Syria in images: from the banalization of horror to the horror of the banal

14 Nov, 22

Martyrdom of Homs, siege of Aleppo, fall of Raqqa, carnage in Ghouta, devastation in Idlib… For the past ten years, news from Syria has punctuated our daily lives with a mixture of compassion and indifference. However, the images that accompany such news, mainly in the written press, television reports, or social media, have a completely different purpose: to induce a shock in the mind of the reader or the spectator and, through this shock, generate a collective awareness that will lead governments to bring this tragedy to an end.
There has certainly been no shortage of depictions of the unbearable in Syria, intended to rouse the international community from its diplomatic torpor, since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011: demonstrators injured by the bullets of the loyalist army and dragged in a pool of blood by their comrades; children gassed in the suburbs of cities or stranded lifeless on beaches; the destruction of entire districts which make urban ruins an almost natural setting from which all life has disappeared; bruised bodies lying on the ground after an air attack… – so many images of a conflict of unprecedented violence, to which we usually attribute the power to put an end to it.

However, we must face the facts: if the images of the Syrian horror could bring an end to this bloody story, it would have stopped a long time ago. Which does not mean, and I will come back to this, that they shouldn’t be shown on the pretext that they would be ineffective from the perspective of a cessation of hostilities.
Furthermore, before speaking of a morbid fascination for death that these images would potentially convey, it is the alleged effectiveness of these images that will be important to question here, as well as the other side of this effectiveness which refers to a specific conception of the media significance of an image within the context of an insurrection, its repression, and the ensuing all-out war. An analysis of the role of images in what began as a popular uprising, calls into question the memory we will have of these historical events, knowing that memory is a faculty of great malleability, and that the images of Syria that feed it, can easily change our understanding of them. In fact, authoritarian regimes have all the more interest in controlling the mechanisms of memory, when confronted with struggles that attempt to overthrow their power. Michel Foucault said as much when he declared, in 1974, in an interview for the Cahiers du cinéma:

People are shown not what they have been but what they must remember they have been. Since memory is an important factor in struggle (indeed, it’s within a kind of conscious dynamic of history that struggles develop), if you hold people’s memory, you hold their dynamism. And you also hold their experience, their knowledge of previous struggles. [1]

Michel Foucault, « Anti-Rétro », interview with Pascal Bonitzer, Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana, Cahiers du cinéma, no251-252, july-august 1974; Id., Dits et Écrits, Paris, Gallimard, 1994, p. 648. English trans. in Cahiers du Cinema /​Volume Four: 1973-1978: History, Ideology, Cultural Struggle, ed. David Wilson, translated by Annwyl Williams, p. 162.

When, to mark the tenth anniversary of the Syrian uprising,  mainstream media declare that they are looking back on a decade of “war”, they neglect to mention that this historical sequence was initially experienced as a revolution, led by pacifist demonstrators, who were shot at by the loyalist forces of Bashar al-Assad because they took to the streets. It was afterwards, that the armed conflict set the country ablaze, starting in the summer of 2012, when Syria tipped into a civil war before becoming, with the complicity of the regime, the site of bloody campaigns between various powers (Russia, Iran, Turkey, the organization “Islamic State,” etc.).
The international aftershocks of this Syrian stranglehold are still being felt, even if Syria seems to have disappeared from the media radars. Privileging the word “war,” is a way of shaping the memory of a historic struggle which, in fact, demanded greater equality, social justice, dignity (karama, in Arabic), for the people. However, this amnesia effect also stems from the type of images of the “Syrian conflict” that circulate in the information system, a system that focuses almost exclusively on wounded bodies, urban ruins, or the spectacle of war (columns of armored vehicles, Russian drones, Daesh pick-ups, etc.), which is the best way to make people forget the intolerable nature of a regime against which the Syrian people have risen. Thus, unwittingly, this media celebration plays into Bashar al-Assad’s unchallenged power game, insofar as it creates a manifest dissolution of the disruptive force of an uprising.

