§archivio è potere
Impossible Archive.Of 1001 Syrians (Un)building their Counter Narrative
by Margherita Foresti

«Like you, I too have struggled with all my might not to forget. Like you, I forgot».
Alain Resnais, Hiroshima Mon Amour,1959

The film begins with the blip signal of an incoming Facebook message. A stream of water flows from a tap. Silvered Water. Syria’s Self-Portrait. Silver, as the color of that stream of water, whose sound echoes long after the image has disappeared and turned into a pitch-black screen. Following that is a video of a newborn being washed and deprived of its umbilical cord. It is an image that recurs more than once within the film.
Next, over a black screen a text appears, written in both Arabic and French, which reads: “It is a movie of a thousand and one images taken by a thousand and one Syrian men and women. And me” [1]. Me is Syrian filmmaker Ossama Mohammed. A Thousand and One Syrians is, of course, a hyperbolic locution, one that refers to a phenomenon probably without precedent in history. As a result of the media blackout put in place by the regime of Bashar al-Assad to prevent foreign journalists from covering the sparking of the Arab Spring in 2011 in his country, Syrian civilians took up that task. Their intention was to record the image of the revolution and to denounce its brutal repression by the government. Syrians employed the only means they had: mobile phone cameras. Referred to as ‘weapons’, these little devices sometimes worked as shields, protecting their owners from being shot dead by a soldier, proving the power images have achieved in this conflict, as attainable proofs of real events. Among other things, this film’s analysis reveals that Syria’s is a war on images, fought by means of contesting images. Contesting versions of reality.

“Homs”, by Wiam Simav Bedirxan (film still). Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan ©, “Silvered Water. Syria’s Self-Portrait.” Photo courtesy of the artists

I would like to begin, before looking at the picture itself, with a pre-war memory. It is 31st January 2011. On this day, Bashar al-Assad, sitting on a leather sofa in his house, was giving an interview to the Wall Street Journal. This was just a year after the Arab Spring had started, when the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in an act of both protest and despair. On the eve of 2011, the uprising had reached the Saudi peninsula and Iraq. Yet Bashar al-Assad spoke with confidence to the journalist that the Arab Spring would not hit Syria, because despite its shortcomings, «Syria is stable» (Phillips, 2018: 40) [2]. Too much self-confidence is usually earthed in deception. A few months later a war through images, indeed a war on images began. On one side, the fixed image shot by the regime portrayed the stability of an unquestioned rule; on the other, the shaken, blurred, pixelated, and low-resolution image shot by Syrian civilians revealed a state of emergency and crisis. They were surely two different narratives negotiating “truth” before History.

Cinéma réaliste
On a black background it reads: “After school, this boy wrote on a wall: “The people want the fall of the regime”. He was arrested. They tore out his nails. This happened in Deraa […], then, it was cinema”. With a few lines, Ossama Mohammed establishes the chronological point of departure of his moving picture. In the early days of March 2011, a group of children aged between nine and fifteen wrote slogans against the regime on their school’s walls in Deraa. They had probably heard them on the TV news reporting about the ongoing protests in other Arab countries (McHugo, 2017: 221). The children were arrested and brought to Damascus for interrogation, where they were tortured and eventually killed. When, on 15 March, they had not yet returned to their respective families, a massive protest was sparked in Deraa, one resembling those already taking place in other Arab cities. Four civilians were shot dead during this demonstration. That is how the Syrian revolution set off.

“The boy of Deraa”, by anonymous (film still). Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan ©, “Silvered Water. Syria’s Self-Portrait.” Photo courtesy of the artists

