revolution

Tag: revolution

Broadcast Magazine

If you are a subscriber to Broadcast Magazine you can see the following piece on Sean McAllister by George Bevir

Sean McAllister: A Syrian Love Story

Seasoned documentary-maker Sean McAllister talks to George Bevir about filming during the Arab Spring, and why commissioning editors should reject the urge to play it safe.

Having been travelling to Syria since before the uprising in 2011, film-maker Sean McAllister was used to passing himself off as a tourist to avoid attracting the unwanted attention of the Ministry of Information.

But when the revolution swept the country, filming proved more problematic: such was the threat from the Syrian regime that protestors were reluctant to appear on camera because they didn’t want their identities revealed. “It was fucking difficult,” says McAllister, in typically candid fashion. “Even if you used a phone to film, the snipers could get you.”

The testing conditions required an innovative approach. McAllister bought a batch of glasses with built-in HD cameras and dished them out to protestors so they could surreptitiously capture footage of the revolution without being detected.

Involving those he films in the production is a hallmark of McAllister’s work, which he describes as “fly-in-the- soup, rather than fly-on-the-wall”. He embeds himself in the lives of his subjects – or collaborators, as he refers to them – to the extent that they become part of the process, looking after back-up copies of rushes and even working with him on other projects long after a production has finished.

Political prisoners

The downside of the camera glasses was that they didn’t convey this transparency. “What they captured looked like spy-cam footage, and gave it a kind of undercover documentary look, which wasn’t what I wanted.”

The relationship at the heart of McAllister’s latest film, A Syrian Love Story, is that of Amer and Raghda, political prisoners who met in a Syrian prison cell 15 years ago and later married and had children.

The documentary, commissioned by Nick Fraser for the BBC’s Storyville strand and part-funded by the BFI, spans a five-year period that began in 2009, before a wave of uprisings swept across the Arab world. It charts the story of the family as father and mother are jailed for their political beliefs, and ultimately exiled.

Before the BFI agreed to back the project, it wanted to know why it should fund what appeared to be a TV documentary. “I told them it was like one of my favourite John Cassavetes films, Love Streams, with Amer playing the role of Cassavetes and Raghda as Gena Rowlands,” says McAllister.

“There’s drinking and fighting, and it’s about the impossibility of love against the backdrop of a revolution. When I pitched it for one-hour doc slots it was a current affairs film, but now it is more rounded. That was the beauty of filming over five years: it’s a bigger, more theatrical experience.”

McAllister’s films have a habit of morphing into something else. When the story fell through on the film the BBC initially commissioned him to make about Syria, he kept quiet and hung on to the budget, turning his attention to Yemen for what became 2012 Storyville doc The Reluctant Revolutionary. Similarly, funded trips to Greece and the UAE enabled him to visit Beirut and Damascus to catch up with Amer and Raghda.

While he acknowledges that deviating from a broadcaster’s brief is a risky strategy, he wants commissioning editors to be just as fearless. “If we don’t make these creative decisions about how money has to be spent to find the films, how will they ever be born? Not from commissioning editors standing like gods in their ivory towers on six-figure salaries; they ain’t gonna dream up the stories.

“The only people who can find real stories are those who get out there with a camera. Film-makers who take risks need a commissioning editor who is as brave to allow these projects to be born.”

© George Bevir

Broadcast Magazine

Bin Laden was killed on my birthday

02 May 2011

I awoke in sleepy old Damascus with nothing much on my mind, so I went downstairs and was greeted by the receptionist who told me that the American’s had killed Osama Bin Laden. I sat at a table, opened my laptop to learn from my Facebook friends that it was also my birthday… I celebrated silently alone, just me and a boiled egg at breakfast in Damascus, thinking to myself that maybe I’ll have a birthday drink later with (now that I have finally managed to track him down) the guy I’ve come all the way to Syria see.

After breakfast I made a visit to my religious dentist but I couldn’t give her the chocolates I had brought for her because I suddenly noticed that they contained whisky. What a shame I thought, and decided to keep them for myself seeing as I’d just learnt that it was my birthday.

She was surprised to see me, I told her I would travel a long way for my dentist… Then I had to admit that my flight here was cheaper than the quote I was given in London for root canal treatment and a new front tooth – A tooth I lost a couple of months ago in Yemen. My dentist smiled and said quietly “I hope you never mentioned my name to security at the airport when you entered”, I suddenly get the disturbing feeling that my sheer presence here means trouble for locals; only those active in the protests seem willing to see me.

My dentist talks about ‘the situation’ with mixed views saying it is difficult to know what is going on, on one-hand the Syrian news tells its side of the story, and on the other there are, she believed, ‘exaggerated’ reports from BBC / CNN etc. But whilst she needles away at the abscesses in my head releasing globs of horrible poisonous puss she says she believes that only the president can sort this mess out. I ask her if it is too late for reforms, that the protests are like snowballs rolling down a hill, that the momentum is building for a complete change. “But change to what?” she asks, “Why break everything, you should make change through slow reforms… these protesters have no plan or idea of what they want after this”.

