5 Seasons of Revolution: When journalism and activism fail
Over the last few years, many documentary films showing different perspectives on the Syrian Revolution have been produced and released within the international festival circuit.
In different ways, they all attempt to shed light on the events which unfolded in the country over the past decade and led to the current state of affairs.
World-premiered in the World Cinema Documentary Competition of this year’s Sundance Film Festival (19-29 January), 5 Season of Revolution, like many others, is a documentary where danger, anxiety and hopelessness are overwhelming feelings characterising the whole viewing experience. But this is not saying it is not worth watching. In fact, quite the contrary.
"What are the right moves to fight a good battle? How can you spare innocent lives and save your own while challenging a regime? Will Bashar al-Assad’s rule ever end?"
At first glance, one may notice that the picture shares some similarities with Rami Farah and Signe Byrge Sørensen’s documentary Our Memory Belongs to Us (which premiered at CPH:DOX last year).
In detail, both films revolve around a young group of Syrian citizen journalists and activists, while placing great importance on the themes of memory and loss and trying to establish an empathetic bond with the spectators.
In 5 Seasons of Revolution, interestingly, the directorial focus is on the journalistic work itself (although it is a deeply personal documentary, with no pretence of objectivity) and how living under an authoritarian regime during a civil war can split a group of like-minded friends fighting for the same cause.
It is a very timely thematic choice, which inevitably resonates with the audience and may prompt much debate about how governments and communities should deal with social conflicts, diplomatic crises and wars.
What are the right moves to fight a good battle? How can you spare innocent lives and save your own while challenging a regime? Will Bashar al-Assad’s rule ever end?
In her debut film, Damascus-born Lina – we don’t know her full name – is obviously unable to provide us with clear answers, but she is willing to share her experience and open-heartedly. In 2011, she is an aspiring video journalist in her 20s, who finds herself thrown into the dawn of the Syrian Revolution, along with her young friends – Bassel, Malaz, Rima and Susu.
At the beginning of the picture, we get to know them through a few glimpses of their lives before the war. For example, we discover that Rima loves to surround herself with plants, cats and trusted friends, whilst Bassel is described as a jolly young man who left his previous job to pursue his true aspirations.
Moreover, an intertitle informs us that, in order to guarantee the safety of some of the people featured in the film, “various techniques including deepfake and blurring were used to conceal their identities.”
Predictably, the film is split into five chapters. We follow these young, brave people gradually entering a downward spiral of tragic events and going through some of the Syrian revolution’s crucial turning points – the first 2011 protests, the armed insurgencies, the siege of Homs, the birth of the Syrian Free Army, the Russian-Chinese veto, among others.
Here, Lina’s voice-over plays a prominent role. On the one hand, it seems to have a cathartic function, as it puts a certain distance between the helmer and her past. On the other hand, it creates a stark contrast with the turbulent events depicted, as her tone of voice remains calm and staid.
As time passes, tension mounts and resignation will take over. The tragic death of Bassel and the arrest of Rima are probably the two main climaxes within this doc’s narrative structure.
As these events unfold, the group realises that all boundaries have been crossed and it is impossible for them to turn back. This particular moment of realisation is marked by one of the picture’s saddest scenes. In it, Lina and Rima share a cake and sing to celebrate the Revolution’s birthday.
Some may argue that Lina’s feature centres on her personal experience and the theme of friendship. It surely does, but her account is also powerful enough to remind us that brave journalism is needed, now more than ever – even if the chances to be defeated by governmental propaganda are very high, such as in this particular case.
As weird as it may sound, the profound – and fully justified – pessimism of this film actually hides an uplifting message: if someone has failed a mission, this doesn’t mean it is not worth accomplishing it and that others will fail too.
A German-Syrian-Dutch-Norwegian co-production, 5 Seasons of Revolution also benefited from the presence of a strong team of non-fiction veterans such as producer Diana El Jeroudi (director of Republic of Silence), co-producer Orwa Nyrabia (IDFA’s artistic director and filmmaker) and executive producer Laura Poitras (the 2022 Golden Lion winner with All the Beauty and the Bloodshed).
Davide Abbatescianni is an Italian Film Critic and Journalist based in Rome
Follow him on Twitter: @dabbatescianni