Aleppo. Notes from the Dark: “Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times”
By Phoebe Hall
On Thursday 24 April, the Frontline Club welcomed a full house to a screening of Aleppo. Notes from the Dark. It was followed by an insightful Q&A with directors Michal Przedlacki and Wojciech Szumowski, which touched on the misrepresentation of the conflict in Western media and the possibility of a foreign peacekeeping intervention.
The unique and powerful film aims to document, in the words of Przedlacki, the “fate of ordinary people in extraordinary, dreadful times”, and gives voice to an assortment of Aleppo residents experiencing the daily hardships of life in a war zone.
Created from over 200 hours of footage, Aleppo. Notes from the Dark paints a complex and unique portrait of the Syrian people through a panorama of personal accounts, including those of a doctor at a makeshift field hospital and an Islamic cleric devoted to the pursuit of zakat (alms). Filmed over a period of 44 days, the film communicates the position of its subjects with regard to the state of the Syrian Revolution, their lives prior to the conflict and their expectations and hopes for the future of their homeland.
Humanitarian aid worker and photographer Przedlacki and filmmaker Szumowski commented on the film’s origins, born out of a mutual desire to provide evidence of the extensive bloodshed inflicted on the Syrian people:
“We decided to take the risk and go together to Aleppo. Not for news, not for three days, not for a week, but to stay there for two months in order to properly document and follow the fate of ordinary people. . . . We decided that we had to tell this story . . . there was too little information about Syria.”
An audience member questioned the lack of screen time dedicated to the narratives of Christian Syrians, Szumowski responded (with the help of a translator):
“We think that it would not be optimal to put Christians and Muslims in opposition, I think this is a mistake that we make in the West. Christians amount to 6% of Syrian society, and in the film we have shown the (positive) attitude of Muslims towards Christians. Both Muslims and Christians are Syrian citizens, and we would not like to divide them.”
A second audience member enquired as to whether the conflict in Syria had the potential to radicalise those involved, and the extent to which this would pose a threat to the West. Przedlacki responded:
“To understand why we have seen the influence of foreign extremists we need to understand the despair that Syria has faced, . . . the Syrians have a feeling that the world is letting them burn. . . . We are now ‘drinking the beer that we brewed ourselves’.”
The question of the West’s role in supporting a resolution to the conflict was likewise raised. Szumowski proposed the following:
“The first thing that the West can do is to tell an honest story. I have been following the information that has been in the media about Syria very closely, and I have the impression that there are some deformations of the real situation…. Placing terrorism in the headlines is already a sort of lie… and giving it precedence over everything else distorts the situation… So first it would be to tell the truth, and second it would be to use solidarity”
“Our film is a protest against the ‘civilisation of indifference’. . . . Each one of us can do something. We made a film . . . some of you can write about the film, or can support Save the Children or a humanitarian organisation. . . . This is not some imaginary world. All of this has happened.”
Another audience member warmly thanked the filmmakers for bringing such a pressing situation to light, and enquired as to the extent of Russian involvement in the eyes of the opposition fighters. Szumowski recalled interactions with residents of the Syrian city:
“The people that we met in Aleppo kept talking about Russian mercenaries. . . . We heard tales that some of the aircrafts are being piloted by soldiers from North Korea. . . . It is almost as if the war is not between Syrians but between other nationalities as well.”
Szumowski likewise commented on outsider interests, highlighting the Russian base with access to the Mediterranean Sea as a clear motive for their involvement.
The filmmakers were asked to detail the extent to which the residents of Aleppo that they came into contact with demonstrated support for the suggestion of a Western military intervention.
Przedlacki offered a response and articulated his proposal for a peaceful resolution to the fighting, drawing on his work with humanitarian response programmes in diverse regions, including Afghanistan, Chechnya, Somalia and Pakistan:
“Every option should be considered in order to stop the bloodshed in Syria. . . . We have a dictator that is creating a bloodbath for his own Syrian nation. . . . If diplomatic means are not working then there should be an initiative of the Arab countries to intervene, and the Western role would be to support such an initiative. . . . I don’t really believe that we would see American boots on the ground.”
An audience member pressed Przedlacki on which Arab countries would be involved in this initiative:
“The Arab League itself. In 2012, they agreed to have a peacekeeping operation, which was then stopped by the Russians. . . . Imagine how many people could have lived . . . if this had happened.”
Szumowski expressed greater concern at the extent of mis-information in the West, and demonstrated a reluctance to endorse Przedlacki’s backing of foreign military intervention:
“I am an artist, a creator, not a politician. I think that force is the absolute last resort. I think the most important thing is informing the society openly and honestly about what is going on in Syria.”
Szumowski closed the discussion by recalling the inaction of Allied troops during the Second World War with regards to intervening to prevent the atrocities committed during the Holocaust, pointing out the West’s current complicity in the situation in Syria owing to its failure to act:
“We are committing a similar sin now when we are not talking about Syria. This is something that neither me, nor my friend (Przedlacki) can accept.”
To find out more about Aleppo. Notes from the Dark, the film’s Twitter page is available here.
Interview given by Przedlacki to BBC World News about Aleppo. Notes from the Dark, on 25 April 2014. Courtesy of BBC:
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View the trailer of Aleppo. Notes from the Dark here:
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This screening was supported by the Polish Cultural Institute London.