'Still Recording': Film Review

Tough viewing, but required.

Saeed Al Batal and Ghiath Ayoub’s insider view of Syria’s civil uprising and its aftermath has been garnering international attention since winning Venice’s International Critics Week.

An on-the-ground view of one of the great global tragedies of our time, Still Recording is on several levels a powerful rebuke to our culture. Even as thousands of people are watching Ralph break the internet, Bashar al-Assad continues to break his country. But too few people get to see it happening, with exposure for this inevitably wrenching documentary so far limited to screenings at marginal fests such as Chile’s Valdivia, where it won best documentary honors, and Lanzarote’s Muestra de Cine.

Two hours of raw footage distilled from 450 that Saeed Al Batal, Ghiath Ayoub and six other videographers shot between 2011 and 2015, Still Recording was smuggled out of Syria on hard drives. It is bleak indeed, but required viewing as a savage critique of man’s inhumanity, a testimony of horror but also an homage to the filmmakers who have chosen to witness it on our behalf.

The doc gains in urgency and impact from full-screen viewing, effectively telling the tale of the Syrian War through scenes recorded using their hand-held cameras before being uploaded to the internet — a process that the film documents. Al Batal, a film teacher at the Douma Media Office, is first seen incongruously showing his students an Underworld film, praising its mise en scene, reflecting that its budget would have paid for 15 hospitals and 16 schools in Syria and stating that "the image is the last line of defense against time," a phrase that could stand as his film’s motto.

Early sequences show the awful night-time aftermath of the execution of all the occupants of a building in Douma by Assad’s gangs. We then move to the liberation of the Douma police station by the insurgents and their capture of Assad followers, who are marched off to a presumably bloody fate. The camera also records the infighting between different insurgent factions, with lack of competent leadership cited as one reason for the rebels’ problems.

Largely shot in Douma, a city cut off and under siege (where cattle feed is being used to make a form of bread), the film is inevitably a record of unimaginable horror. A man plucks his dead child from rubble of which the cityscapes of Syria seem to be entirely composed and quietly weeps; a girl sits silently, tears streaming down her face, as she watches a TV report about the sarin gas attack on Eastern Gouta of August 2013 that killed at least 1,500.

Shot from the insurgents’ point of view, Still Recording makes no claim to objectivity. One interviewee explains that though they are widely believed to be just gangs of armed men, they are people, too. (The same of course could be said about Assad’s soldiers.) But nor is the alternative view absent. One sequence features a lengthy, intriguing phone call between an insurgent and a Bashar supporter, two men who appear to exist in different realities. There are moments of wry humor to be found throughout.

The doc’s greatest strength is in its tearing away of the media-sanctioned representations of the war to an intimate view of the individuals behind it, and the effects on their psychology. A sniper, interviewed in position, states that before killing someone, he always reflects that the person he is killing is a human being. When asked whether guns are an addiction, he explains that “you don’t pick up a gun unless you have to.” One man does exercises in the street in the ruins of his city, believing that his daily routines must continue despite everything. But like several of the people we see, he is clearly traumatized.

The central event, one that marks a "before" and "after" in the minds of the insurgents, is the chemical attack. Until then, the insurgents have been positive, with their shouts of “God is greater than you, Bashar.” After the attack, an air of disillusionment starts to creep in. “Not even the grass survived,” one man points out. “The goats died, the doves died.” This telling little symbolic phrase reveals that there is more artistry behind the editing of the film than might at first be apparent, that it’s more than simply a regurgitated documentary record of horror.

Still Recording offers very little to help the viewer in the way of context, presumably because that would mean packaging its rawness too neatly. This is all showing, no description: There is no voiceover, and much of it passes in a kind of awful blur, with just a handful of through-characters to hold on to. The upside of this approach is that the viewer’s confusion and uncertainty replicates, if only to a small degree, some of the chaos and danger as it is experienced by the participants and victims.

The lives of the guys carrying the cameras are at risk throughout, and it’s only a matter of time, you feel, before someone is shot live on camera, that the two meanings of "shoot" fuse horribly. Inevitably, in the doc’s final scene, two guys are walking along chatting, and one of them, Abu Kinan, is picked off. (The sniper who pulled the trigger may indeed have reflected, before firing, that Abu Kinan is a human being — but he still pulled the trigger.) The camera is dropped, but per the film’s title, it continues to record, part of a movie about Syria that will probably never be seen in that country.

Still Recording is dedicated to all who wielded a camera in the face of struggle. And the list of “those who lost their lives in the making of this film” is very long indeed.

Production companies: Bidayyat for Audiovisual Arts, ROUSL Group, Films de Force Majeure, Blinker Filmproduktion
Directors: Saeed Al Batal, Ghiath Ayoub
Producers: Mohammad Ali Atassi, Jeam-Laurent Csinidis, Meike Martens
Directors of photography: Saeed Al Batal, Ghiath Ayoub
Editors: Raya Yamisha, Qutaiba Barhamji
Sales: Films de Force Majeure
Venue: Muestra de Cine de Lanzarote

116 minutes