Shot from 2011 to 2013, “The War Show” is a Syrian documentary weaved out of bits from a video diary: the personal narrative of a fierce radio jockey, Obaidah Zytoon and her friends comes to represent the inconceivable pain of Syria. The documentary begins with the hopeful days of the Arab Spring and ends as the beginnings of extremism settle in. Obaidah juxtaposes the scene of the protests and what is taking place within the public sphere with what takes place in the private domain of her day to day life with her friends. The two domains soon merge with each other as Obaidah loses many of her friends to torture and painful, untimely deaths. The images instill within the viewer a great sense of helplessness and anxiety. The viewer is burdened with the knowledge that the war is going on and the violence is being meticulously effaced by the concrete shackles of diplomacy.
And yet, the brave filmmaker’s eyes are open along with her camera’s lens. She does not look away and her camera refuses to let the rest of us either. Obaidah seeks to hold on to her sacred past, the memories of the time spent with her loved ones. Her poetic voiceovers seem to humanize the images, for the viewer is not only aligned with her eyes through the camera but with her thoughts through her fragile words: There is space for everyone in the War Show but the people.
Perhaps, the resolve to keep one’s eyes open does not lend itself to any immediate solution. Neither can it claim to help change or save the world. Yet, the question we must ask ourselves is whether reality or truth (as confounding and unimaginable as it may be) ought to be pursued in an instrumental fashion, as a meaning that will lead to a certain achievement. Isn’t the pursuit of truth a necessary end in itself? Yet, as Obaidah marks in her voiceover: The first victim of conflict is always truth.
Maybe, keeping our eyes open to the reality of the crimes against humanity that can in no possible manner be made sense of will not “change” anything. Pain is an unshareable emotion. Yet, empathy is what makes meaningful connection between human beings possible. The mere notion of looking away in the name of convenience represents a callous assault on our shared humanity, challenging what it is that makes one “human” anyway. So the eyes are torn as The War Show unfolds before them, these are horrific, numbing stories that cannot be represented adequately in any other fashion but through the chapters of this tender video diary.
A man that faced torture in prison narrates the conversation he had with the judge: Define freedom. I have never tasted freedom. Then why are you fighting for it? No one born and raised in Syria has tasted freedom in their life. I laughed as they beat me, it made no difference. The pain will make us stronger.
A young girl cries profusely, she recalls her favorite uncle for the camera. She remembers him grinning excitedly, believing that Syria was on the cusp of change. Her voice breaks as she asks the camera, the device taking the form of her uncle: Won’t you come for my birthday?
Obaidah meets a group of injured civilians that had been assaulted by the police. She notes: They showed their wounds to the camera eagerly, as if it will cure them of their pain. The viewer wonders what the camera is doing to these people, what the device represents for them. Earlier in the documentary Obaidah speaks of how the regime was most of afraid of those with cameras: with eyes that can mechanically reproduce and transmit images towards those who don’t belong to this frightening word.
Obaidah must see bodies assaulted in the most horrific ways possible. She watches a video of a young girl assaulted by the police for engaging in protest. The lack of medical help means that doctors and nurses treat wounds with inadequate help. Obaidah remembers: Her neck was cut open. I could not see reality in the same way after I saw that video.
Obaidah must navigate through devastating instances of personal loss just as almost everybody else in Syria. The video diary is full of many jovial moments spent between her friends, one of the last ones is a short vacation that they take together. All of them lie on the beach carefree, laughing together in breezy conversation. The viewer is too immersed in the safe warmth of this world, away from the nightmarish set of events to follow. Obaidah’s best friend Amal, a young activist is sought after by the police who visit his home. She remembers: He went to the police voluntarily. Eleven days later, his family was asked to pick up his body. Obaidah’s friend Lulu loses her boyfriend Hisham, a poet who had expressed great skepticism about the Arab Spring. Lulu goes through hundreds of pictures of tortured prisoners until she found him, his face made unrecognizable by the scars, lifeless.
Obaidah leaves the viewer with a shattering thought: There is no cure, no condolences, only crime.
The map of Syria is now represented by its people, who like seeds from the same plant have scattered all over the globe.