Against the dark screen, the voice of a Syrian man is caught saying: “I don’t know how to film. It’s the first time”.  For the first time, indeed, Syrians were taking responsibility for their own image, in other words for the writing of their own present history. Their images low-res, grainy, and shaky were taken from quite an unusual perspective within cinema’s history, namely in the midst of representation, rather than from its outside. The camera follows the flow of demonstration marches, yet it gets lost in vision, by following the actual point of view of the video-maker, who turns around, or raises his gaze towards a blue sky. Later, the camera/Syrian eye [3] spots the dead body of a loved one lying on the street. The camera closes in on a stream of blood, but the subject of representation is incomplete. All one can truly see is her scream. The voiceover of the narrator says: “The Syrians walked the strangest marathon in history.”
A Thousand and One Syrians, the name given by Ossama Mohammed, refers to what Donatella Della Ratta has called the almost “compulsive practice of video recording” by Syrian civilians. A practice becomes daily life to claim ownership of their narrative, to «regain agency through the self-documentation of the events they participated in, even when they took a violent, dangerous form» (Della Ratta, 2018: 2). The videos of a thousand and one Syrians have been uploaded onto the internet, in platforms such as YouTube or Facebook. These are the non-places where the images have taken on a new, posthumous life. An onlife, to use an expression coined by Della Ratta. The internet is paradoxically a locus of (in)visibility, granting afterlife and disappearance at one and the same time. It enables multifaceted posthumous lives to come into being through manipulation, re-production, cut-and-pastes, all notions proper to the digital vocabulary. Moreover, it is an uncertain onlife, deemed to be turned off, ruled out at any time, by the unpredictable laws of the web.
The voiceover-narrator speaks again: “This morning … someone took my camera and then it was cinema. I followed it to get it back. I realized that I was directing him: don’t move the camera. Still frame. A still frame is beautiful. The new filmmaker is dead. At night, as I was falling asleep, I heard his voice: Why don’t you, yes you, make a film? Come on, make a film!”.
And so he did. Ossama Mohammed, from his Paris exile, began making a film, virtually or posthumously directing the cameras of a thousand and one Syrians within one moving picture. His personal story intertwines with that of Syria, as when his troubled images leave the screen to let in silent visions of Paris covered with rain.

“Window, Paris” (film still) Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan ©, “Silvered Water. Syria’s Self-Portrait.” Photo courtesy of the artists

Cinéma des tueurs, cinéma des victimes
A Thousand and One Syrians stands for the author’s defiance of univocal points of view. The sources of this film were the countless anonymous videos available on platforms like YouTube. Ossama Mohammed’s work recalls that of the director of film-essays, a genre developed in Europe between the wars as a result of the drive to collect visual documents otherwise lost in endless staples of archival documents. Compared to physical, materially existing ones, YouTube is a kind of dangerous archive, with no clear classifying principle, yet ready to give us what we are looking for, if only rightly prompted. Its freedom of access also means a lack of filtering. It is no less political than any other institution, and as such it can exercise its power through censorship.
Silvered Water is a compilation-film of found videos, of footage shot by Ossama Mohammed himself and his co-author, Homs-based activist Wiam Simav Bedirxan. To a certain extent, the film is an epistolary exchange between the two authors, Ossama and Simav, taking place over the flow of shots, cut-and-pasted through an act of rapid montage. In fact, time unfolds by means of montage in the film, in a way that brings to mind Gilles Deleuze’s definition of the cinema of “movement-image”, a concept referring to a picture in which movement, spatial and temporal, is added through montage (Deleuze, 1997). The same montage of which André Bazin was so critical, yet he had to rethink his position as the first film-essays emerged, which he celebrated as citationless assemblages, as an authorless, cameraless, collaborative film-mode he raised to “pure cinema” because of its proximity to avantgarde experimentations [4]. He even went so far as to address the genre as a new type of history, one without an author, therefore undergoing no intentionality (Paula Amad, 2015: 99).
In the case of Silvered Water, as Ossama Mohammed said, «the anonymous saved the story and History» [5].
A thousand and one is a figure of speech, an uneven number conjuring the uneven nature of a narration composed of different viewpoints. Cinema of the victims, yet also cinema of the killers. Not only the unstable shot of the protester amidst a demonstration, but also the fixed shot by an army official of the adolescents of Deraa, hit and humiliated in front of the camera.
One long scene contains the interview/testimony of a deserter from the Arab Syrian Army. He introduces himself, wearing his uniform and showing his military ID. Walid al-Qahami names the base and section where he served. Then, he tells his war story. He and his companions had been called by their commander to fight a terrorist group that was attacking civilians in Damas. When they reached the spot, they did not find any terrorist group, but just a peaceful demonstration of civilians being shot at by intelligence officers. He and five fellow soldiers refused to open fire and started running in the same direction as the protesters, even throwing them their weapons. Al-Qahami closes his speech with a call to all Syrian soldiers to refuse to attack civilians. This footage is unique within the film. Not just for the singularity of its narrative perspective – the account of a deserter– but because of its officiality, which has the effect of turning it into a somewhat more lawful document. It is perhaps paralleled only by the sequence of close-up portrait photographs of the heads of dead men, which reminds one of the documents of criminal investigations.

