Syrian docu "Our Terrible Country". Interview with co-director Ali Atassi.
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Muhammad Ali Atassi is a Syrian journalist, filmmaker and Human Rights activist.
His documentary "Our Terribel Country", co-directed with Ziad S. Homsi, highlights the different fases of the Syrian revolution and emphasizes the human aspect by focusing on the evolving friendship between the young filmmaker and freedom fighter Ziad Homsi and the famous intellectual and veteran dissident Yassin Haj Saleh who are traveling through the dangerous countryside and bombed cities of Syria.
Interview by Oriana P.
How did the movie “Our Terrible Country” come about and how did you meet Ziad S. Homsi?
I met him at the beginning of the uprising in Syria. He came to a workshop on media and filmmaking. We became friends even though we are from two different generations. What we had in common was the uprising in Syria and the fight for freedom. After the workshop we continued to work together. We helped him to edit his short film “Oh Douma”. When Yassin arrived in Douma I contacted Ziad again and asked him if he could go and film Yassin.
What was the original concept of the documentary and did it change over time?
In the very beginning we didn’t know if we would do a documentary about Yassin. I had tried to film Yassin before when he was hiding in Damascus but it was very difficult because Damascus was under the control of the regime. He had gone underground and it was very difficult not only to reach him but also to be able to work there and to film him freely. When he arrived in Douma the city was being bombed by the regime and I feared for his life. However, Ziad was in Douma and I also knew it would be easier to film him there rather than in Damascus.
Yassin hadn’t decided yet if he would stay in Douma so we simply began documenting his life there and compiling a visual archive of Yassin, the intellectual and dissident, arriving in what was called a “liberated zone”. Little by little he made the decision to travel to Raqqa and Ziad wanted to travel with him. It was clear to all that we wanted to film this trip.
When I watched the first rushes coming in from Douma I noticed the evolving friendship between Ziad and Yassin and I felt this was something we could work with. At that moment I still wasn’t entirely sure what this story would look like though. When I later joined them in Raqqa and I watched the footage of the road and the desert and what Ziad had done I realized he wasn’t just a cameraman documenting but a character in his own right. During the editing process it became clear he had his fingerprint all over the project and in some way it was also his own film. He is very connected to the old part of the city of Douma and to the desert and it shows in the way he films and in the way he interviews.
Why did they decide to go to Raqqa? What was there?
Raqqa is Yassin’s city. He wanted to join his family there. In the film he says it feels like it’s his own place in the world. Why stay in Douma? Raqqa was liberated but it was unclear who was in control of the city. There were a lot of armed groups there but once in Raqqa it would be much easier to travel around to the “free” zones like Halab and Kafranbel and other places. However on the way there the Islamists kidnapped his brother and took over the city. Raqqa was no longer peaceful. When he arrived in Raqqa he immediately went into hiding and waited for the chance to flee the country because this was no place for him in his condition.
When they left Douma they thought Raqqa was still under the control of the Free Syrian Army?
Part, part. It was very mixed. It wasn’t very clear who was controlling the city. You had some Islamist group, it wasn’t really Jabhat al Nusra yet, and you had the Free Syrian Army. When they left they had no idea that the city would become under the complete control of the Islamists and Daesh but this is what happened.
Why didn’t his wife Samira go with him?
He knew that the road was no place for a woman with all those fighters traveling in the desert and sleeping together in tents. Under these circumstances there’s no way a woman could travel with him. Samira, in the meantime, would be able to travel to Damascus. Her plan though was to wait for Yassin to arrive safely in Raqqa. She would travel to Damascus and then, via Turkey, she could join him in the north of Syria. However when Yassin arrived in Raqqa the Islamists had taken over the city. So she stayed in Douma and waited because she wanted to make sure Yassin would be able to safely travel to Turkey. By the time he arrived in Turkey it was too late for Samira to travel because now Douma was completely under siege. There was no way out. Towards the end of the movie we see Yassin talking to her through Skype. She was telling him about the embargo. She is saying they have no food, no electricity and that she’s stuck in Douma. It was simply bad luck.
