Shot in Syria, Directed Over Skype

The new documentary Little Gandhi commemorates Syria’s initially peaceful pro-democracy movement — but was filmed at great risk in the midst of the civil war that it became.
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A member of the crew on the set of Sam Kadi’s new, remotely directed film, Little Gandhi. 

A member of the crew on the set of Sam Kadi’s new, remotely directed film, Little Gandhi. 

From his hotel room in Istanbul, filmmaker Sam Kadi watched over a computer screen as his cameraman stole a few shots of a Syrian activist in a ramshackle building. Almost 1,000 miles separated Kadi from his crew in the besieged city of Darayya, on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, where daylight was now beginning to recede. In the soft glow of the setting sun, Kadi was able to glean anxiety on their faces. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“If they notice even a flicker of light, they will shell down the building,” the activist, Muhanad Abu Alzen, replied, referring to the Syrian Army soldiers that had been patrolling the area. The man with the camera, Fadi (the name he gave to this reporter), nodded, and Kadi called cut, ending the shoot for the day. “Their body language changed and they looked restless. We were losing daylight and I didn’t want to do anything that would put them in danger,” Kadi says.

That fear would not leave Kadi during the time he spent e-directing his recently released documentary Little Gandhi, filmed on the ground in Syria and Turkey, and directed largely from remote locations by Kadi. While the film itself makes for compelling viewing, the story of its hair-raising production process conveys how profoundly the pro-democracy movement has transformed. As Kadi and his crew pieced together a story about the peaceful origins of the uprising, they went head-to-head with the dangers of the ensuing armed conflict.

Little Gandhi originally came about when, several months into the Syrian Civil War, Kadi says he felt obligated to support the people’s movement in his home country. Kadi had moved to the United States in 2000 from Aleppo, where he was born and raised; with his latest film, he hoped to provide a counter-narrative to Bashar Al-Assad’s manicured version of the pro-democracy uprisings and current civil war. Assad has claimed to be fighting “terrorists,” and has blamed foreign countries and Islamist groups for the unrest.

Though documentary is not his habitual genre (Kadi has previously made several feature films), he believed it was the best to offer insight into the pacifist roots of the protests. “My intention was to highlight the plight of Syrians in their long fight for freedom, while following the journey of [Ghiyath] Matar,” Kadi says.

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Sam Kadi. (Photo: Sam K Production, Inc.)

Little Gandhi tells the story of the young Syrian peace activist Ghiyath Matar, among the most emblematic figures of the peaceful pro-democracy protests that started in early 2011, inspired in part by the Arab Spring. Matar, a twenty-something tailor, was one of the first to offer flowers and bottles of water to Syrian Army soldiers during the civil uprising phase of the war, a gesture that earned him the moniker referenced in the film’s title. In September of 2011, Matar died while in the custody of Syrian authorities, his body showing signs of torture. His death resulted in widespread outpouring of grief on social media and international press coverage; ambassadors to Syria from the U.S., France, and Germany attended his funeral. It marked the moment when the peaceful protests metamorphosed into an armed rebellion, several Darayyan activists say in the film.

(September of 2011 was certainly a time when the armed dimension of the uprising was attracting larger-scale attention — two days after Matar’s death, the New York Timesreported that the protests had “become more violent in the country’s most restive regions” and suggested this might be “the start of a protracted armed struggle.”)

Making a film in Syria, though, is a task fraught with peril. With over 100 journalists killed since the uprising began including the Sunday TimesMarie Colvin and freelance war correspondent James Foley, Syria has been called the “most dangerous place in the world for journalists” by BBC News. Artists supporting the uprising have faced serious repercussions for work the government perceives to be threatening as well: Renowned Syrian sculptor Wael Kaston died in 2012 after the Syrian government reportedly tortured him; others have been detained or fled. Filmmakers Nidal Hassan and Ali Sheikh Khudr have sought refuge in Germany; others, like Avo Kaprealian, are in Lebanon. (For many decades, state-run media, notably the Syrian Arab News Agency, have broadcast false information and propaganda, Freedom House reports.)

