‘The War Show’: Venice Review

Syrian radio host-turned-director Obaidah Zytoon and Danish filmmaker Andreas Dalsgaard offer a ground-level look at the Syrian Civil War.

The ongoing war in Syria has already given us the essential 2014 documentary Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, directed by Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan and assembled mostly from YouTube clips shot by “1,001 Syrians” on the ground. Some footage uploaded to the internet also finds its way into The War Show — the first of three Syria-themed documentaries premiering at the Venice Film Festival this year — and there’s an interesting (if not always entirely successful) attempt to explore the meaning of having cameras record the conflict for the outside world. That said, most of Show’s material actually centers on the friends, acquaintances and people local radio host Obaidah Zytoon met and filmed in Syria between 2011 and 2013.

Assembled by Zytoon and her Danish co-director Andreas Dalsgaard (Afghan Muscles, The Human Scale) from 300 hours of footage shot mostly in Damascus and Zytoon’s hometown, Zabadani, north of the capital, the film looks at the conflict through a personal lens and on a very human scale. The journeys of the people she follows also provide something of a backbone for the otherwise only loosely connected first five (of the film’s seven) chapters, with each part containing material that focuses on a loosely defined theme — suppression, resistance, frontlines … — without necessarily any effort to turn these smaller units into building blocks of a larger narrative.

The Bottom Line

Uneven but frequently fascinating.

However, despite the somewhat baggy nature of the narrative, the force of the film’s raw material is strong enough to ensure plentiful exposure on both the nonfiction and general festival circuits, with broadcasters’ attention a given and some theatrical interest likely.

The film’s first chapter, Revolution, looks at the Arab Spring in the Syrian context and introduces Zytoon on camera. She works as an on-air host for Sham FM, an alternative, Damascus-based radio station that makes her something of a celebrity among those protesting Assad’s government in March 2011. Like in many other Arabic countries that year, people took to the streets to claim change. This section’s most impressive character is a little girl who walks defiantly uncovered in the protest marches alongside her adult sisters (covered up for anonymity), telling Zytoon’s camera: “I want to breathe, not to suffocate. I want the right to play with my friends, half of whom are boys, of course.”

Zytoon, heard throughout in voiceover, also introduces her group of friends and acquaintances in Revolution and the second chapter, Suppression: Amal, an economics student; Houssam, who studied architecture; heavy metal enthusiast Rabea; dentistry student Argha; red-headed law student Lulu and Lulu’s poet boyfriend, Hisham (not all their real names). They were involved in either the protests, filming the demonstrations — “they fear those with the cameras most, they are targeted first,” we hear — or editing videos of the events before their publication online. Some of them were arrested by the regime and tortured and not all of them make it to the end of the film alive.

They are seen dealing with the hopes for change of the Arab Spring, the sobering recognition that things might not go as fast as they thought or that the price to pay for their ideals and dreams might be the highest of all. “We can’t show this (footage) until 2014, then we’ll be free,” one of them says in 2011, with another casually replying: “We’ll all be dead by then.” It’s in throwaway moments such as these that the film manages to capture the hopes and fears of an entire generation at once.

With their phones and small digital cameras, Zytoon and a handful of other cinematographers capture things on the fly, sometimes risking their own lives (snipers are everywhere). There are the preparations and actual street protests (with lots of blurred-out faces); dangerous real-life situations — like hiding in a store while armed security forces chase protesters down the street — and smaller domestic scenes, such as the friends’ shared care of the mutt Fifi, a dog abandoned by its owners who fled the country.

By mentioning the protagonists’ previous occupations and showing them in domestic scenes as well as their possibly violent new day-to-day reality on the streets, the film humanizes the protagonists and manages to suggest how regular people got involved in the struggle. After the initial, peaceful protests have been put down by the Assad regime, who want to “control the narrative,” as the film puts it, the stage is set for an armed struggle that pits government fighters against protesters that have taken up arms. But other forces, often backed by foreign interests, also become part of the armed struggle, as war lords, arms dealers, religious factions, defected soldiers and others pursue their own agendas.

But The War Show stays very close to the fighters on the ground even in the film’s much less personal last two chapters, Frontlines and Extremism, in which local children are taught how to use weapons; rebels argue over whether to try and shoot down a helicopter; and a religious and secular faction find themselves loudly proclaiming their support for two very different ideas of post-war Syria in the same bombed-out square. 

While useful because they provide a larger context, these two sections lack the intimate personal access that made the preceding chapters feel more unique and relatable, with the stories of Zytoon’s friends effectively having come to a close in the film’s fifth chapter, Memories, which combines footage of an earlier, very happy seaside outing with an update on the fates of the various youngsters who are (or were) Zytoon’s friends.

The overall result is somewhat messy but contains some very powerful moments and valuable insights into what the conflict is like for those on the ground and what drives the younger generation to fight against the oppression of Assad.

Colin Stetson’s jangly score amps up the tension at several points but thankfully never indulges in action-movie cliches.

Production companies: Fridthjof Film, Dharmafilm, Oktober

Directors: Andreas Dalsgaard, Obaidah Zytoon

Screenplay: Obaidah Zytoon, Andreas Dalsgaard, Spencer Osberg, Alaa Hassan, Miriam Norgaard

Producers: Miriam Norgaard, Alaa Hassan

Executive producers: Ronnie Fridthjof, Miriam Norgaard, Joonas Berghall, David B. Sorensen

Co-producers: Satu Majava, Joonas Berghall

Director of photographys: Obaidah Zytoon, Dana Bakdounes, Amr Kheito, Hisham Issa, Wassim Anonymous, Lars Skree

Editor: Adam Nielsen

Music: Colin Stetson

Sales: DR Sales

No rating, 104 minutes