Undercover in Idlib: secret snapshot of jihadi-held Idlib province in northwestern Syria

Jenan Moussa, “Undercover in Idlib” (2017)

Presented and narrated by Jenan Moussa, a reporter for Al Aan TV in Dubai, this 22-minute documentary on the situation in Idlib province, in northwestern Syria, as of 2015 – 2016 reveals facts that Western news media outlets have never shown: that a number of towns in the province including Jisr al Shugur are dominated by jihadis and their families from China and Central Asia, and that the whole region is controlled by extremist groups like Jabhat al Nusra, the Syrian offshoot of Al Qaeda. The documentary was secretly filmed by Moussa’s informants (all pro-opposition) on cellphones; had they been discovered to be filming, they would have been imprisoned, even put to death. Even filmed in secret however, and with all the other limitations such filming involved (such as the use of cellphones), the documentary is clear and enough film footage was taken by Moussa’s sources to support a clear narrative.

Filming took place in Idlib city, Jisr al Shugur – revealed as a complete wreck – and other towns in the province. Film footage shows huge amounts of graffiti scrawled on walls and buildings quoting pronouncements by Al Qaeda leader Ayman Mohammed Rabie al Zawahiri. Houses and buildings abandoned by pre-2011 Idlib households and businesses have been seized by extremist groups and auctioned off to their followers; even crops have been seized and auctioned off. Christian churches have been defaced or converted into mosques and in one town a statue of the Virgin Mary was replaced by an al Nusra flag.

Of the various checkpoints in and out of Idlib province, mostly with Turkey, the vast majority are controlled by Jabhat al Nusra and the rest controlled by other extremist groups allied with them. If any so-called “moderate” anti-government rebel groups exist in Idlib province, their presence was confined to their headquarters.

The most amazing revelation is that all of Moussa’s sources agree that huge numbers of ethnic Uyghur jihadis from China, plus Uzbek jihadis and “Turkistani” jihads and their families have settled in Idlib province and number from 10,000 to 20,000 people. All made their way to Syria from China and Central Asia for jihad. Moussa does not say how they managed to travel long distances from their original countries or on what passports they travelled on.

Since the documentary was first made, Jabhat al Nusra changed its name to Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) so Moussa asked her contacts to return to Idlib province to take note of any changes made. They reported that the propaganda had been softened and made more colourful and appealing to the local people. Al Zawahiri’s name was scrubbed off from walls where his quotations had been scrawled on and any references to HTS or its predecessor had disappeared, to give the area a more generic look.

Moussa reveals her sympathies with pro-opposition / anti-government forces (if they exist) in Syria by stating at the end of the documentary that everyone in Idlib province fears what may happen once Syrian government forces and their Russian allies begin their offensive to drive out the extremists in the province. Apart from this bias, which I disagree with, the film is a sobering survey of the reality of Idlib province: a permanent resettlement policy is under way in this part of Syria which I fear is intended to lay the foundation for a new invasion of the rest of the country by religious extremists supported by Syria’s enemies.

The Insult: a calculated and manipulative soap opera melodrama posing as a courtroom thriller

Ziad Doueiri, “The Insult” (2018)

On one level, this Lebanese film illustrates the power of an utterance to inflame hidden animosities and escalate them (in a rather melodramatic way) to a level where they apparently hold an entire nation in breathless thrall to their outcome. On another level, “The Insult” is a standard courtroom drama thriller that feels very manipulative yet pulls its punches when the various issues it raises become too much and too complex to handle within its narrow movie genre format. The plot and the themes might have been better dealt with in a mini-series that would also allow a deeper exploration of the main characters, their backgrounds and their motivations.

The film revolves around a chance encounter of two men, Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a mechanic, Christian Maronite by background and a supporter of the Kataeb Party founded by past Lebanese President-elect Bachir Gemayel (assassinated in 1982); and Yasser Salameh (Kamel el Basha), a Palestinian refugee. Hanna and his pregnant wife Shirin (Rita Hayek) live in a Beirut street undergoing repairs; their apartment balcony has an illegal drain attached to it that sprays water onto pedestrians below. A construction crew working in the street sees the water so foreman Salameh asks Hanna to let his crew correct the illegal drain pipe. Hanna refuses but Salameh and his men fix the drain pipe anyway. Hanna sabotages the work and Salameh swears at him. Hanna complains about Salameh to his boss Talal so Talal arranges for Salameh to meet Hanna to apologise to him personally. However when Salameh and Talal arrive at Hanna’s garage, the radio there is loudly blaring Gemayel’s anti-Palestinian diatribes so Salameh refuses to speak. Hanna taunts him with an inflammatory remark that mentions the name of former Israeli leader Ariel Sharon, at which Salameh punches Hanna and breaks two of his ribs.

