Filmmaker Heba Khaled’s ‘People of the Wasteland’ takes viewers onto the battlefields of Syria

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Thu, 2020-01-16 09:34

DUBAI: Seeing Middle Eastern war zones through the eyes of a
soldier is a daily occurrence for many people across the globe. For
two decades, first-person-shooter video games including
“Counterstrike” and “Call of Duty” have replicated the
region’s battlefields and allowed players to gleefully commit
acts of violence for recreational purposes. These perennially
popular games continue to evolve with the times — and to make
their developers very, very rich: 2019’s “Call of Duty: Modern
Warfare” grossed $600 million on the first weekend of its
release. It was directly inspired by the ongoing conflict in
Syria.

In 2013, Syrian filmmaker Heba Khaled was given footage shot on
a GoPro that was eerily similar to the experience of playing a
video game. In it, a Syrian revolutionary, wearing the camera on
his head, was engaged in combat — shooting at enemies and running
for his life. 

“It was just one piece of footage — five minutes long —
(but just from that) I decided to make a film about the war in
first-person view that looked like ‘Counterstrike’ — which
most teenagers in Syria used to play until the moment they found
they could carry a weapon in real life,” Khaled says. “It’s
about how, unconsciously, masculine brains accept the idea of
killing if someone gives them an ideology or a reason.”

Khaled uses that original footage and more like it to string
together a narrative — part-documentary and part-fiction — that
gives viewers a first-hand perspective of a day in the life of a
soldier on a Syrian battlefield. The resulting film, “People of
the Wasteland,” is a powerful and upsetting document of the
realities of war from a perspective to which so many have become
desensitized.

Khaled uses that original footage and more like it to string
together a narrative that gives viewers a first-hand perspective of
a day in the life of a soldier on a Syrian battlefield. (Courtesy:
Jouzour Film Production)

“In those games you get the impression that you know how war
looks,” Khaled tells Arab News.  “But with those games, when
you die, you stand up again. In our film, when a person gets
killed, he doesn’t get to play again. Someone else takes the game
from him and puts it on his head.”

Khaled is no stranger to the violence and destruction of the war
in Syria. She has been working as a media correspondent, with her
husband Talal Derki — the Oscar-nominated director of the
harrowing documentary “Of Fathers and Sons,” about a loving
father raising his young sons to be Islamic militants — from the
start of the conflict, which has claimed the lives of people she
loved and destroyed the areas in which she and family members were
raised.

“I met Heba when she was working for the radio when the
revolution started in Syria,” Derki says. “We worked together
for two years as anonymous reporters on the ground for Thompson
Reuters, CNN, and Arab channels. I moved to Homs, and then to
Europe, and we were still discussing how we can be valuable. We
were always focused, together, on what we should export to the
world.

“We worked on ‘Of Fathers and Sons’ together, and it was
tough,” he continues. “We support each other differently from
project to project. We are very strong partners. We are both from
Damascus, and we both speak Arabic, and we know the same people on
the ground, so together we were able to develop this
project.” 

As the two worked on “Of Fathers and Sons.” with Khaled
serving as producer, she gathered as much GoPro footage as she
could find through her and her husband’s various connections
across Syria, slowly compiling 10 hours of footage that she
whittled down to a final product the length of a sitcom. In order
to make the narrative more cohesive, her collaborator Ahmed Nasser
shot some additional footage to complete the story. The rest of it
is all real — even the deaths. 

The film isn’t solely an unflinching depiction of the brutality
of combat. (Courtesy: Jouzour Film Production)

“This is the endless death of the frontline. This is the most
savage moment you can imagine that a person can live in his life,
especially as a man,” says Khaled. “There’s no way I could
have shot this myself, because I’m not a fighter. This could only
be filmed by a fighter, not a filmmaker. For me, I feel very sad
for all of the things that are gone and lost in this war. That’s
why I made this film, to be a message to show what the war really
looks like,” she continues. “It looks like a video game. But
there is no happy ending. The war will never end.” 

The film isn’t solely an unflinching depiction of the
brutality of combat, though. At times it zooms in on the humanity
and emotional range of its subjects, as they try to find their
bearings in an irrational and toxic setting.  

“It was my (deliberate) intention to use moments that show
people confused and stressed — becoming very human, but like
animals at the same time — in order to make people feel the chaos
of war,” Khaled explains. “For young people, there is not a
clear idea of what it means to be at war and to participate in a
war. The film never tells you who the soldiers are, or who is
fighting who, (because I wanted to) give the viewer a sense of
general war, rather than just the war in Syria.”

Derki, who, along with Khaled, has traced the entire tragic arc
of the conflict in Syria through his documentaries and journalism,
can’t help but be reminded how any cause — no matter how
righteous — can become poisoned by violence.

Her film ends with the anonymous soldier falling to the ground,
dead, as the camera continues to roll. (Courtesy: Jouzour Film
Production)

“The footage, when I look at it, makes me feel so bad that all
these valuable ideas can end in a savage way,” he says.  “If
you look at the beginning, at where it all started, and the values,
and the honor, and the sacrifice… everything turned so that you
become the monster that you fight.”

“These soldiers have an idea that they are on the right side;
that they are the victims,” says Khaled. “Whatever your
(situation) though, when you decide to carry a weapon and go
fighting, the result will change you from victim to killer. Using
weapons, in any conflict, makes things worse than anyone could
anticipate.”

Her film ends with the anonymous soldier falling to the ground,
dead, as the camera continues to roll — underlining the
difference between bestselling videogames and the grim reality of
war.

“More than 80 percent of the people who appear in the film are
already dead,” says Khaled. “Not just the man (with) a camera
on his head. He didn’t have the camera for reporting — they
made this footage to make propaganda about their victory for their
group — a victory that never came. 

“It’s important for people to know that this is a circle of
death, and nothing can change that cycle,” she concludes. “It
will smash everything and continue on with new players.”

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Source: FS – All – Interesting – News
Filmmaker Heba Khaled’s ‘People of the Wasteland’ takes viewers onto the battlefields of Syria