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A hidden eye on the Syrian conflict

Wael Salahudeen is among the artists who have risked arrest to secretly turn their lenses on the fight.

October 29, 2012|By Los Angeles Times staff
  • A mosque minaret still stands amid rubble from damaged buildings after an aircraft strike hit the mosque one week ago in the Tarik al-Bab neighborhood, southeast of Aleppo, Syria.
A mosque minaret still stands amid rubble from damaged buildings after… (Narciso Contreras / Associated…)

DAMASCUS, Syria — In retrospect, he realizes he shouldn't have gone back to the restaurant.

But Wael Salahudeen had spent more than a month secretly filming around the Syrian capital, and he wasn't willing to let some of that footage go.

He had just completed a particularly difficult shot of a several-story-tall poster of President Bashar Assad when he met a friend at the nearby restaurant. But when they left, he forgot the black bag he had altered with a hole through which he could inconspicuously film the streets of Damascus.

"Like a crazy person, I ran back to the restaurant," he said.

He asked one of the waiters behind the counter about the bag. The waiter gave Salahudeen an odd look, and he feared the man was one of the many government informants in the capital.

"I said, that's it, I'm done," he recalled.

The waiter continued staring at Salahudeen for what felt like several seconds before he reached down and handed over the bag.

"He said, 'Be careful,'" Salahudeen said. "And he lifted the bag and pointed to the hole and repeated, 'Be careful.'"

It was the closest call Salahudeen, 25, who uses a pseudonym for security reasons, encountered while filming his documentary, "Damascus on the Edge of Light." But the entire two months he filmed was fraught with danger, as he joined other artists living under the authoritarian regime who have turned their lenses on the revolution.

"The revolution as a whole opened the door in front of a generation of artists to show the reality," said Salahudeen, a graduate student who also works as a photographer. "We are asking, where were these people before? There were talents that were buried and unseen.

"And in the end this is one of the main goals of the revolution, freedom of expression," he said.

Other filmmakers have been caught in the cross-fire.

In September, Tamer Awam, a Syrian documentary filmmaker living in Germany, died of shrapnel wounds while filming in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Aleppo, in northern Syria. Awam had previously released a 24-minute work, "Memories at a Checkpoint," which showed life in Idlib province during the conflict.

In May, another documentarian, Bassel Shahade, was killed in Homs. He had been studying in the U.S. but interrupted his schooling to return to film the rebellion.

A well-known producer, Orwa Nairabiya, was arrested in August at the Damascus airport and spent 22 days in jail.

The capital remains under the control of the Assad government and is littered with checkpoints and government informants. Even filming with a camera phone can lead to arrest.

So Salahudeen fashioned a box to hold his rented Sony Handycam and cut a hole in the side of the bag, a type that might be used by a merchant to carry money.

He spent a week practicing how to film without being able to look through the lens, figuring out the proper angles and positions he needed to capture certain shots.

The film explores how the capital remained relatively untouched by the uprising even as activists continued to organize fleeting protests and government shelling of the suburbs drew ever closer.

"It was very important for me to do something as a documentary film but also as an artist," he said. Sounding very much the artist, he added, "It's not a film about the revolution in the end; it's a film about the secrets of a city."

Salahudeen had the unfortunate timing of finishing the film about when the clashes and shelling began in Damascus, eclipsing the peaceful protests he had focused on. When he tried to sell the movie to several of the large pan-Arab news channels, they said it was no longer relevant.

He said he had spoken to the pro-opposition channel Orient TV and it planned to buy the film, but the deal wasn't yet final.

If that falls through, he said, he will just upload it onto YouTube, saying, "It's really important to show it."

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