Film-makers risk lives to show world the bigger picture

Fri, Aug 10, 2012, 01:00

RECORDING A REVOLUTION: Students spend days filming on frontline and nights uploading raw video to YouTube

MANY OF Abu Arwa’s peers have taken up the gun against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but the young architecture student’s weapon of choice is not a Kalashnikov but a camera.

For the last two weeks, the 22-year-old, who turned revolutionary last year along with scores of his fellow students at the University of Aleppo, has dodged shelling and sniper fire to shoot dramatic footage of the battle between regime and rebels in the city.

He and his friends spend their days filming right on the frontline in the rebel-held district of Salahuddin and their nights at safe houses uploading raw video to YouTube and sending it to human rights organisations and media outlets including Al Jazeera.

Their tools are not sophisticated, mostly basic video cameras that produce grainy images. “We can’t afford anything else,” says Abu Arwa – but it is enough to give the world outside the narrow confines of Salahuddin a sense of what is going on.

“What is happening in Syria is as much an information war as anything else,” Abu Arwa says, sitting in a hotel in Antakya where he and his colleagues have come to buy new equipment.

“From the beginning, the regime has tried to control the flow of information coming out of Syria because it wanted to hide what was really happening here. It is important that we show what they are doing in Aleppo, the lives lost and the destruction caused. The world needs to know.”

Before rebel fighters entered Aleppo several weeks ago, Abu Arwa and his friends filmed the anti-Assad rallies that took place sporadically in parts of the city.

He was close to Hossam Armanazi, a young medical student who co-ordinated many of the initial anti-regime campaigns in Aleppo last year before he was arrested and tortured. Following his release Armanazi joined the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) and was killed by government forces in the city on July 31st.

After the rebels streamed into Aleppo last month, Abu Arwa’s work changed and became more dangerous.

“We film the engagement between the two sides, the shelling and aerial bombardment by the regime and the damage left behind, including the dead martyrs,” he says.

The band of young activists acts independently of the rebel fighters. “We are not related to any brigade or organisation,” explains Abu Arwa. “We just believe in the revolution.”

Some of the videos on the laptop he has brought with him to Turkey show streets deserted apart from rebel fighters exchanging fire with regime snipers; others show Syrian army tanks lined up close to the frontline.

There is footage of huge clouds of dust and falling masonry following attacks by Assad’s helicopter gunships and fighter aircraft. One graphic clip shows a doctor desperately plucking shrapnel from the blown-open stomach of a still-conscious man.

Three of the young men Abu Arwa works with in Salahuddin, like him all amateurs with no training in film-making, have been hit by snipers.

They are being treated in Turkey for neck, stomach and hand injuries.

“We have narrowly escaped death so many times,” says Abu Arwa.

“The FSA have guns to defend themselves but when you’re carrying a camera you have no way to defend yourself. You are extremely vulnerable.”

Despite the risks, Abu Arwa is passionate about his work, which has doubtless much to do with the fact he is from Hama, a town where Assad’s father, Hafez, brutally crushed a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in 1982, killing at least 10,000.

“They destroyed our town in just a few days but no one outside knew what had happened because there was no satellite TV and no internet to allow our people tell the world about the massacre,” he says.

“It would be very difficult for the regime to make another Hama now because we can film on our phones or cameras and make sure the information gets out. Our work is dangerous but knowing the importance of it keeps us going.”

Abu Arwa acknowledges that some footage that has come from Syrian opposition activists during the 17-month uprising has been faked. “It makes me angry,” he says. “This is a very big mistake. There is no need to lie or exaggerate because what Bashar and his army are doing is bad enough already.” For Abu Arwa, the importance of what he is doing lies not just in informing the world of what is unfolding in Syria right now, but also in creating a historical record for future generations.

“What is happening in my country is a revolution,” he says.

“We feel like we are helping to write history through our work.”