This enterprise of destroying discontinuities in history is inseparable from other strategies that maintain, through images, our indifference in the face of a humiliated, dismembered, murdered people. It is up to cinema, documentary as well as fiction, to scrutinize the functioning of these audiovisual strategies which force the gaze, and considerably reduce the spectrum of our perception of events, even though they claim to extract an ultimate truth from them.
In this regard, it seems significant the constant concern in locating an iconic image which is thought to be the primary condition in grasping the event’s definitive character. Little Aylan, who fled from the city of Kobane in northern Syria with his family, and was found dead in Turkey on the seaside shores of the Aegean Sea in September 2015, thus became the symbol of the fate of refugees who flee their country by sea. Little Omran, for his part, seized full frame, looking haggard and with a swollen left eye, shrouded in dust following the collapse of his building in Aleppo, was appointed in August 2016 by John Kerry, then the American secretary of State, as the “true face of Syria”; in April 2017, children in Eastern Ghouta, not far from Damascus, crying and seriously injured, most of them suffocating, became the emblems of the criminal use of chemical weapons by the Syrian and Russian army coalition.

The permanent dissemination of these images – of destitute, bruised individuals, sometimes on the verge of death, sometimes already dead – must not mask what implicitly presides over their publication: namely, that the image, in this tormented context, must necessarily be the relay of a clear and direct message, given that its compassionate becoming-iconic will allow us to get out of our torpor, leading us towards effective action on the ground. From this perspective, the escalation in horror, with a touch of aestheticism, remains the general rule. Thus, the photo of Aylan is perceived as “beautiful” or “well shot” by the corporation of photo-journalists, as evidenced by an eloquent report from the Courrier international[2]. As terrible as its referent in reality may be, the reduction of the image to an unambiguous message supposed to reflect its tragic dimension, encourages, in fact, extreme simplifications and deeply codes our perception of these inhuman situations, which are now part of our daily lives. 

[2] Courrier international, no 147, « Pourquoi il faut montrer l’horreur » (Why horror must be shown), March 2018.

The underlying thought on which rests this dominant representation of the war in Syria, where an iconography of death and desolation predominates, also aims to make the image coincide with the event that it is supposed to embody: a total image in which the unbearable is fixed in a fleeting, unsurprising emotional experience. But it is the Syrian people who disappear, who become an abstract faceless entity, prisoners of a martyrology that they did not call for, even if they suffer the greatest losses in the greatest despair. As the anonymous collective of Syrian filmmakers Abounaddara declares, those engaged in a revolutionary process don’t need to be considered victims, even if they pay dearly in human lives for this commitment to an uprising, that desired, – we can never stress it enough – “the fall of the regime”. The revolutionary in struggle against an authoritarian regime, whatever his age and sex, hardly seeks a mechanism of self-pity for his fate, which on the contrary, constitutes the traditional stock in trade of the audio-visual treatment of the Syrian conflict; a mechanism where only images of indignity are mobilized, which leave out all the organizing, all the inventions in matters of uprising, where the distinction between the ordinary and the extraordinary is blurred. As Jacques Rancière noted, in 2018, during a seminar on image rights and the principle of dignity [3], we must not forget that the dissemination of the image of a slaughtered body can serve the purposes of the very people who carried out the crime: the executioners also circulate images of torture or assassination, repeating, by this odious circulation, the physical suppression that they first caused.

[3] Jacques Rancière, intervention in the context of the workshop « The Right to the Image », organized in April 2018 by Katarina Nitsch at the Royal Institute of Arts, Stockholm.

This is why we need to see the thousand expressions of the Syrian uprising as so many scenes of life that, far from stereotypical revolutionary imagery, and its visual counterpart of bloodstained bodies, resist this motion of death by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. This does not mean that we should turn away from images of undignified situations which are unbearable to us, nor should we campaign, more generally, that they not be made available to the public. The problem, in fact, is not to know whether it is important to show or not to show these images, but rather in knowing how they are shown, what stories accompany them in the commentary or what visibility is given to them on the screen. This recalls the moral position adopted by Jacques Rivette in his review of Kapo by Gillo Pontecorvo, a position devoid, however, of any moralism:

To make a film is to show certain things, that is at the same time, and by the same mechanism, to show them with a certain bias; these two acts being thoroughly bound together [4].

[4] Jacques Rivette, « De l’abjection», Cahiers du cinéma, no 120, june 1961, published in Textes critiques, Fécamp, Post-Éditions, 2018, p. 224 (highlight by Jacques Rivette).
“On abjection” Trans. by David Phelps with the assistance of Jeremi Szaniawski

The “a certain bias” is illuminated here by a little quoted fragment of this, otherwise, famous text:

That which counts is tone, or emphasis, nuance, as one will call it – that is to say, the point of view of a man, the auteur, badly needed, and the attitude that this man takes in relation to that which he films […] that which can be expressed by a choice in situations, in the construction of the storyline, in the dialogue, in the play of actors, or in the pure and simple technique [5].

[5] Ibid.

