Lead character in Syria war film emerged from carnage

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When Mohammed Soueid started shooting a film about Syria's civil war, he collected footage from three activist cameramen and had no idea who his lead character would be.

It was only as he looked over the shots that it became the story of Abu Bakr, a rebel with the Islamist Al Tawheed Brigade fighting in the streets of Aleppo from February until October 2012.

“When I reviewed the shots I found that there is one character who is always there and that is Abu Bakr and his story is developing. He was living the story,” Soueid said.

The Lebanese director spoke to Reuters after a screening of his film “Hanging Dates Under Aleppo's Citadel” at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this week.

“He was not a military man,” Soueid said of Abu Bakr. “He was just someone who started his political opposition through peaceful protests and then when he found himself face to face with the bombardment and oppression he held a weapon and started to fight.”

The documentary is spliced with shots of intense fighting in Aleppo and its destruction. Bullet holes riddle stone walls of the northern city and whole houses are leveled to the ground by air strikes and bombings. Bodies of those killed in the fighting are a reminder of the brutality of the war.

Syria's upheaval, which began as a protest movement against President Bashar al-Assad 2-1/2 years ago, has turned into a civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people and sent millions fleeing from their homes.

The film shows the plight of Syrians standing for hours to get a loaf of bread and the millions crammed into refugee camps.

The images shift from scenes of the daily life of Abu Bakr - talking about his father, who was “disappeared” by the Syrian secret police in the early 1980s during the government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, and to his children who live in a refugee camp in Turkey away from their father.

The film also shows nervous civilians giving their thoughts to the camera about the war and the rebels controlling their neighbourhoods as well as Islamist fighters talking about the future of Syria - one of the bastions of Arab secularism - if Assad falls.

Soueid said he wanted to show how fighters on the ground discuss the future of their country post-Assad and not just the view of outsiders.

Bearded rebels are asked what they think should happen to a man who drinks alcohol in his own house or to a woman who wears a short skirt. Their answers are usually moderate, saying it depends on each person's religious views.

“What attracted me is that such discussions are not banned inside Syria but it was the first time I heard it from people who are fighting the regime, not just from an analyst on television,” Soueid said.

Islamist forces have grown in power as the Syrian conflict developed into an armed insurgency after a crackdown by Assad's forces. Militant groups, some linked to al Qaeda, have become even stronger in the ensuing civil war.

The film's final scenes show Abu Bakr sitting on the floor next to the picture of the father whom he never knew and singing about dreaming to be a martyr.

Although the film does not say so, Soueid says Abu Bakr is still alive and fighting.

The film's title comes from one of the few palindromes in Arabic. At the end Soueid shows the phrase again - a hint that the end of the war is nowhere near.

“For me, the situation in Syria in general is like when you think you have reached the end of something but then you find yourself starting it all over again,” Soueid said.

“The start is the end and the end is the start at the same time.”

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