della Ratta 2018, 139). The luxury of cinema is not allowed to those who record in the fatal conditions of a war.

Conclusion: images are public living beings

In depicting the Syrian conflict, Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait partly participates in the same binary and violent rhetoric and the same colonialist regimes of visibility as Western media. It does so perhaps in an attempt to adapt to Western visual codes the representation of the other, or what the filmmaker believed would work for Western eyes, as denotes his frequent use of the expression ‘1001,’ referring to the book One Thousand and One Nights. Joshka Wessels concludes that ‘since this [western] audience is still overwhelmingly orientalist, the imagery contributes to the demand for sensationalism about the Syrian war’ (Wessels 2019, 53). I have proposed some notes in order to reflect upon the role of cinema and the power and limitations of (appropriating) images in a context of a (virtual) war. We could also ask ourselves another question concerning the epistemic violence linked to some part of appropriationism, with Rancière, what forms must a film director invent to allow these images to circulate without them becoming hostages to his or her vision?’ (Rancière, in Battista 2017, 295).

To answer this, I would like to finish by proposing a possible strategy for cinema to increase the transformative force of online vernacular images and their political capacity to subvert collective imaginations. In Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, Mohammed states ‘I am the film.’ Indeed, the only names that remain after watching the film are that of Mohammed and Simav, and as Sontag claims: ‘To grant only the famous their names demotes the rest to representative instances of their occupations, their ethnicities, their plights’ (Sontag 2003, 78–79). From a postcolonial perspective, since the economic and political structures underlying media landscapes and its representations of war operate to dehumanize the people inflected by the conflicts, cinema, in these contexts, could help the subaltern speak (Spivak 1988) instead of speaking for them. In order to achieve this and to avoid an unethical, politically illegitimate act, artists should step outside of themselves. In the act of speaking through or seeing through another person’s eyes—Mohammed’s ventriloquist performance—the question is whether the author of the film is the dummy, the medium, the vocal possibility for external voices to speak, or if it is rather the citizens filming who are ventriloquized by the artist. Considering that the location and the context from where one speaks could never, in any possible way, be transcended, speaking from certain privileged locations, as Mohammed could ‘reinforce the oppression of the group spoken for’ (Martin Alcoff 1991, 7). Silvered Water is an example of discursive imperialism, the epistemic status of the content being modified depending on who is enunciating it: The artist establishes a particular power relation between him and the people he shows in his film, manipulating their bodies and voices as the ventriloquist works the head and body of a dummy on her knee. As an alternative path, I would like to bring up a film quite similar to Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, which also remixes vernacular video from the Arab spring, The Uprising (2013) by Peter Snowdon. Like Mohammed, Snowdon was living away from Egypt when the revolts started in the country he had been living in for years. He made a film with the videos of the revolution he found on the Internet. Unlike Mohammed, though, he almost erased himself from the narrative of the film and uploaded it online, considering it common property, intensifying the democratic nature of the work.Footnote 16 The British filmmaker precisely defines the vernacular as ‘out of the possessive self’ (Snowdon 2014, 422); his use of vernacular videos is ruled by this strong and egalitarian premise of common sharing. The author becomes merely the medium for the images to be heard and seen, a way of enlarging their audience. The people as multiplicity, as performance, as a being-in-process, speaks through the artist. The voices of the people that were trapped in the immense anarchive of YouTube are heard anew thanks to the erasing of the author. Snowdon cancels out the signs of his particular individuality, becoming a voice-at-a-distance.Footnote 17

Besides, Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait was only seen by a privileged minority of public who was able to pay the fee of a cinema or festival screening. Yet for cinema to generate an ethical and political conversation, for images to gain political force, filmmakers must speak to the people, not in their name, and give them back their images. Returning videos to those whom they belong to might enable the conditions for a dialogue and increase the visibility of the images in specific ‘complexes of visuality’ (Mirzoeff 2011, 34), re-establishing the access to the right to look for those who are excluded from it and fighting against the dominant visuality, specific to authorities. Internet could be the space for this dialogic encounter and for a counter-visuality to emerge, against the regime’s hegemonic visuality, in order for visuals to serve democratic ends—but it should be a cyberspace founded on the principles of the digital commons and free culture, a cyberspace free of capitalist financial interests, power dynamics and structural monopolies, a cyberspace that has yet to be built collectively. Erasing hierarchies as much as possible implies the free and open circulation of images—and invites us to put the images into play in this infinite, interactive, global conversation online. Images must be considered public living beings. If we follow Hito Steyerl when she states that ‘the people might happen by jointly making an image and not by being represented in one’ (Steyerl 2012, n.pag., emphasis added), then the work of art must be dialogical, always in progress and inviting the active participation of everyone.

YouTube is much like a Borgesian library: Inside of it, images are dead—forgotten and invisible in a vast and saturated visual ocean. By reusing them, as Mohammed and Snowdon did, certain images may come back to life. It is necessary nowadays to question which footage we should save from the cacophony of the videosphere ruled by the hierarchies of the attention economy and algorithmic governmentality. The survival of some images is crucial in our flooded globalized visual ecology, and the work of art can become a place of reception, the promise of a new life for images, every fragment finding shelter within it.


  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 5.

    Furthermore, saving these videos is important for future transitional justice, as the archiving work of Syrian Archive (, Witness ( and Amnesty International shows.

  6. 6.

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

  7. 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: 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. 8.

    This interview has no particular author, being signed by Agence France Presse, and is available at:

  9. 9.

    Read more about this here or here

  10. 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. 11.

    Available online at: 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 16.

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

  17. 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 (2021).

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