An anonymous undercover reporter for Al Jazeera has captured the Syrian uprising in a first-of-its-kind-documentary — recorded on an iPhone.
The 25 minute documentary, “Syria: Songs of Defiance,” aired on Al Jazeera’s show People & Power earlier this month. Al Jazeera has not released the reporter’s name for safety reasons. (Check out the video at the end of this post.)
The anonymous reporter states the reason he used his iPhone at the beginning of the documentary. “Because taking a camera would be risky, I brought my cell phone with me as I moved around the country,” he says.
Syrian activists have been uploading YouTube videos of protests and sending out phone calls to media outlets for more than a year now, understanding what exactly has been happening in the country from citizen journalism alone has proved difficult.
Though the Syrian government recently adopted a U.N.-backed ceasefire plan, the violence continues. According to Al-Jazeera “there was no sign of any risk-free demonstrations” as of Friday.
That’s why the reporter’s use of his iPhone is a huge feat — though an incredibly dangerous one. Had he been caught, he might have faced brutal retaliation. The Syrian government banned iPhone usage last December.
Here are four reasons why it was essential for the reporter to go undercover and use a mobile device.
1. Language. Many of the videos that activists have uploaded don’t have narration. In this undercover report, the context that the reporter provides — in English — makes it accessible to audiences worldwide. Subtitles are used for footage documented in Arabic, whether they be interviews with civilians or translations of the songs that protestors sing.
2. Audience awareness. At the beginning of the documentary, audiences can see several unidentifiable objects. They are very familiar to Syrian protestors, but most people who will watch this documentary will probably have never seen them before. Right away, the reporter asks the essential question: “What am I looking at?”
It turns out those objects are “thumb bombs.” They can’t hurt anyone, according to the activist showing them to the reporter, but protesters use them as alerts, to test security and warn those who haven’t entered the revolution yet.
3. Perspective. Syrians have been experiencing the protests for more than a year, so explanations of the significance of these demonstrations hardly ever emerge in their footage. However, with the reporter well-aware of his audience — and being an outsider himself — he can offer a Tocqueville-like perspective. Take this example:
I was walking through Homs and sniper fire started, and I was the only one in the crowd that actually flinched. And a father with his kids was standing by the door and they were sort of laughing at me and pointing, saying ‘why don’t you fall on the floor while you are at it?’
It’s amazing how Syrians, who never heard gunfire because they lived in a very peaceful country, have gotten used so quickly to living in a state of war, how to respond to it. They’ve very quickly become a mobilized revolutionary society, whereas before they had no experience of doing this.
As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out in an interview regarding KONY 2012, “One thing we know intellectually is that it helps to have a bridge character, that Americans don’t just want to focus on somebody abroad.”
4. Form. In the same way that the videos Syrians upload offer a raw, visceral look at the situation, the imagery from the reporter’s iPhone — not always of the best quality, prone to shaking — gives a perspective that large, professional cameras don’t always capture.
Given the circumstances the reporter is covering as well, a polished, glossy video simply would not make sense. In fact, it might take away from the understanding the documentary is trying to convey.
However, one thing that distinguishes this iPhone documentary from other mobile-captured footage on Syria is editing. The inclusion of music, cutting from one shot to another and positioning clips of interviews side-by-side before zooming in on one specific shot — these editing details provide a more stylized look at the entire situation, which is not something one finds in most Syrian YouTube coverage.
Because the majority of Al Jazeera’s footage itself is from the iPhone, the rawness of the actual situation in Syria — and what that means — doesn’t seem to be compromised.
Of course, this stylized editing is a resource that media outlets have, and a luxury for most people documenting the situation on the ground. But, it speaks volumes of the capacity that journalists have to make the situation in Syria come alive for the rest of the world — which, arguably, has been a battle in itself for the past year.
What do you think of this iPhone documentary? Will mobile devices become the default eyes and ears for reporters? Let us know in the comments.
WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
Syrian Revolution Damascus 15 March 2011
Syrian revolution rallies in Damascus on 15th March 2011