Later that night I ventured deep into a Palestinian refugee camp past fading posters of Yasser Arafat on the walls to meet the guy I’d come to Syria to see, “Are we safe meeting here?” I ask as we embrace – it’s been 5 months since I last saw him, “Yes it is safe they cannot come in here” he replies. Once in his home on the 4th floor of an anonymous building I hug and kiss his kids and hand out sweets and chocolates to everyone but hold back the special gift I had brought for my friend, I figured that as a good old-school communist he would be bound to appreciate the lovely royal wedding mug that I suddenly waved in-front of his bemused face, “And….. we can drink whisky from it” I excitedly proclaim as I pull out a couple of sneaky bottles of scotch from deep inside my bag.

During the evening I noticed his attention switching between from our conversation about the demonstrations and the unfolding situation in Syria to his computer and the several Facebook group-chats he has simultaneously open, he tells me his local group decide at 4am whether or not a protest is planned for that day and where and what time they will meet. Facebook has revolutionised the revolution, as well as reminding me that it was my birthday.

We drink whisky together from the royal mug and my friend tells me that the protests are taking a step forward soon, to daily activity rather then just on Friday’s. The clear motive now for all on the streets is the removal of the president and the Ba’athist regime, such thoughts were unimaginable last year when I was sitting here with the same man, yet now, everything seems almost inevitable “Though it may take a year” he says, “They have great force and we have nothing”. This time last year there was no organised opposition in Syria to speak of, just small factions from across the political spectrum, now there is a united opposition with one united goal.

My friend tells me a very sad, but all too familiar, story of a close friend of his just 22 years old, shot in the head and killed just a few days ago. The ‘secret police’ have even called him recently to say that they know he is helping to organise the protests and that when they find him they will kill him. But, unshaken, he continues – after the first protest in Syria on the 6th march he and his 14 year old son were imprisoned for 2 days, now he doesn’t take his kids.

Can we meet tomorrow I ask, “Depends if we are protesting, I will know at 4am” he replies. “What about work?” I ask. “Work?”, he laughs, “There isn’t any work, that is why we’re protesting, and even if there was there wouldn’t be enough hours in the day to do the work, our whole time is taken up with the revolution and the removal of the president”. I kiss the kids as I leave, the youngest chants the slogan heard on every protest, “We need a new government, down with Bashar Assad!” It has been a good birthday.

In the dark night I pass through the former tourist hotspot of ‘Old Damascus’ where the once full bars and hotels are now completely emptied of foreigners, I notice new touched-up portraits of the president, though I’m not sure if the new ‘photo-shopped’ revamped image can save him or his regime now.

The old billboards selling washing powder have gone, the new ones show the Syrian flag on one half and a chaotic image on the other with words written in Arabic script pronouncing that ‘It is your destiny choose between reform or ruin’.

Back to Syria?

26 April 2011

The stories I have heard from my friends in Syria sound uncomfortably similar to what I have been witnessing in the Yemen, right down to the plain-clothed security men firing from the roof tops into crowds of innocent people.

Last night I drank Arak with my friend in Syria over Skype – he told me he has offered his chest to the cause and will go again to the city of Homs to protest after Friday prayers.

He bitches with me about the mutual friends we have in Syria who have done nothing for the cause. One friend who likes to be known as a journalist whose home-town was witness to a great massacre a couple of days ago has said nothing or written nothing – but I am not sure you can blame people for this, in Syria it is difficult to comprehend the amount of fear that is instilled in people there, to me this highlights the bravery and determination of the brothers and sisters who do offer themselves on the front line.

But something has definitely changed – only a few months ago people were too afraid to gather in even the smallest groups to complain about something, whereas now, people feel emboldened enough to gather in their hundreds and thousands to protest against the government. Fear has somehow lost its grip.

What about the comments I read that the Syrian revolution is spearheaded by the feared Muslim brothers who are waiting to take over and bring Sharia law to Syria? “Bullshit” my friend says, “Of course they are there but the people behind this revolution are ordinary folk sick of corruption lies and bullshit from this government, no jobs no money or hope has been a life for the majority. That is what it is about”.

With the help of technology and the internet the Syrian government has nowhere to hide from its crimes… “They behave worse than Israelis” a friend says, another friend interrupts, adding that “They always behaved this way in Beirut”. Is it the heavy handed government reaction to the protests that is finally turning the people against this once popular president, making the protests even bigger than they would have been had has Assad treated them with respect, or is the genie out of the bottle in Syria?

Personally I feel a sense of excitement and trepidation for the whole region, but I do have admit there is a nagging fear for the future of Syria, and wonder if the only hope they had for reform in the supposed gentle image of Basher has now been dashed following the slaughter of 100 demonstrators in one day and whether this pivotal nation in the middle east is about to shed more blood than we have seen across the whole Arab spring so far.

We are told that the dangers caused by Syria collapsing (Israel especially is fearful) don’t bear thinking about, but now as the people of Syria face a crucial week I fear (on a humanitarian level) we must contemplate the worst.

I am in the process of trying to get back in to Syria in order to finish my film about the revolution there. Luckily I had applied for a visa weeks ago after my front tooth fell out as a result, I believe, of the stress I was under following the massacre I witnessed in Change Square.

In London I discovered it would cost £450 to replace the tooth but knew that £300 would get me to Syria and that £80 would see me right with dentist Rima and I’d still have money left over for a few nights in a cut-price Damascus hotel (part of their new failing 12 billion dollar tourist industry) – So if all goes well I will be off to catch up on the Syrian revolution for myself next Thursday.

Wish me luck. Xx

Sent from my iPhone (26/04/2011)