The Vera List Center for Art and Politics gives a biennial prize to an artwork that advances social justice. Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Projects was its initial prize. This year, an anonymous filmmaking collective in Syria, Abounaddara, was the unanimous choice. And what an inspiring choice it is.
Abounaddara calls what they do “emergency cinema.” Charif Kiwan, the representative of an otherwise anonymous collective, visited the New School to begin conversations about the exhibit and curricular activities that will commence in the fall. He recalled the unending days of war, in 2010, when they began: what else could we do, he said? They made brief (1-4min.) films, available weekly on their website. The films are an eye on to Syria, daily life in war, and creation in the midst of destruction. There is humor, music, love, and, yes, tragedy. These films are their voice, their answer to questions – or, at least, answers to questions they hope people outside Syria might ask. Because it is also a plea for attention, not to the bloody wreckage of battle but to everyday life, to the people and activities that fall outside the typical news camera eye focused on the most dramatic and terrible acts.
One of the most compelling aspects of their action is to claim “the right to the image”: people at the end of the camera have the right to make, edit, and control images of themselves. In the age of the selfie and the whiplash circulation of social media in our own culture, this seems both obvious and remarkably difficult. Imagine, then, to be in an overlooked country wrought by turmoil where the images serve as attempts to garner necessary attention and aid, but also are as often a perpetuation of voice spoken by others, manipulation for others’ politics. These films are their riposte. Let us show you Syria. Let us reveal betrayal, conflict, survival, and thriving. When we would ask a question, Charif would run to the computer to bring up a film that he felt answered the question better than he could alone, or with words.
Abounaddara has taken this claim for “the right to the image” to the United Nations, with the goal of updating the Declaration of Human Rights for the 21st century and our image-saturated world. (I’m reminded of my fabulous student and advisee, Ellen Tolmie, former Senior Photography Editor of UNICEF, who schooled me on the same issue in regards to photographing children.) Let the campaign begin. More to come at the New School in the fall.