For Kadi, making the journey to war-torn Syria against this perilous backdrop was out of the question. So he reached out to the Local Council and activists in Darayya: Fadi, who had a digital camera, volunteered and became an on-the-ground cameraman, location scout, and line producer. His friends came on board to help him: “They wanted to get their story out into the world, and were even willing to risk their lives for it,” Kadi says of his Syrian crew.

In the summer of 2014, Kadi and cinematographer Carl Ballou left the U.S. for Turkey, where they spent several weeksinterviewing Syrian activists in exile. At the same time, the pair began to give Fadi a crash course on the basics of filmmaking over Skype, a sluggish Internet connection in Syria and frequently severed conversations notwithstanding.

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Syrian activists on the set of Little Gandhi. (Photo: Sam K Production, Inc.)

Kadi and Ballou made creative decisions about shooting locations, framing, and photography based on reconnaissance visuals transmitted by Fadi and his crew as they scoured the ravaged city. On shoot days, Kadi conducted interviews over Skype and called the shots while Ballou kept a close watch on lighting and aesthetics through his laptop while Fadi kept the camera rolling.

The weeks were long and uncertain, Kadi says, made worse by failing communication channels and poor equipment on the Syrian side. Internet came directly from satellites and electricity was generated by a crew member pedaling a bicycle. Shoots were called off when the crew sensed danger, like when firing got too close. “On some occasions, the activists wanted to go on, but I followed my gut and asked them to stop the shoot,” Kadi says.

“The biggest risk was filming during constant shelling and barrel bombing by the Syrian regime air force.”

In the film, Darayya telegraphs as a battered city that is nevertheless unwilling to capitulate to government forces, much like its homegrown activists. Although the bulk of the film occurs in and around destroyed buildings, it also captures the locals who venture out, walking the streets that cradle the debris. “The biggest risk was filming during constant shelling and barrel bombing by the Syrian regime air force. You can hear some of that in some interviews,” Fadi wrote in an email. (Fadi was among the last survivors to be recently evacuated from Darayya after a ceasefire was reached in August.)

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(Photo: Sam K Production, Inc.)

When the shoot finally ended, Kadi says he wasn’t relieved so much as he was close to despair about the results of his team’s efforts. “After all the work we had put in, I wasn’t even sure how it had turned out, whether we would be able to make the film at all,” he recollects. Moreover, a pressing question remained: How would he get the footage?

A Darayyan activist ventured with a solution, albeit a dangerous one: He would tape pen drives under his clothes and smuggle the footage to Damascus. Kadi took him up on his offer, and, from Damascus, another activist transported the drives to Lebanon, where they were transferred to a hard drive — which eventually made its way to Turkey in the hands of a third comrade. Kadi got the footage six months later.

Afterwards, Kadi, who had never visited Darayya, found himself immersed in the city’s trauma through his computer screen. Rather than feel distanced from the conflict by directing remotely, night after night, he says, he woke up in terror from visions of butchered bodies and landscapes of colossal devastation.

The film itself spares viewers images of gore and extreme brutality. That’s a crucial reminder for audiences in the West, where the movie has been getting some attention in film-festival and policy circles. Even as the Internet and social media have brought unprecedentedamounts of the conflict’s imagery to global audiences, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that “media bias in reporting remains a key challenge” for accurately informing researchers and policymakers. The Institute highlights that major Western media outlets, including the Associated Press, BBC Monitoring, and Agence France-Presse, have predominantly reported on “violent action” as opposed to political, organizational, and other forcible action in the country. Little Gandhi rewinds into the not-so-distant past to shed a light on the peaceful beginnings that preceded the horror and violence dominating news coverage today.

For Kadi, the only semblance of normalcy he found while sifting through gory, destructive images of what the uprising became was when he encountered pre-war photographs and footage. The process transformed him. “I realized how we take our children’s safety for granted when we tuck them in bed. I learned to be grateful,” he says.

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