#chicagogirl – The Social Network Takes on a Dictator: IDFA Review

#chicagoGirl -- The Social Network - H - 2013
Fascinating material, shame about the cheesy production values.

This absorbing documentary shows how a Damascus-born, Chicago-based teen plays a major role in organizing resistance in Syria with a laptop in her bedroom

Much has been said already about how new technologies are helping revolutionaries around the world to organize and resist oppressive regimes. What’s relatively fresh and interesting about the documentary #chicagogirl – The Social Network Takes on a Dictator is its emphasis on the logistics, and its remarkable protagonist. She is Ala’a Basatneh, a solemn-faced 19-year-old college freshman living in the suburbs of Chicago, who works tirelessly as a coordinator between protestors on the ground in Syria and social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, from there channeling footage to major news outlets. Joe Piscatella’s directorial debut offers a stirring story of ordinary heroism, unfortunately flawed by slightly tacky TV production values. Still, the material is compelling enough to ensure life beyond the festival circuit after sparking considerable interest on its debut at IDFA.

Throughout attention shifts back and forth between Ala’a in the Midwest, her friends on the ground in Syria, and talking-head experts, such as journalists Kurt Andersen and Clay Shirky, academic Zeynep Tufekci, or software entrepreneur David Gorodyansky. The last expert's privacy-protection product Hotspot Shield is used by protestors on the ground and gets a little plug in the film, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that Gorodyansky is also one of the film’s executive producers. Nevertheless, there’s a strong sense that good intentions guide the filmmakers’ hands as the film sketches out a quick history of the Arab Spring and the dynastic nature of Syrian leadership that could be understood by a bright sixth-grader.

Ala’a herself represents a charismatic, telegenic presence throughout. A doe-eyed kid who wears a tight, hair-concealing headscarf and Converse sneakers, she explains that she used to be an ordinary teenager not so long ago. Now she doesn’t have time to do things like go to the mall because, in her own words, she’s too busy running a revolution. Instead, she spends her time informing protestors of what’s going in order to build stronger demonstrations, collating footage sent from the hot spots, blurring images to protect people’s identities before uploading them, and shutting down Facebook accounts whenever friends are arrested in order protect the network of resistors.

Through her, we meet some of her contacts in Syria who are committed to exposing the brutality of dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime. For example, Mazhar “Omar” Tayara, one of Ala’a’s best friends, joined the protests early on and eventually became a liaison between European and American journalists covering the conflict, as well as a “citizen journalist” himself who filmed clashes and atrocities. He is killed. Likewise, Bassell Shahade was a post-grad film student at Syracuse University became another citizen journalist, one of the best-known beyond Syria. He is killed. Medical-student Aous al Mubarak worked closely with Bassell as an organizer. He decided to exchange his camera for an AK-47 and join the Free Syrian Army, and is currently still alive -- so far.

Piscatella splices in harrowing footage shot by Bassell and others on the ground, showing young men -- and one woman -- scurrying between shelters in cities under missile bombardment as they juggle laptops and cameras in an effort to capture evidence of the regime attacking unarmed civilians. It’s powerful enough material as it is, so it’s a shame the filmmakers nearly spoil its starkness with a hamfisted score of ominous synthesizer growls, deployed throughout to amp up the drama and cue emotions. Similarly, editing and use of visual effects like a growing “mosaic” of digital screens didactically spells out every point and idea in a way that cheapens the material and makes it feel low-budget TV fodder than something that could stand up to theatrical exposure.

Venue: IDFA Film Festival (First Appearance)

Production: Revolutio

Cast: Ala’a Basatneh, Aous al Mubarak, Bassell Shahade, Zeynep Tufekci, Kurt Andersen, Maher Basatneh, Mazhar “Omar” Tayara, Clay Shirky

Director: Joe Piscatella

Screenwriter: Joe Piscatella

Producers: Joe Piscatella, Mark Rinehart

Executive producers: Bert Roberts, David Gorodyansky

Co-producers: Aaron Wahle

Directors of photography: Bassell Shahade, Robert Hauer

Editor: Matthew Sultan

Music: Huma-Huma

World sales: Preferred Content

No rating, 71 minutes