In other words, it’s not a question of removing from view such and such a situation because of “the throes [of] fear and [the] trembling” that they legitimately arouse (again, Rivette). It’s a question of examining how the indignity of a situation escapes the indignity of a filmic or audiovisual treatment, which, in a certain way, repeats the initial ignominy. At the same time, it is necessary to ensure that out of this real-life indignity a dignified image can emerge, without lessening the violence it carries.

It is in this sense that indignity cannot be circumscribed under the sole term of the unrepresentable, while at the same time, the problem of knowing how to extract a dignified image from an undignified situation, persists. This is the question that Jacques Rancière raises, for his part, in his analysis of Shoah by Claude Lanzmann, which, in my view, can also be applied to the scene of the Syrian uprising, its eradication by a bloodthirsty regime, and respective recapture within an art of images in full unrest. Rancière first rectifies what he believes is a false problem in the reception of Lanzmann’s film: that the documentary filmmaker “does not claim that the fact of extermination is removed from artistic presentation, from the production of an artistic equivalent. It only denies that such an equivalent can be provided by a fictional embodiment of the executioners and the victims” [6]. Going beyond this “fictional embodiment” is not to call into question the distinction between executioner and victim; on the contrary, since it aims to give them a place in a visual and sound narrative, that counters any indifference to the suffering inflicted by the first on the second. Filming the victims without falling into the conventional process of victimization, undoubtedly constitutes one of the touchstones of a filmic approach that attempts to give a voice and a body to the vanquished in history, or at least to those who had to suffer the torments in their flesh. In this sense, forsaking “the fictional embodiment of the executioners and the victims” also implies that the event that connects them is no longer covered by the common lot of historical films where the tragedy of this connection becomes, in the end, acceptable. As Rancière writes: “The causes that render the event resistant to any explanation by a principle of sufficient reason, be it fictional or documentary, must be left on hold” [7]. Through this suspension of the causes that change how to “’relive’ the past” in cinema – the alleged objectivity of a reenactment no longer works, the probable sequence of actions is no longer operative -, the event becomes more vivid, and the reality to which it refers more ungraspable, that is to say, ultimately, more “incredible”. What Lanzmann “wants to represent” according to Rancière, is precisely “the reality of the incredible, the equivalence of the real and the incredible”.

[6] Jacques Rancière, The future of the Image, trans. Gregory Elliott, London, Verso, 2007, p.127.
[7] Ibid., p.129.

The incredible in question, as Rancière reminds us opportunely, concerns both the mechanisms of extermination and the elimination of its traces. It’s “the reality of the extermination and the erasure of [its] traces” of the Jews that must be shown, and this is what Lanzmann manages to do in Shoah by choosing to represent an impossibility: that which consists in believing that the testimony by the survivor – in this case, that of Simon Srebnik –, on the very site of the Nazi crimes, will, once he speaks, fill the void of this site. The void will never be filled, and the survivor’s “tiny” body disappears into the “huge clearing” of the former Chelmno camp, creating, by this disproportion between a body and the space in which it roams, “the reality of its disappearance”. It is the enactment of this disappearance that, according to Rancière, remarkably encounters”the incredible character of the event, programmed by the very logic of the extermination […]: even if one of you survives to bear witness, no one will believe you, that is to say, no one will believe in the filling of this void by what you will say; it will be regarded as an hallucination.” [8]

[8] Ibid., p. 128 (highlight by Jacques Rancière).

Shoah is not a film about the unrepresentable of unfathomable Nazi indignity; it is the film of a “hallucination,” itself anticipated by the Nazis, and which represents, by means of cinema, this indignity for what it is: the logic of a double elimination, both physical and memorial. To use Rivette’s words, Lanzmann’s camera follows “a certain bias” which produces an unprecedented correspondence between what he films and the way in which he films it. It is this ethical “bias”, by which the historical event becomes more acute without being appeased,that is sorely lacking today in the images of Syria, from the citizens’ revolution to the war crimes of the regime and its allies. As much as fiction, documentary cinema could experiment, in the representation of the Syrian context, with the “suspension of the causes” previously mentioned, a suspension that would be the occasion for a double step: on the one hand, in relation to a media treatment which is based, as we have seen, on relentless voyeurism in the face of the horrors of war; on the other hand, with regard to a film production which repeats this same “fictional embodiment”, without the Syrian population being perceived as anything other than a passive people, uniformly placed under the category of powerless victims, despite countless modes of organization to fight against the dictatorship of Assad, during the revolution.