From then on, the action moves, as if predestined, from one incident into another. Some of these incidents are highly improbable except in a soap opera universe: one would think that Salameh, realising the trouble he is in, and having no rights as an alien in Lebanon, would try to disappear entirely instead of giving himself up to the police. Hanna and Salameh representing themselves in a magistrate’s court seems unlikely; what’s even more unlikely is that when their case escalates to a higher court and they need lawyers, Hanna’s lawyer Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), an establishment, pro-Gemayel supporter, and Salameh’s lawyer Nadine Wehbe (Diamand Bou Abboud) turn out to be father and daughter! At this point, the trial ought to have been aborted by the judge Colette Mansur (Rita Kassar) and new lawyers for the men appointed but it steams on ahead.

In the second court case, Hanna and Salameh’s backgrounds and possible motivations are drawn out in some detail as Wehbe senior and Wehbe junior argue back and forth in ways that flummox even the judges as well as the respective clients. The elder Wehbe discovers that Hanna himself is a refugee of a massacre of Christians in the village of Damour in early 1976 by leftist fighters aided by Palestinian militants. Salameh is found to have beaten a man (admittedly a soldier) so severely that the man becomes wheelchair-bound. Even Shirin’s history of miscarriages is dragged into the disputation as a possible factor in forcing her baby’s premature caesarean birth.

The pyrotechnics that erupt among Hanna and Salameh’s supporters in the courtroom spill out into the streets and into Lebanese news media with unfortunate consequences: the Hannas end up being stalked and their supporters chase a motorcyclist who ends up in a collision with a car.

While Karam and el Basha are good and intense in their roles, and Hayek evokes much sympathy as Hanna’s long-suffering wife, the film does have a calculating and manipulative feel as plot twist follows plot twist. Various hidden grievances come to the fore – in particular, Lebanese resentment at the presence of Palestinian refugees in their midst, sucking up jobs and social services, depressing wages, always wanting sympathy and attention for their problems, while Lebanese Christian victims of past Palestinian violence are ignored – but get superficial treatment. Stereotypes about Arab people abound: the men seem to be all excitable and immune to reason while the women are either rational or stoic in getting on with business and life generally. The Wehbe father and daughter pair are little more than stereotypes of an older cunning political conservative, pragmatic and slippery, versus an earnest if perhaps naive young liberal with so-called progressive opinions and views (and who ends up supporting faintly Communist baddie types). The film’s conclusion has all the appearance of being a stitched-up Band Aid solution that restores peace and stability without really dealing with the long-simmering frustrations and grievances behind Hanna and Salameh’s prejudices and enmity.

At times I wonder if “The Insult” was actually made more for a Western audience than for a Lebanese audience, as it seems to rely on gimmicks, stereotypes and tropes that faintly mock Lebanese people. Injecting identity politics where it’s not needed and presenting Lebanese society as though it were an ongoing soap opera melodrama seem disrespectful of the subject matter and the wider political and cultural issues that arise from it. We are all familiar with lawyers pushing their own agendas onto their clients, the news media sensationalising trials and various hangers-on wanting to profit from other people’s misery, and “The Insult” hammers all of these subplots onto the main plot for the purpose of building it up into something more outlandish and sensational than it should be. The result is rushed and often superficial as the subplots are never fully resolved: in one, the hapless motorcyclist gets no more than a minute or so on screen and disappears forever.

If Hanna and Salameh come to an understanding, it’s more through their shared experience of being little cogs in a machine system they cannot fully comprehend than through recognising similarities in their histories as victims of others’ violence. Viewers are likely to feel just as ground out by a manipulative plot that tries to plead for reconciliation and understanding but ends up not succeeding very well.

Wadjda: a heart-warming film about a girl’s desire for freedom and how she thwarts social and political restrictions to achieve it

Haifaa al Mansour, “Wadjda” (2012)

A heart-warming film on one girl’s desire for freedom, especially the freedom to be true to herself, “Wadjda” is remarkable for being the first Saudi film to be made by a female Saudi director. Shot mostly from the point of view of its young protagonist Wadjda (Waad Mohammed), the film demonstrates how persistence, hard work, hope and being true to oneself can reap rewards greater than money or winning the approval of one’s elders. The film also looks at how middle-class Saudi women cope with the restrictions placed on them by government, to the extent that they cannot drive and must rely on male chauffeurs to ferry them about, and that they cannot allow themselves to be seen in public by strange men.