“Deraa” by anonymous (film still). Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan ©, “Silvered Water. Syria’s Self-Portrait.” Photo courtesy of the artists

Douma mon amour
Ossama Mohammed recounts, in voiceover, the story of the time he met a man at the movie club. His name was Fouad Ballé. It was showing Hiroshima mon amour by Alain Resnais (1959). The man came from Douma and told Ossama he would like to start a movie club there. This apparently irrelevant story drags a classic of documentary film history into the narration. By quoting Hiroshima mon amour the filmmaker subtly reveals his method of research. Resnais’ picture, in fact, begins as a film-essay, projecting images about the sites of remembrance of the atomic bombing built in Hiroshima. Resnais assembled his visual material through rapid jump-cuts, the same rushed montage of Silvered Water. Resnais’ montage is overlaid by the poetic dialogue between two lovers, questioning the importance of remembrance and the irreversibility of forgetfulness. Like Silvered Water, Resnais’ film started from an impulse to document memories of the war. Yet both reached beyond the mere objective of documentation, acknowledging instead the impossibility of accessing a history made of so-called “objective” facts. In both films, the use of voiceover, somewhat omnipresent narrators, gives the images an intellectual texture. In a way, the genre of film-essay is a claim on the part of the author to be more than just the witness to facts, but rather to be part of them by projecting his own individuality onto the images. Not a documentary then, but a “documented point of view” (Vigo [1933] in Lherminier 1985:67, in Stob 2012: 40).
This strategy echoes what film-essayist Chris Marker coined “horizontal montage”, to describe a montage aiming at a fruition from the ear to the eye: from what is heard to what is seen [6]. In horizontal montage, hence in film-essay, the idea comes ahead of the picture. Or perhaps together. Film-essay is a bilingual product, made of images and speech equally. Yet they are not each other’s translation. They do not transmit one and the same message. That is the point of disjunction between a documentary and a film-essay: the latter’s ontology resides in its voicing a subjective point of view. It is the precondition that allows poetry to come in, and the logical, cause-and-effect narration of conventional history to depart from the picture.

“Homs” by anonymous (film still). Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan ©, “Silvered Water. Syria’s Self-Portrait.” Photo courtesy of the artists

Cinéma poétique
Only a cinema that, as Jennifer Stob defines the film-essay genre, acts as «connective tissue for word and image» (Stob, 2012: 44) can express itself through figures of speech. In Silvered Water a repetition occurs at different times: the image of a newborn, whose umbilical cord is being cut, and the body washed. Interestingly, Jesse Thompson interprets it as a metaphor of the endlessness of suffering, echoed in the non-stop flow of war images (Thompson, 2015: 97). Beyond being just the assessment of a somewhat generic moral of history, as in “history repeats itself”, the image of the newborn speaks about cinema and about the mechanism at work in this specific film. On the one hand, there is the cyclical return of life, the birth, mirrored in the reiteration of its image. This same repetition is what cinema essentially is about, a re-production of a live image. More than that, it is the reiteration taking place outside of this film, on the internet, where these same images stem from, played, paused and rewound to be, possibly, re-presented in new contexts. On a second look, the newborn is being washed over and over; each time its image appears, it is before a new sequence of images of the war. This washing and re-washing of the infant’s body brings to mind a metaphor used by Bazin to describe the effect of daily newsreels and on-screen projected images from the present as a sort of “history-in-the-making”. Bazin writes, «as soon as it forms, History’s skin peels off again» (Bazin, 1947 in Amad, 2015:91). We might substitute “History” with “Time”, since to call each documented present already a history presupposes no intermediate step between the collection of the document/trace and their individually or class-originated interpretations.
Going back to Silvered Water, the recurrence of the birth of the child is simply a reminder that at the heart of cinema is time. Cinema, the image, repeats time. The skin (in French: la peau) is the surface of film (pellicule), the skin of the newborn, Syria, being washed over and over, with the only available water, a silvered, opaque water, that is with a time not that pristine as the present we live in.
Poetry encourages speculation. Besides, there can be poetry also in times of war. For one, in the image of a funerary procession at night, in the rituals of remembrance on which communities build their sense of belonging and certify their existence. An impactful sequence in the film shows filmed records of dead bodies left in the streets of Syrian cities. Shot by snipers, their bodies are left there as intimidatory signs or maybe as signs of disregard for the life of the Other. In these videos we see friends and/or family of the deceased trying to retrieve their bodies with the few means available. Hiding inside buildings, those alive throw ropes or steel-wires used as hooks in the hope of catching the bodies. When they succeed, we see the dead being dragged over the asphalted streets until they reach their saviors. In one case, a man runs out to get a body himself, risking his life to honor death. What is at stake in these records is the assessment of an existence. Of the individual, yes, but before that of the group. Rituals, like that of washing a newborn or burying the dead, in their most basic form are repetitions – they have the assertive function of authenticating an existence.

