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'We were like guerrilla filmmakers': U.S. filmmaker on Syria

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
/ Source: Reuters

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -

(The fourteenth paragraph of this Sept. 23 story has been corrected paragraph to 'no women on the Aleppo local council' from 'no women on local councils in Syria')

Inspired by a Syrian-Palestinian activist she met in Washington D.C. at the start of the Syrian uprising, U.S. filmmaker Andrea Kalin dropped her other projects and devoted herself to capturing the Syrian conflict - and people - on film.

More than three years and several perilous trips to Syria later, her documentary "Red Lines" is a unique record of her travels with Mouaz Moustafa and his fellow-activist Razan Shalab al-Sham, a leading Syrian women's rights activist.

When Kalin met Mouaz through a common friend, Mouaz had already been to Syria as head of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a pro-democracy NGO, supporting the groups whose peaceful protests began the uprising in early 2011.

"He was supporting civic outreach, and at the same time, he was pushing the civil society, peace," Kalin, an award-winning documentary maker, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from Washington.

Mouaz, now a U.S. citizen, was also warning the U.S. authorities: "if they don't support the moderate opposition and give them the support they need, they are going to be overrun and subsumed by the extremists. He was saying this three years ago," Kalin recalls.

Intrigued by the young man, Kalin put all her other work on hold and focused her lens on Syria.

"I just jumped in, with no funding, with no resources, with no concept of how we're going to tell the story, but I knew it was unfolding in front of my eyes. It's an important story to capture," said Kalin.

Mouaz introduced Kalin to Razan, a young activist who had fled to Turkey. She was making dangerous trips across the border into Syria, using a network of activists to smuggle medical aid to opposition groups.

By building trust and a close relationship with the two young activists, Kalin was able to capture valuable footage inside Syria and tell the stories that had not reached the mainstream news media.

"We didn't tell the American embassy; we didn't go with a security detail, we didn't have insurance. We were like guerrilla filmmakers with our cameras,” said Kalin.

“My co-director Oliver Lukacs and I made four trips to Syria, two I went on, two Oliver went on, (we were) at Razan's 'mercy', so to speak - we never went in a legal way. We were lucky."

The relationship they built with their Syrian friends, "that trust is very important to be able to get access" to people in the turbulent country, she said.

“I started out as a radio journalist, and I know the difference of the level of intimacy with your characters,” said Kalin.

For Kalin, the true revolution in Syria is the gradual change in women's roles in a traditional society. She attended women's governance courses in Turkey organized by Razan, who told her there were no women on the Aleppo local council before the uprising.

Razan and fellow activists hoped that by encouraging women to work in politics, they would contribute more and have a bigger say in building civil society. Many women made the hazardous trip across the border to join the training sessions.

“For me, the strongest moment in the filmmaking was ... watching women being trained in the electoral process. The setting was bleak, a typical hotel room, with Disney stickers on the wall, and they used a ‘ballot’ box made from a cardboard box for wine glasses,” said Kalin.

“It was in that room those women changed my perceptions. They were the ones that were learning about democracy, and (from their spirit), I learnt the real practice of democracy."

“It’s a story that has been missed ... those young activists were willing to sacrifice everything for a cause. People were overlooking that there were so many young people in the Arab world that want the same thing as we have in the west, that we take for granted.”

“We still turn our back on a nation whose population is 40 percent displaced, and where tens of thousands have been killed. Unfortunately, the political situation is very difficult (to change). For me, the best the film could do is to raise awareness, and prick people's conscience about the suffering of the Syrian people.”

"Red Lines" will be screened in the UK at the Rich Mix cinema in east London on Sept. 25.

(Editing by Tim Pearce)