When we first meet the 10-year-old Wadjda, she’s already a rebellious kid who loves Western pop and rock, wears sneakers to school and never has her headscarf secured properly to cover her hair. She is an entrepreneurial go-getter who makes pocket money by making plaits for football clubs and selling them to the girls at school. She befriends a boy of her age, Abdullah (Abdurrahman al Golani) who has a bicycle. Wadjda wants one as well and coaxes a local shopkeeper into keeping a recently imported bike for her. The bike costs 1,000 riyals so to raise the money Wadjda enters her school’s Koran-reciting competition which offers a first prize of … 1,000 riyals.

Wadjda’s teachers at the hardline conservative girls’ school are surprised at the girl’s sudden turnabout from secular slouch to devoted religious convert but do not suspect what she wants the money for. The girl keeps busy doing normal lessons and then learning and reciting various Koranic surahs off by heart, and in her spare time secretly learning to ride Abdullah’s bike under the boy’s tutelage.

Meanwhile Wadjda’s mum (Reem Abdullah), a teacher, is at loggerheads with Wadjda’s dad because Dad desires a son but Mum cannot give him one. He is in negotiations with a family to acquire a second wife. As a result Dad comes and goes quite often, and is away for long periods leaving his unhappy wife and rebellious child on their own. The film does a good job limning the mother’s frustrations at her restricted life: arguing with her driver Iqbal (because as a woman she is forbidden from driving her own car) and going shopping for glamorous showy dresses which she knows she cannot wear away from home. One comes to understand how Wadjda might have become a rebel, seeing her parents unhappy with each other and both yearning for what they cannot have. Mother and daughter come to develop a close relationship which is often strained but turns out to be rock solid when Dad finally abandons them.

In its own deceptive simple and minimal style, “Wadjda” has a great deal to say about the nature of religious oppression and the stifling of normal human social intercourse this creates. In a society that denies women freedom of movement, Wadjda’s mother and teachers are horrified that the girl wants a bicycle, and do all they can to prevent her from having one. It is significant that women are the ones who zealously police girls’ behaviour and ensure they do not offend any men. With the exception of young Abdullah, the male characters are passive bystanders who do not affect the direction of the plot in any way; even the father simply disappears with the likelihood that he will continue supporting his wife and daughter financially at least.

The restrictions on women’s movements certainly affect the female characters in major ways but there is an insinuation that the male characters also suffer from those restrictions indirectly. One gets the impression that the men are rather infantile, not fully adult, and the women a strange and unpleasant mix of grim and unyielding strictness, hysterical superstition and amoral childishness. It seems to me that societies where fundamentalist religion rules absolutely not only turn out to be police state societies moulding people’s thinking and outlook but also breed people lacking internal moral compasses with the result that hypocrisy and corruption go hand in hand deeply and across society along with the repression.

The acting is minimal and matter-of-fact with Waad Mohammed holding this viewer quite spellbound with her character’s cheek and cleverness. People in the film either admire her or fear her chutzpah. The character of the mother is perhaps the most complicated and puzzling: like Wadjda, she yearns for freedom but is very much a submissive creature of the society she grew up in. The Riyadh setting gives the film a sunny and bright look, which is rather ironic given the nature of the repressive society portrayed and its poisonous effects on both women and men alike. Wadjda’s family home is surprisingly opulent, redolent of great family wealth; it would have been interesting to see where Abdullah’s family lives and what the house and its furnishings look like.

The film’s ending is an incredible surprise and speaks of hope in overcoming barriers both physical, mental and psychological in a context of despair and sadness.

The Battle of Algiers: excellent and powerful film dramatisation of the Algerian drive for independence

Gillo Pontecorvo, “The Battle of Algiers / La Bataille d’Alger / La Battaglia di Algeri” (1965)

Filmed 50 years ago, this Italian film drama¬†of the Algerian independence struggle against France in the late 1950s remains as relevant today in the post-9/11 world as it did for audiences living during the decline and end of the colonial era when Britain and France gave up their empires in Africa and Asia. The film, influenced by the Italian neo-realism pioneered by Roberto Rossellini and other directors in the 1950s, combines crisp, matter-of-fact drama, imaginative and brilliantly shot cinematography, excellent acting, a highly evocative music soundtrack and a plot left deliberately sketchy to emphasise the film’s messages, of which the most important is that a people’s desire for liberation and independence will always succeed in spite of the repression it is subjected to.