“Deraa” by anonymous (film still). Ossama Mohammed and Wiam Simav Bedirxan ©, “Silvered Water. Syria’s Self-Portrait.” Photo courtesy of the artists

Cinéma pour l’Histoire
A second character takes hold of the voiceover to begin her conversation with Ossama Mohammed. It is Simav, the co-author of the film. Her Kurdish name means “silver water”. She embarked on a mission to get a camera, a 500 km journey to Homs, with a camera hidden in her clothes: “I am looking for the meaning in the image that sought refuge in my little camera.” Her quest informs the film at large. What meanings do these images carry? The answer is not to be found in the authors’ dialogue. There is no intention on their part of suggesting a reading of history, nor does their exchange suggest a presumption of wanting to speak for the images, incapsulate them into a narrative of the war. Somehow, we are indirectly told that images speak by themselves. Bedirxan and Mohammed’s work is rather pre-historical, it occupies a spot aside from History. In one instance, it acknowledges their own personal involvement in the reality exhibited. The authors’ personal accounts merge with the multitude of filmed material by anonymous Syrians. In fact, one is informed from the start that the film is made by a thousand and one Syrians…and me, meaning no hierarchy in the intellectual ownership of the work of art. This statement means, furthermore, that the idea that History can be univocally represented as one absolute truth is, at the very least, questioned. History is seen skeptically and as the vicious detractor of the truth of the people. Simav says: “like all those who have been rejected by history, we were piled up on pick-up trucks and sent towards the unknown.” In other words, History wrongs its people by forgetting them.

Forgetfulness is that against which Hiroshima mon amour warned us before. Like Resnais’ film, Silvered Water arises from this concern and engages in the task of collecting documents, situating them chronologically, if not historically. It could be called an archive. Yet film’s long memory is not enough. It is still the product of an intellect, no matter how strong the film resists the formation of a narrative. Cinema’s memory is not enough, because it is aware of the fallacy of memory at all, the impossibility to fully remember – the impossibility to form an archive of Syria’s war, as of anything else really. What remains clear is that one can be invested with an impulse, a drive, a need to collect. This is quite evident in the genre of the film-essay, as it is in some contemporary artistic practices which have taken archives as the starting point of their research. Yet the archive is always going to be deemed of forgetfulness, willful or not, based on what is lost and found, as well as on what is consciously selected or excluded. The Archive is impossible in the sense that it is essentially partial, incomplete, in the same way as History is.

[1] Eau Argentée [English title: Silvered water. Syria’s Self-Portrait], 2011. English trans. from the French original subtitles by N. Chinelli.
[2] Bashar al-Assad’s government has been, since its beginnings, careful at delivering an image that would differ from that of his father Hafez al-Assad. The former autocratic government was built on a Soviet-style personality cult, which was “softened up” by his successor. The image given was that of a somewhat more secularized government building a more liberal Western-looking society, which visually found expression in modern shopping centers and international chains.
[3] In his 2012 lecture-performance The Pixelated Revolution, Rabih Mroué sarcastically suggested that the coincidence between the Syrians’ videos perspective and that of their own eyes is due to the fact that Syrians have implanted cameras in their hands. Furthermore, what we see on the screen are the last images the eye catches before dying: these visions were the object of study of the pseudo-science of optography, which referred to them as “optograms”.
[4] Reference is made here in particular to André Bazin’s review of Nicole Vérdèrs’ essay-film Paris 1900 (1947), a film de montage made by assemblage of archive material documenting the Belle Epoque.
[5] E-mail correspondence with Ossama Mohammed (19th April 2020).
[6] Some years before the making of Hiroshima mon amour, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker co-authored the essay-film Statues Also Die (Les statues meurent aussi; 1953), an interesting ante litteram post-colonial perspective on the effects of colonialism on Western perception of African Art.

Amad P., Film as the ‘Skin of History’: André Bazin and the Specter of the Archive and Death in Nicole Védrès’s Paris 1900 (1947) Representations, Vol. 130 (No. 1, Spring 2012) pp. 84-118.
Deleuze G., Cinema 1. The Movement-Image, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1997.
Della Ratta D., Shooting a Revolution. Visual Media and Warfare in Syria, Pluto Press, London 2018.
McHugo J., Syria. A Recent History, Saqi, London 2017.
Phillips C., The Battle for Syria, Yale University Press, New Haven 2018.
Stob J., Cut and Spark: Chris Marker, André Bazin and the metaphors of horizontal montage, in «Studies in French Cinema», 12:1, 2012 pp. 35-46.
Thompson J., The Pixelated Frontline. Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, Metro, 185 (Winter 2015) pp. 94-97.

Margherita Foresti is a PhD student in Art History at the University of Münster, researching on contemporary art from Arab-speaking countries. She obtained her M.A. in Art History at the University of Cologne with a thesis titled Artistic Perspectives from the Middle East. Ahlam Shibli and Francis Alÿs. She previously received her B.A. in Art History at the University of Naples “Federico II” with a thesis on ephemeral artworks and the contemporary art market.