The recent turmoil in the Middle East has been tackled by some remarkably brave and resourceful native filmmakers, with documentaries such as ½ Revolution and The Square bringing visceral immediacy to the social unrests, protests and military crackdowns. The War Show, which follows the Arab Spring in Syria and the country’s dispiriting spiral afterward, is a worthy addition to their ranks. Somewhere between on-the-ground journalism, diary and essay piece on cycles between resistance and oppression, it’s a harrowing experience.
When mass protests rise against the Syrian government in 2011, radio host Obaidah Zytoon and her friends, a group mostly of 20-something artists, are jubilant. Zytoon takes to the streets with a camera, interviewing hosts of people confident that they’re about to sweep in a new era of freedom for the country. But the Assad regime ultimately stays in power, and optimism is soon replaced with grim-set outrage. The military crackdown is brutal, armed resistance springs up in response and within a few years, a full-scale civil war has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions more displaced. This documentary is there through all of it.
With the help of Danish documentarian Andreas Dalsgaard and his crew, Zytoon and her friends were able to construct a film which condenses five years of tumult into 100 minutes without ever feeling like a CliffsNotes abridgment of the events in question. Split into chapters which track the devolution of Syria’s political situation (the doc is subtitled “From Revolution to War in Seven Steps”), it keeps itself centered around the people it finds — both Zytoon’s circle and those she meets as she ventures into other areas of the country. Although there are terrifying sequences shot in the thick of the violence, the movie dwells much more on their merely living day-to-day and how that changes for the subjects.
Zytoon’s friends are for the most part not rabid seditionists, but this does not save them from persecution. Characters we meet early on and get to know in relatively peaceful times — regular men and women whose lives look a lot less different from those of any Western viewer than one may presume — are later tortured and/or killed, left bereaved or forced out of their homes. It is crushing in a way unlike any other depiction of the Syrian Civil War made so far. Finished as it is in the midst of an ongoing conflict, The War Show is unable to offer much hope or any glimpse of an end in sight. It’s an epitaph for a lost moment in time, not a call to arms or a rallying cry for the future.