Robert Worth, author of A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS, is the winner of the 2017 Lionel Gelber Prize, presented annually by The Lionel Gelber Foundation, in partnership with Foreign Policy magazine and the Munk School of Global Affairs.
One of the early scenes in the extraordinary documentary about the Syrian civil war, The War Show, takes place on a quiet Mediterranean beach in the summer of 2011. A young man with big, dark eyes leans down to kiss a woman who is lying on her back on the sand, laughing. We are far from the city squares where anti-regime protests are raging. But there is rebellion of another kind taking place here. Lulu, the girl in the sand, has been inspired by the protests to take off her veil for the first time. The camera cuts to her boyfriend lying in the sun, eyes closed, his body wet from the sea. He looks blissfully happy. He lazily drawls the lyrics of an old Doors song, in unsteady English:
"Morning found us calmly unaware /Noon burned gold into our hair /At night we swim the laughing sea /But when summer ends, where will we be? /Where will we be?"
With those words, we sense instantly that this young man will be one of the war's victims. There are many scenes such as this in the film, scenes that make us feel the war's tragedy before it even happens. More than anything I have read or seen, this film, directed by Andreas Dalsgaard and Obaidah Zytoon, illustrates how intimately the Syrian rebellion was tied to young people's dreams and expectations, their yearning for self-realization.
Again and again, the film shows us adolescents hurling themselves into Syria's 2011 revolt like birds into a threshing machine. I found myself wanting to grab them by the shoulders and shout: Don't you understand that you can't win? Part of the film's genius is to show that many of them did understand it, but were being carried onward by forces larger than any of us. These were young people who had lived narrow, constricted lives in a police state and, suddenly, they were offered a vision of something grand and uplifting, something many of them equated with love. Why should the risk of death set them back?
The War Show tells the story of a circle of friends from the city of Zabadani, in western Syria, who are united by their bohemian hunger for a freer life: They play banned heavy-metal songs in basements, write poetry, smoke dope. I knew many Syrians just like them during the years before 2011. Ms. Zytoon, the film's co-director, was a DJ who decided to document the protests and her daily life on film. She and her friends bond over the thrill of revolution and speak of each other as an alternative family; they adopt an abandoned dog named Fifi and treat her as their collective child.
One of the film's most striking moments comes when Hisham – the Doors fan on the beach – tells Ms. Zytoon that her desire to confront the Syrian regime is suicidal. Hisham is a poet who has no interest in politics and is only involved because he's madly in love with Lulu, a passionate protester. He gazes skeptically at Ms. Zytoon and tells her this is a confrontation she cannot win. She replies, "So I will be physically crushed." He grimaces and tells her she is being stubborn. "You don't reach for a ball in the fire. You must find a different way," he says. She keeps smiling, undaunted.
Ms. Zytoon herself seems uneasy at times. Early on, when she is still working as a DJ, she says to her listeners: "If we try to alter destiny, can we make it better, or will it become worse?" In another moment, as she films the group lounging around and smoking, someone says, "We won't be able to watch this film until 2014," when the regime will have fallen. Someone else replies: "In 2014, we'll all be dead." Everyone laughs. They may all have recognized dimly that this was a real possibility, but it doesn't register. There was still too much passion in the air, too much hope.
One of the lesser-known themes of the 2011 Arab protests is their profound link to the culture of rebellion in the West – not political but social and cultural rebellion. In Egypt as in Syria, some of the young people who kicked off the first street demonstrations had spent years marinating in the underground music scene, dabbling in the arts and networking on the Internet. The idea that youth is entitled to rebellion and innovation has become a foundation of American pop culture, woven into our advertisements, our songs, our language. Many Arab young people who joined the protests in 2011 had grown up with this tempting product dancing on their screens, and they wanted a piece of it. By the time they recognized that they were running into a buzz saw, it was too late.
Another of the film's insights is tied to its name. More than any earlier war, the Syrian conflict was captured on video as it took place, and the hunger for recognition – to have one's cause seen and acknowledged – is a constant in The War Show. So was the use and misuse of images to stir hatred and sectarian emotion. Video was also tied to the war's capture by foreign fighters and their patrons. At one point in the documentary, Ms. Zytoon films a wildly undisciplined group of rebels who spray gunfire toward the enemy, provoking regime air strikes on a civilian area. The rebels ask her to film a sequence over again, and it becomes clear they are only interested in making footage that they can show their paymasters for cash.
Ms. Zytoon also captures with amazing vividness the moments when extremists captured the rebel movement. In the town of Kafranbel, a group of men in beards march down the street carrying black flags and chanting for an Islamic caliphate. Next to them, other protesters are struggling to drown them out with calls for a civil state. The atmosphere feels tense, but even there, this documentarian's eye captures delightfully unscripted moments. One of the secular marchers, a kid who looks no older than 16, starts chanting for an Islamic state until one of his friends calls him out. "Sorry, I got confused," he says laughingly. "I just want to be filmed."
By this time, Ms. Zytoon's friends, whose giggling, youthful faces illuminate the first half of the film, are mostly dead or disappeared. Houssam, an architecture student with sleepy, sexy eyes and a Che Guevara-style mane of long hair, goes to the local police station for what is supposed to be a "two-hour interview." A week later, his parents are told to pick up his body, tortured so hideously that the features of his handsome face have been completely erased. Rabea, a clownish musician we saw swimming in the sea, playing drums, mugging for the camera, gets a bullet in the head. His sister tried unsuccessfully to put his shattered skull back together, we are told. Hisham, the lovestruck poet who never cared about protests, vanishes without a trace. It is only after the narrator and Lulu have escaped to Turkey that they find him again, this time in a gruesome archive of morgue photographs smuggled out in early 2014 by the regime defector known as Caesar.
Hisham is one of thousands of torture victims from Syria's prisons, his twisted face recognizable by a distinctive mole on the side of his nose. He is still wearing the jacket he had on when he disappeared.
It is hard to imagine a more fitting epitaph for the Syrian war than Ms. Zytoon's face gazing out at the Roman ruins of Apamea in northwestern Syria, where looters can be seen furtively hunting for relics to sell on the black market. A rainy winter sky looms overhead and mangy-looking dogs chew on the corpses of dead sheep. "There is no cure, no condolence," Ms. Zytoon's voice tells us. "Only the crime remains."