The bulk of the film follows a young man, Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), from his early life as street thief who becomes radicalised as a freedom fighter when as a prisoner he witnesses the guillotining execution of a political prisoner. After being released, he applies to join the National Liberation Front (hereafter referred to as the FLN, its abbreviation in French) and is given a test by FLN leader Jaffar. The test confirms Ali’s commitment and from then on he is part of a clandestine network of cells in which each member knows only three others: the person who recruited him and the two people he is required to recruit.

The film does not dwell much on Ali’s advancement to the topmost level but instead follows various resistance fighters who kill police officers as part of a general protest against the forces of law and order who are the front-line of the colonial society that treats the Algerian people as serfs and denies them access to their own lands and resources. The film clearly shows the segregated nature of the city of Algiers: Europeans live in one part which revels in wealth and leisure while the majority Arabs and Berbers are forced to live in crowded labyrinthine conditions in old buildings with primitive infrastructure and transport. The French drive cars while the Arabs and Berbers must still use animals for transport. The murders of the police officers lead to greater repression and the police themselves resort to bombing a section of the Muslim quarter. People die and from then on, the FLN uses terrorism, encapsulated in a section of the film where three Muslim women doll themselves up in Western clothes and carry bombs into cafes and an Air France office, to protest the continuing brutality. Violence from one side begets violence from the other until Paris sends in Colonel Matthieu (Jean Martin) to impose martial law on the suffering Algerians. Determined to wipe out the FLN, Matthieu resorts to arresting and torturing people to gather information about the FLN, and systematically hunts down its members until he and Ali La Pointe finally confront each other in a chilling and cold-blooded climax.

The contrast between the Algerians’ poverty and the colonialists’ lavish lifestyle is highlighted by the cinematography which captures the paranoia and terror the Algerians feel as French rule becomes ever more violent and intrusive. The music, composed jointly by Pontecorvo himself and renowned composer Ennio Morricone, also captures the terror and drama of the film. Scenes of torture are filmed in a sensitive manner that demonstrates the victim’s suffering without dwelling too much on the violence and gore.

While Pontecorvo is sympathetic towards the Algerians, the film shows both oppressors and oppressed as humans with all their flaws and good qualities. Ali, Jaffar and the other leaders of the FLN stubbornly hold out to the very end and Matthieu, for all his admiration of them, is steely in his determination to eradicate them. Surprisingly, Matthieu has the clearest understanding of the conflict between France and Algeria: the French are hell-bent on keeping Algeria as their colony and denying the Arabs and Berbers a share in the colony’s wealth. As long as this situation lasts, there will always be conflict and suppression. One would think that, having fought in the Resistance against Nazi Germany during the Second World War, Matthieu might sympathise with the Algerians’ desire for liberty; yet he puts his loyalty to France ahead of any feelings he may have for the Algerian cause or the admiration he has for individuals like Ben M’hidi, one of the FLN leaders, for his moral stance. As the only actor in a cast of non-actors, Martin makes his colonel stand out as a man who suppresses his humanity and compassion for evil disguised as unquestioning loyalty to the State.

One aspect of the film that is not too clear is the role of the media in changing public opinion in France to favour and support Algerian independence which eventually pressured Paris to grant Algeria its freedom in 1962. Apart from that, the film shows how the colonial authorities use propaganda to try to break the spirit of the Algerians. After destroying the FLN, the authorities obviously believe they have broken the back of the independence movement; unfortunately the film does not go on to say (and this is a major weakness of “The Battle …” and the structure of its plot) what the authorities did next, that might have resulted in a resurgence in the Algerians’ cry for ¬†freedom and independence. One assumes that the French colonial authorities did not do much to give Algerians a greater say in their governance and control of their land and resources, but continued to harass them with police state brutality and petty bureaucratic regulations, and that the French living in Algeria continued to live in blithe ignorance of the tensions simmering even more among the people they treated as their servants.

The film’s complexity in its themes and technical values has stood the test of time, even if the actual visuals look dated. It has been used as a manual by both terrorist groups and governments alike, not always in the way that Pontecorvo and his cast would approve. Violence and brutality always beget more violence and brutality, and both bully and victim end up more traumatised and psychopathic in their natures. The film still has power to move contemporary audiences into sympathising with ordinary people’s desire to control their own lives and resources, and not to live as slaves.