An uncomfortably intimate close-up of a young man’s face opens one of the most recent “bullet films” by Syrian film collective Abounaddara entitled “Don’t Forget the Plums.” The penetrating eyes of the unnamed speaker confront the viewer as he gives cautionary advice about how to deal with the media: “When you’re live on air, the presenter will ask you questions about what interests her…don’t let yourself get dragged in.”
The camera remains fixed upon his face with the only partially visible backdrop an off-white wall. As the unnamed speaker continues, his voice becomes more energetic and his face more urgently expressive. “What about the fighting between the Free Syrian Army and the “Islamic State”? What is the regime doing? Is the regime doing this or that?” he asks, mimicking and mocking a journalist’s predictable questions. “But we don’t give a shit,” he declares, looking straight into the camera and straight at the viewer. “There are people on the ground dying.”
The screen then cuts to black and the film’s cryptic title flashes across the screen. He begins telling another story about being in the aftermath of a car bomb explosion. This is his narrative, not the one a television journalist might have “dragged” him into telling. “I was picking up the remains, the remains of children, the remnants of a little girl’s dress, her hair,” he explains. “A very poignant scene grabbed my attention in the middle of everything.” He witnessed a child finding plums in a bloodied pool, washing them off with muddy water, and eating them. His own jarring question acts as the film’s disruptive and ambiguous conclusion: “But where are we heading?”
Like other of Abounaddara’s 276 films so far, “Don’t Forget the Plums” is under four minutes in length, and a personal narrative told by an unnamed speaker. They are what the all-volunteer anonymous collective of self-taught filmmakers call “bullet films” of one to four minutes in length. “For us,” they explained in a 2014 interview, “films should burst out like bullets to break the silence. They should tell the Syrian story with great narrative intensity and to make the viewer look at reality differently.”
Founded in Damascus in 2010, Abounaddara has posted a new short on Vimeo and distributed it via social media every Friday since April 2011, the early days of the Syrian popular uprising. As noted on the collective’s website, the group’s name (“the man with glasses”) follows the Arabic custom of nicknaming people according to their professions.
Working with limited equipment, no regular funding and often under very dangerous conditions, Abounaddara has termed its work “emergency cinema”. The term recalls one of the group’s vital influences, Walter Benjamin, who envisioned artistic collectives as necessary and potentially effective responses to political violence. “The idea is…a cinematographic form adapted to the situation that we are living today in Syria,” Abounaddara spokesperson and co-founder Cherif Kiwan explained in a 2014 talk at the American University of Beirut. “We’re in a confrontation between society and the state,” he said. “The representation of society is unjust. Unjust because the regime doesn’t recognize society, and the media in general don’t represent society in an accurate and fair way.” Abounaddara’s media critique is realized through their “emergency” form, produced during the sustained period of emergency that is the Syrian conflict. Yet the emergency they represent through this form extends to the broader concept of emergency as the very condition of history, as Benjamin argues in his Theses on the Philosophy of History. Written only months after his release from a French internment camp and assembled months before his suicide in 1940, Benjamin urged a concept of history that would reflect the perpetual state of emergency that oppressed people know to be the rule rather than the exception. “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule,” he wrote. “We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight.”
For Benjamin, it is a foolish type of historiography, represented by 19th century historian Leopold von Ranke, that seeks to discover “the way it really was” by narrating events in a ritualized and linear-circular manner, “like the beads of a rosary” (Thesis A). The historian who counts beads one by one needs to be instead disrupted, interrupted. He (he) must be “man enough to blast open the continuum of history” (Thesis XVI). The rosary must be unraveled. And not only does Ranke’s historicism believe in a history that can be ascertained and explained but also a history that is complacent, part of a narrative of continual progress. For Benjamin, by contrast, historical materialist reflection embodies a dynamic urgency that does not exist for the historicist. Abounaddara similarly seeks to blast open a national and international media narrative that undervalues individual experience and discounts the potentially potent and poignant activities of daily life in Syria such as those portrayed in “The Smiters for Damascus” and “I Will Dance Tomorrow.”
“…The past historically does not mean to recognize it ‘the way it really was’ (Ranke),” wrote Benjamin. “It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” Abounaddara explicitly envisages their counter narratives as capturing such lightening flashes of danger in the present, what Benjamin called dialectical images. “[Our] position is fundamentally anti-antiauthoritarian and iconoclastic,” Kiwan explained. “We have always treated the “heroes” of the revolution with suspicion, as in Warning (00:38). We have made several films, denouncing the glorification of victims, such as Two Minutes for Syria (01:26). The power of images I’m talking about has nothing to do with any attempt at domination..it has to do with defending the power to represent the world without freezing it in its current temporality. In other words, it is about ensuring that images remain dialectical and lightning, in the words of Walter Benjamin, to avoid any form of propaganda or idolatry.”
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1936) Benjamin described the Dadaists’ work as hitting “the spectator like a bullet…acquiring a tactile quality.” Film possesses a rousing potentiality that is both physiological as well as psychological. For Benjamin, the film cut embodied this perceptual touch that could create a ballistic awakening for the viewer. It could both “destroy illusion” and “paralyze the audience’s readiness for empathy.” The cut was a rupture powerful enough to disturb in a sensory environment of modernity, for Benjamin represented by the poetry of Baudelaire, where “the shock experience has become the norm.” In Abounaddara’s “bullet films” what jolts the viewer is sometimes the ironic distance between a film’s poetic title and its decidedly unsentimental content (“Don’t Forget the Plums”); at other times, it is felt in the narrative shift, often abrupt and often at the film’s very end (as in “Over the Toys”).
“Living means leaving traces,” wrote Benjamin. For him, the photograph was the most potent reminder of an object that survives both its creator and its subject, always a memento mori. This takes on renewed meaning in the context of Abounaddara’s “emergency cinema,” created by and about individuals living the type of perilous experience that characterized much of Benjamin’s own life. When the unnamed speaker in “Don’t Forget the Plums” asks, “But Where Are We Heading?” one might imagine in the context of the ongoing Syrian war that the response could be Benjamin’s well worn statement: “That things just go on, this is the catastrophe.”
And yet Abounaddara’s “bullet films” are a new type of what Benjamin called “an artisan form of communication,” distinct from mere reporting and concerned with storytelling as restorative craft, as an art that conveys the experience of living and of leaving traces. “It does not aim to convey the pure essence of the thing, like information or a report. It sinks the thing into the life of the storyteller, in order to bring him out again,” he wrote, emphasizing how storyteller and story persist long after the story has been told and the storyteller is gone. “Thus traces of the storyteller cling to the story the way the handprints of the potter cling to the clay vessel.”