Imagination Is Power: How Bidayyat Captures Syria on Film
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Imagination Is Power: How Bidayyat Captures Syria on Film

Abo Gabi’s Blue, 2014. Photo courtesy of Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts

As part of the multi-part examination of the ideas behind Expanding the Frame: Imagination Is Power, members of Bidayyat discuss the arts organization’s work to support and produce Syrian documentary films, giving voice to new artistic expressions in and around the region. Launched in 2013, during the conflict in Syria, and now based in Lebanon, Bidayyat aims to tell the stories of those people who have lived at the heart of the Syrian revolution through the language of cinema: focusing on art over propaganda, people over rules, and revolution over the status quo. Imagination Is Power presents two of Bidayyat’s films—Abo Gabi’s Blue on April 12 and Azza Hamwi’s A Day and a Button on April 21—both directed by young Syrian filmmakers who reflect on and follow the daily lives of fellow Syrians, explore their changing reality, and tell individual stories that are too often absent from mainstream media coverage.

This interview is part of an ongoing publishing series designed to spark a deeper exploration of the ideas, inspiration, and creative expressions featured in Imagination is Power. Look for contributions from these scholars and artists who share their thoughts, stories, and research on the legacy of the late 1960s and activism today: Ayo Akingbade, Chicago Film Archives, Nadie Cloete, Valérie Déus, Amir George, and Alice Lovejoy.

Azza Hamwi’s A Day and A Button, 2015. Photo courtesy Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts

Ruth Hodgins: What have been the aims and hopes of Bidayyat since its founding at the beginning of the Syrian conflict?

Bidayyat: At the beginning we worked in a condition of emergency, and testimony was a priority. It was very important to be active and react to the events as they unfolded, to react from a personal point of view. The difference between citizen journalists and new, emerging documentary filmmakers was not always clear. Anonymous filmmaking was necessary, especially for those who worked from inside Syria: it was not a choice, but a necessity. Today, many of these emerging filmmakers have left Syria. They can now sign and claim their work. Many have participated in workshops with Bidayyat or other organizations and have deepened their cinematographic knowledge and understanding of documentary filmmaking, finding their own identity and visual language.

For these reasons, we have tried with Bidayyat, via our short and long in-house productions, to “protect” Syrian emerging filmmakers from the rules dictated by the art/film market and TV production, and to offer them a structure where they can more freely develop their own ideas with small budgets and alternative artistic practices. Many of Bidayyat’s films and other alternative productions are shown in alternative film festivals; they remain outside of the market and TV. This said, unfortunately, some have been recuperated by big international production companies that offer big budgets and which are dominated by the sensational and the spectacle.

Abo Gabi’s Blue, 2014. Photo courtesy of Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts

Hodgins: Have you ever run into political, social, or cultural difficulties because of the content in the works you support?

Bidayyat: Sometimes. Some works were refused or attacked by people of opposing views. Mainly, we are working in the cultural domain. Our work certainly has political and social dimensions but what’s important is the director’s vision.

Hodgins: How has your organization, and the filmmakers you represent, been viewed within Syria?

Bidayyat: Bidayyat and the filmmakers working with us are viewed as an independent organization that supports all the humanitarian and social issues and stands for social justice.

Hodgins: Are there many artists and filmmakers still making work in Syria? Can you tell us about them and what they are making?

Bidayyat: Yes, there are some artists and filmmakers still making work in Syria but we cannot say their names for their safety there.

Azza Hamwi’s A Day and A Button, 2015. Photo courtesy of Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts

Hodgins: Most of the films you produce are available to view online; can you tell us why you make the material so accessible?

Bidayyat: The films document what is happening in Syria and offer a way to reach Arab youth in particular. Syrian people are scattered over the world, so it is important to use the Internet to reach them. We believe our content should not be hidden.

Hodgins: Why do you think is it important to represent the views of artists and filmmakers in times of revolution?

Bidayyat: Art is a tool of expression and resistance. It is important to show and represent artistic views and films in times of revolution. With the destruction and loss of hope, especially after the fall of Aleppo, the personal point of view has come to the fore. It’s a more personal and intimate work from within. Big ideas about freedom and justice are approached from personal and often very modest perspectives.

Hodgins: What are the challenges you face as an organization, and can you talk about the challenges the filmmakers have encountered?

Bidayyat: As an organization, sometimes, we face problems with screenings inside Lebanon, especially when it comes to the place and the permission for screenings. The filmmakers face problems related to their safety, especially the ones who film inside Syria. Most of the times fake names are used by the filmmakers.

Hodgins: Since the onset of the Syrian revolution many changes have taken place, can you tell us more about the situation from the last year?

Bidayyat: The situation is getting worse with time, especially for people who are still living under the siege in Syria. Moreover, the situation of Syrians outside of the country is getting harder especially because of many countries’ tight regulations and racist behavior with Syrian people.

Hodgins: What relations, if any, do you make between demonstration and/ or activist movement in the USA and Syria?

Bidayyat: The relations are merely human rights—their rights to freedom and basic life conditions. The commonality between the movements in Syria, the USA, and other countries is the demand of basic rights and the struggle to reach justice.

Abo Gabi’s Blue, 2014. Photo courtesy of Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts

Hodgins: The titles from Bidayyat are being shown in a program series called Expanding the Frame: Imagination Is Power that looks at protest, change, urgent voices, and action from 1968 to today, representing different movements from around the world. How do you see the works from your organization fitting into a larger conversation about the spirit of activism?

Bidayyat: The spirit of activism is not limited to a certain country or people, so the works of Bidayyat that are represented document many forms of activism of Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians and make the voices of people’s struggle louder. Our work can intersect with many other similar works from different countries to open up discussions about the common spirit of activism all over the world.

Hodgins: As part of the series, the work Blue directed by Abo Gabi is screening on April 12, and A Day and a Button directed by Azza Hamwi is screening on April 21. Can you tell us more about these filmmakers?

Bidayyat: Abo Gabi is a Palestinian singer who was living in Al-Yarmook camp in Syria and now he is living and working in France. Azza Hamwi is a Syrian artist who was arrested by the Syrian regime for a year. She then came to Lebanon and continues to live and show her work.

Mattar Ismaeel’s Love During the Seige, 2015. Photo courtesy of Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts

Hodgins: Love During the Siege, directed by Mattar Ismaeel, is showing in the Walker Mediatheque. What can you tell us about this filmmaker?

Bidayyat: Mattar Ismaeel is a fake name for a media activist who is still living in Syria right now.

Hodgins: What do you have planned for Bidayyat in the future?

Bidayyat: We will continue our work in giving space and tools to the Syrian directors in order to show their work, and in giving visibility to Syrian suffering and telling the stories of Syrians to the rest of the world. We will also open more space for Lebanese and Palestinian youth to show their work. On the technical level, we are planning for the inclusion of animation and stop-motion techniques in our work.

Hodgins: What does Imagination Is Power mean to you?

Bidayyat: For us, Imagination Is Power is a program that gives an opportunity for filmmakers from all over the world to show their work related to revolution, freedom, and activism. We see this program as a space for filmmakers from this region, which is full of wars, revolutions, and activism, to show their work for another audience and to be able to see similar movements and artistic works.

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