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JIHLAVA 2018 A Testimony on Politics

Review: Still Recording

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- Saeed Al Batal and Ghiath Ayoub use the Syrian Civil War to show the importance of making films as documentary evidence

Review: Still Recording

A midnight-blue sky sits atop the horizontal orange haze of a sun rising and the silhouette of a mountain on the horizon. A few lights are on in the foreground, and what looks like smoke from a fire is being puffed into the air. The frame looks like a painting. It is Eastern Ghouta, on the morning of 21 August 2013, and this image is about to show us sheer horror. As daylight arrives, it reveals a city of buildings with no life. By the midpoint of the film, we are used to seeing the carcasses of buildings and are almost immune to that horror. But the camera then switches to a close-up on the shell of a missile dropped from the sky that morning. Everything is dead around it: at least 1,500 people, the goats and even the grass. Chemicals have been used in the largest massacre of the Syrian Civil War up to that point. Saeed is so distraught that he cannot pick up his camera for 24 hours and writes to his friend to ask, “Why?” Saeed is one of eight videographers whose 450 hours of footage were edited down to create Still Recording, a documentary account of the work of documentarians operating during the Syrian Civil War. Filmed between 2011 and 2015, the movie by Saeed Al Batal and Ghiath Ayoub won the Audience Award and the FIPRESCI Award in the 33rd Venice International Film Critics’ Week.

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The importance and methods of keeping a record of events is the lesson being taught at the City of Douma Coordinating Committee media office, where Saeed is telling his students his favourite quote: “The image is the last line of defence against time.” Rather amusingly, he has just been seen waxing lyrical about the Hollywood machine, which finances films with the same amount of money that could be used to build 15 hospitals and 16 schools. It’s amusing because he is praising the artistic value of Underworld, starring Kate Beckinsale, by showing the use of empty space, wide-angle images and monsters. The film has never seemed more important.

What follows is a real-life horror, images captured of a civil war in which many of those who wielded a camera have died. Fourteen dead documentarians are named in the end credits of Still Recording. The film is an ode to the work of these photographers as much as it is a document on what is happening. Often, it’s hard to know what’s happening, as one day of destruction looks much like any other. Consequently, it’s not the war that creates the most powerful moments, but rather when we see people’s everyday resilience, such as men using cattle feed to make “bread”. 

Still Recording is a Syrian-Lebanese-Qatari-French-German co-production, staged by Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts and Rousl Group, in co-production with Films de Force Majeure and Blinker Filmproduktion.

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