This task, this mission almost, of cinema, aimed at undoing this victimization seems to me all the more urgent as we have been witnessing, for several years, an inevitable fall of the enthusiasm born of the “Arab springs” of 2011. We should certainly watch again Abounaddara’s films, which remain veritable counter-shots to this information system, which will always choose to show a massacre, in lieu of a sequence where we see the ordinary of the revolution, where an uprising is actualized by thwarting any appropriation, where it escapes any causal explanation that would limit its disruptive scope: for example, by showing two unidentified soldiers of the Free Syrian Army, arguing over the repair of a door of a building in Aleppo, following a bombardment; or the humor of a woman in trousers, who makes fun of the ways of the “Islamic State” group in her neighborhood; young people, men and women, nameless but full of vitality, who dance together at night, despite the bombs and the funerals… [9] There’s thus a significant shift in the way we see the war in Syria, even if the problem remains of knowing whether the failure of our perceptual schemes has any effect on reality. Undoubtedly, this questioning is itself dependent on a shock imagery which effectively intends to provoke an effect on the mass of spectators, even if an exit out of this imagery is for us so inconceivable, that anticipating the effect of what goes beyond the shock produced by the image simply propels us into the unknown. Unless the effectiveness of these images, like those of Abounaddara, which constantly produce a suspension of our explanatory reflexes, lies precisely in a lack of search for effectiveness. Which is not to say that they don’t move us, or that they put aside what is in itself inconceivable and capable of causing an upheaval of the minds.

[9] See, respectively, Le Jour d’après (The day after), La Femme au pantalon (The woman with trousers) and I Will Dance Tomorrow. All the films by the Abounaddara collective are accessible on Vimeo.

Showing the horrors of war without falling into sensationalism is also a test for image makers: the inconceivable, the “impossible”, that they nevertheless have to face, yesterday as today [10]. It is, consequently, to place the spectator in a position where he does not have the impression that a spectacle is imposed on him that he does not want to see, or that he becomes witness to a trivialization of the horror, created by the very repetition of this spectacle of the inhuman. Unless, one day, this viewer experiences, in spite of himself, a strange feeling, that makes this combination of pity and indifference unbearable to him in the face of Syrian news, or what’s left of it in his memory. To the trivialized horror is added what Michel Foucault sometimes called the horror of the banal, that is to say, in this case, the horror of these images without respect for the dignity of the victims, and which have crossed our lives almost daily since 2011 [11]. Documentary filmmakers, fiction directors, photographers working on Syria could start from this point of no return: suddenly, we clearly perceive in our daily lives, a form of ignominy, where a flood of actually intolerable images parades before us. This feeling is not to be confused with any form of guilt; it is rather a question of remarking on the way in which this flood glides over us; to see how we accept it, but also how, at a certain point, we no longer do.

[10] Abounaddara, who also have an important written production, have sometimes referred to filmmakers who, “at the end of the Second World War, [have] helped to open the eyes of the world to Nazi abjection”, before noting – we are in October 2015 – that, “no matter how hard we try, the world does not see the abjection rising from its ashes. It witnesses, without flinching, the spectacle of a crime against humanity transmitted live from Syria. It is in this sense that the collective calls for a “politics of the image […] in order to show the impossible, according to the expression of the filmmaker Samuel Fuller who did not believe his own eyes upon discovering the horror at the Falkenau camp”.(Collectif Abounaddara,“Montrerl’horreur en Syrie pour sortir de l’ignominie”(Showing the horror in Syria to escape ignominy), Le Monde, October 21, 2015, online.)
[11] See especially the interview with Foucault published in 1980 in Cahiers du cinema on Hans J. Syberberg’s film Hitler, a film from Germany (text no. 284 of the philosopher’s Dit et Ecrits): Syberberg does not trivialize horror, he “fait l’inverse, il rend ignoble le banal. Il fait sortir dans ce qu’il y a de banal dans une certaine manière de vivre, un certain nombre de rêvasseries de l’Européen des années trente de tous les jours, une virtualité d’ignominie”. (does the opposite, he makes the banal ignoble. He brings out in the banalities of a certain way of life, a certain number of daydreams of the everyday European of the thirties, a virtuality of ignominy).

translation from French by Susana Mouzinho, funded by national funds through FCT – Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia under the project EXPL/FER-FIL/0045/2021.

This text was first published on the website of the online daily AOC (Analyse Opinion Critique), on April 23, 2018. It has been revised and expanded for this edition.