The Syrian cinema collective Abou Naddara is a project born in Damascus in 2010. It is the fruit of a common desire to give people a voice and to paint a portrait of Syrian society. Every week, Abou Naddara commits to producing at least one film in order to show it on Friday, despite the increased government suspicion of Friday gatherings. The style, while eloquent, remains succinct and anonymous, in the style of the documentary shorts of May 1968 in France and of the French Nouvelle Vague, or New Wave cinema. The films are made in the utmost secrecy and their makers risk everything.
Abou Naddara sets itself the task of finding simple cinematic languages conveying messages which go beyond the voyeuristic nature of media and some documentaries. In order to speak for and in the name of the people, the stories are told with a distance, using poetic imagery and metaphors, far from the morbid and violent eye-witness videos which proliferate online.
The name “Abou Naddara” is Arabic for “the father of glasses” or “the man in glasses”. It can refer to an optician or, in this case, according to their website, the man with the camera (glasses = lens), after Dziga Vertov’s film manifesto of the same name. This futuristic Soviet musical documentary from 1929 is a portrait of the grand symphony of the joyous masses at work and the march of progress.
Here, a mysterious man with a camera, who represents multiple people, has us travel, maxim by maxim, parading through diverse lives and jobs across the screen. He does not speak in the name of a collective community, as grand ideologies did, but shows individual destinies and what they share.
“The most important spiritual effort (jihad) is that of remaining human in the face of life and age”, as Abou Naddara’s film The Old Man and Jihad teaches us. In the movie, a man in his eighties makes a digitally enhanced and printed photo of himself. Outside, a fountain in the patio like that of an old Arab house sheltered by a vine which matures with time. This reverence for human courage in the face of the ravages of time is echoed in Believers Without Borders.
This film focuses on maintenance workers at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. These men are the first to rise with the birds before dawn to clean the courtyard or vacuum the prayer galleries. They are also the last to be noticed. In contrast to those who come to the mosque to read or pray − recumbent, seated, meditative − the busy sweepers offer a humbler and more private form of piety; that of constant work and attendance to action.
A similar message is conveyed in The Extra’s Starlette, which follows the life of a dresser on a Syrian film set. The film shows her Spartan punctuality – the disturbance of which creates evident discomfort at the start of the film – her relentless work, the atmosphere on the set with all the extras to dress, and the changes in technology from the last century to this one. We get to see her exhausted at night, humming on songs to keep herself going. “There are two types of stars,” we are told, “those who shine for themselves and those who search for their light in other people’s eyes”.
The Carpenter and the Inferno is about a cabinet maker who shares his ideas about the meaning of life and the afterlife, asserting cynically that there cannot be Hell after death because Hell is already part of our daily lives. Nevertheless, watching the cabinet maker at work – making wooden mosaic coffins or backgammon sets – it appears that he enjoys it, as shown in close ups of his face as he performs each task with care. The commentary at this point tells us “As Joseph the carpenter has said: the way to the afterlife is through the woods.” Conversely, “Hell”, the carpenter tells us, “is to die alone, without descendants, without dignity, and for nothing.”
Among the films that are currently available on the website, (we await the others impatiently) the one that is most striking in its simplicity – a little like that of the cleaners in the mosque, albeit more ambiguous – is The Smiters for Damascus, which plays on the intricate relationship between Damascening and the local people.
Translated from French by India Stoughton.