The movie also talks about the activist Razan Zaitouneh. Is that his friend?
She’s very famous. She’s one the most important activists. She is the Founder of the” Local Coordination Committee”. She’s a lawyer. She’s a human rights activist. She’s a Sakharov Laureate from the European Parliament. She’s very well known as a human rights activist and a loyal figure in Syria.
She has disappeared now.
She disappeared and we don’t know what happened and it’s very traumatic for all of us.
Many people from the West believe that IS or Daesh and Assad are opponents but in the documentary both Yassin and Ziad kind of alluded they are the same. Yassin says, “they never bomb this building”, and Ziad asks, “well isn’t IS the other face of the regime?” Is this true? Do you think that Assad and ISIS are connected?
For sure they are connected in one way or another because they have a lot of common interests. They are serving each other but it is not clear if IS are agents of the regime. It could be that some of them are double agents and the regime may have people inside of Daesh but Daesh have their own agenda. However it was clear from the beginning, and this is still true today, that the rise of Daesh helped the regime a lot and mostly in regards to their image with the international community and in regards to the Syrians themselves. It’s the classical discourse: ‘it’s not about the so-called secular regime. It’s about the Islamists’. Assad wants to demonstrate that the only alternative to the extremists is the regime. He is saying if you don’t stay with me you will get the most terrible jihadis. Of course this is a false choice and a fake alternative. I believe Daesh or ISIS are collaborating with the regime and that the regime knows how to make use of Daesh.
In what ways?
To have some credibility in the eyes of the international community and to say that there is no alternative for Syrians but the regime itself because otherwise there is Daesh. But that’s not true. They also serve to delegitimize the Syrian uprising and our whole fight for freedom, equality and justice. Assad is trying to say we don’t deserve all of that and that getting our freedom means we are getting Daesh. This is a very simplistic and a racist discourse that some people in the West adhere to.
The New York Times says, and I quote, “The movie suggests that intellectuals have failed to guide the Syrian Revolt”. Do you agree with that?
No. I don’t agree with that. I don’t believe it’s the role of the intellectual to guide any type of revolution or political movement. I believe the role of the intellectual is to be a critic and to have some sort of political position or statement but not to be a leader. I think our role is the role that Yassin is doing today, which is writing and being a critic and trying to be part of this huge movement by thinking and writing and standing with the people. For me my role, as a filmmaker, is to produce movies and also to try to question myself and question this movement. It is a different way of offering a critique but also to keep our hope for the future. In any case we are not engaging in politics and we are not politicians. It was never a question that we, as intellectuals, would be their leader or should be their leader. I think when you look at the experience of the 20th century, especially when it’s come to leftist movements, every time an intellectual engaged in political life as a politician it was a huge catastrophe. This is because the debate between intellectuals is about truth but when you bring this kind of debate or truth to the political arena it means ‘I have the truth and therefore the other guy is wrong and I will kill him’. There is no room for a middle ground. In the political arena you need to fight. It has nothing to do with debating ideas. Usually intellectuals apply their own filters.
Supposedly, at the beginning of the revolution, Assad mostly jailed intellectuals effectively killing the leadership of the revolution.
Not just at the beginning but still today any sort of leadership or public figure, a pacifist or moderate, who can present an alternative to the Islamists and their discourse gets arrested or exiled. Assad, and his regime, fears these kinds of people because he knows they can create an alternative. The regime has its preferred “enemy” and that enemy is the Islamists or jihadis.
In regards to the role of the international community, in what ways did the Syrian people ask for help and since when?
It’s terrible. I don’t want to talk on behalf of the Syrian people but my point of view, as an individual, is that it was a big mistake to believe we could get any kind of support from outside our country. We were taught a very hard lesson. I think from the start we should have focused on our own strengths and weaknesses instead of looking for outside support. Syria became part of the game of the nations and everyone is playing for Syrian territory. I also think that most of the outside support isn’t going to the Syrian rebels or to the uprising but to the regime. For example, look at the support Iran or Russia or Hezbollah are giving to the Syrian regime and not only military but also financial support. On top of that you have the foreign fighters from Iran or Lebanon who are fighting alongside the regime. Nobody is supporting the rebels. For almost a year the Syrian people tried to keep the uprising peaceful. They tried to resist in a peaceful way hoping that they could get
sympathy that would translate into some kind of support and to put pressure on the regime to change the power balance. When this didn’t happen the regime got the green light to continue the massacres.
