Olly Lambert speaks to MEMO about his film, The Bombing of al-Bara
"I'm hearing a lot about guys with guns. I'm hearing a lot about guys with beards and I'm hearing a lot about Bashar Al Assad and that's probably about all that's left of the population. What you need to know about Syria is that ninety per cent of what's happening there is just ordinary people having their lives blown to pieces."
The first three days Olly Lambert begun filming in Syria his time was taken up by drinking tea and coffee and eating lunch and dinner with locals, elders, villagers and families. "It got to the third or fourth day and I was saying to my fixer look we need to do some work here, and he rightly said this is work, this is important, they want to know who you are. I never went hungry, I never felt unwelcome, I never felt unprotected" he says.
Lambert, a documentary filmmaker based in London, went to Syria in 2012 to live on either side of a sectarian frontline. Lambert met with all the armed factions operating in the area, and the regime fighters, and documented a community splitting along ethnic and religious lines. This Tuesday, 36 minutes of personally narrated footage he obtained when he was there - The Bombing of al-Bara - will be screened at the Ritzy Cinema in London.
"It felt to me that it was such a vast and complex conflict that was being reduced into quite simple binary terms that never really took account for ordinary Syrians unless they were bedraggled refugees on a border crossing somewhere" says Lambert when I ask him why he decided to go to Syria. "And I thought, there's a big, missing story here that is not only important from a journalistic point of view, but it's almost like a responsibility."
"I'm hearing a lot about guys with guns" he continues, "I'm hearing a lot about guys with beards and I'm hearing a lot about Bashar Al Assad and that's probably about all that's left of the population. What you need to know about Syria is that ninety per cent of what's happening there is just ordinary people having their lives blown to pieces. All the social fabric that you've lived with and that your family have fostered and developed over generations is being ripped apart piece by piece."
During his time spent on the rebel side, Lambert tells me he didn't meet a single foreign fighter. Fighters that he did meet "were incredibly welcoming, they were religious but they were moderate, absolutely wanted to have a democratic process that would produce some kind of free and fair Syria" he explains.
But this is not how the conflict is portrayed in much of the news. "When I came out of Syria that first night in Beirut I went online to look at the news and every article I read was about the growth of jihadi terrorists. I was so disappointed in this solipsistic view of such a complex conflict. It was a very disappointing moment where you realise how self-serving our interests are."
Lambert describes the growth of extremists as a "bogey man that completely plays into our fears and plays into the readership of a newspaper and had little relevance to the tragic reality on the ground, which is a nation getting blown apart." So why is there so much misreporting on Syria? "Like any conflict it does attract adrenaline journalism" says Lambert, "which I think is so horrendous."
Still, there are anti-Assad forces that moving towards extremism. Whilst there, Lambert filmed with a group of activists involved in grassroots projects supporting the community. Off camera, he says, they were vocal about how they were losing the argument with locals that Friday demonstrations were making a difference. This made them feel more and more powerless and people were either no longer becoming involved, or they were being pushed into the hands of armed groups.
"The revolutionaries among the Syrians are losing ground among their own population," says Lambert, "firstly to armed groups and secondly to more extremist ideologies that are undoubtedly taking root."
Ahmad, who is featured in Lambert's longer report Syria: Across the Lines, is an example of what is happening to a generation, he believes. Once part of the regime, he became disillusioned and joined a local armed group. Then he was injured and saw them lose ground so "was compelled to up it slightly."
"His shift from regime, to quite a gentle idealistic rebel who genuinely wanted a free democratic process and a democratically elected ruler, he really wasn't asking for any more than that when I first met him. By the end of it, it's a finger in the air and I want to be a martyr and he did join al-Nusra. He really was an extraordinary avatar for a lot of the young men I met" says Lambert.
These days, perhaps as a result of this, the regime is being more liberal with their journalistic visas. "There's a kind of opening up, because this is the kind of opening up that I think suits the regime in many ways. This is the conflict they want everybody to know about. Bashar's got the war he always wanted and now that's given him a chance to let people in and see it. This is a war that he can not only fight, but he can probably win."
As a filmmaker, Lambert tells me he is interested in "ordinary people in extraordinary situations" and explains that he is always struck by how regular life manages to function. Though prices are high in Syria, he says, there is occasionally electricity, there is water and people are eating. Living conditions may be off the scale, but you can always sense a "kind of a gentle and very visceral humanity that will always exist."
Still, the conflict is very much a pervasive part of everyday life. In ‘Across the Lines,' a man dressed in a white head scarf, Mohammed, rides his motorbike into the fields to check on his sugar beets. As his crops grow in what has now become a no man's land in the dividing line between Sunnis and Alawites, for the last year he has not been able to harvest them. When he tries, he is fired upon; the film becomes shaky and he runs for cover. "It seems like he was used to being shot at," Lambert tells me.
Off camera, Mohammed told Lambert that many people are choosing between going to look after their crops or staying at home to look after their families. Because they can't do both the majority are staying at home. "My sense of it was that the conflict was like a blanket that covered every element of people's lives, it's everywhere," he says. "You can smell it, you can hear it, you can feel it. There's no part of that area where I lived that is not just ridden with this conflict."
"It's affecting family relationships" he continues, "it's killing people, it's stopping friends, people can't farm their land, they can't leave their houses, they can't go to work, they can't earn money, they can't support their families, they're getting killed."
When Lambert first arrived at the valley he found it shockingly beautiful, the kind of place you "couldn't believe" a war would be taking place in. The first night he saw the shelling, he almost didn't believe it was shelling. Yet "there was rarely a day when I didn't see someone dying or dead."
"What that meant was that by the end of the first week when you hear a mortar being fired then, when you've actually seen the impact it's had and you've smelt the blood, then suddenly that sound is incredibly frightening and far more potent than it was when I first arrived. It was incremental." The regime, he believes, is aware of the noise and its power. "It's a very effective way of reminding a population of your presence."
Published in Middle East Monitor