It seems none of the world leaders wants to see regime change in Syria.
Yes but to keep the regime is to also keep the consequences such as Daesh and others. It’s not only about Syria it’s also about the whole Arab Spring. It’s so sad to see how we give credit to the coup in Egypt. Yemen is now under the control of Iran. Look what happened to Libya. There’s no real support for democratic change in the Arab world. We will end up with the Islamists. The only way to face this kind of challenge in the Arab world and this kind of fundamentalist thinking is to support real democratic change. The Arabs themselves started this process with the Arab Spring but, unfortunately, we didn’t receive enough support and solidarity from the rest of the world.
Right, and then the United States conducted air strikes, so called to fight Daesh but really they mostly benefitted the regime?
It’s mind blowing to see that at the same time when the coalition is bombing the areas under the control of Daesh/Islamic State, the regime is bombing the other areas that are in control of other groups such as the Free Syrian Army. In many ways they are doing the same job. I don’t think keeping the regime safe and only bombing Daesh is a good strategy to help the Syrian people because the only one who benefits from all of that is the regime at the moment. I don’t know what would be an alternative solution. That’s not for me to decide. I would say maybe put real pressure on Russia and on Iran to stop sending weapons and money to the regime. And to no longer accept the fact that the regime is relentlessly bombing civilian people. It’s been a non-stop massacre for over 2 ½ years. He keeps bombing his own people. Every day the barrel bombs of the regime kill 20, 30, 100 people. People become desensitized to this news. If the regime gets to keep control of the Syrian skies and gets to continue its airstrikes then there will never be a solution to this situation. Even if they would lose control on the ground they still control the air and can push civilians out of the country creating more refugees.
In Paris, after the attack on Charlie Hebdo, we heard calls from Assad to unite with the West to fight extremism. What, in your opinion, are the underlying motives to call for a united front to fight a common enemy?
He tries to reinvent himself by saying he is a secular and that he is ready to fight the terrorists. He wants to play the role of policeman in the region. However it’s the dictatorships of the Arab world that breed extremism. The best way to fight this fundamentalist way of thinking is to just allow freedom and to trust the people. I think the only way is to allow the Arab and Muslim people to have their own revolution, have free elections, have justice and have equality. If we don’t then we will continue to have terrorism, which is related to the absence of any kind of democratic reform in the Arab Muslim world. We see the same thing happening in some European cities where you have Islamophobia, discrimination and a lot of social problems. This pushes young sensitive people in the direction of extremism.
What is the status of the Syrian revolution? Where is it going and do you feel that Assad could still be overthrown?
I believe, no matter what, that we have already won this revolution because Assad doesn’t belong to the future of our country. He’s part of the past. It’s a matter of time and price. We are finished with Assad and all his crimes and his stupidity. For the moment he is still in power but it’s a matter of time. We will be paying a heavy price and we already paid a heavy price but he is not part of the solution. He is part of the problem. The only way to turn the page and find a real peaceful solution for Syria is not to include him.
I heard the opposition is now negotiating with Assad.
Some part of the opposition but it’s very difficult for a lot of Syrians who have lost friends or family members to accept that Assad will be part of the political game. He’s a war criminal and he should be judged. This is so important for the reconciliation in our country. I don’t believe that Assad can be part of any kind of future of Syria. He is the problem in my point of view.
Where is this movie going to play in the future?
Several countries in Europe, South America, some countries in East Europe, in New York. In Washington next month. I hope soon in Canada. In England I’m not sure, but it is touring everywhere, which is good for Ziad, Samira, and Yassin. This is the story of Syrian activists, which we never see in mainstream media. We show a different side with this film.