SIFF Film Review – #chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator
#chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator
Technology has made the world a smaller place. Social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube has connected people in ways never done before. While some have used these as a means to share pictures of their cats, others have used them in a much larger capacity. Some even organized a revolution. #chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator (2013) is a documentary showing how a group of protestors used technology to broadcast the atrocities of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his regime. They took advantage of these social networks to put together demonstrations, and capture the violence and destruction for all to see. In the same way television changed perspectives of the Vietnam War, the Internet has changed how we see the crimes of an oppressive government: uncensored, unedited, and immediate.
One of the advantages of working online is that anyone passionate enough can join in on the movement. That is how we’re introduced to Ala’a Basatneh, a 19-year-old Syrian-American living in the suburbs of Chicago. Born in Syria, Ala’a’s family moved to the United States in fear of al-Assad’s government. When we meet her, Ala’a is a freshman attending college. However, her grades are middling, as her attention is deeply focused on helping her people with the Syrian Revolution. Thousands of miles away, Ala’a uses social networking sites to communicate and organize large protests, and upload videos taken right in the middle of the conflict. Her role is crucial; she has access to resources her collaborators simply do not have out on the street.
The director of the film is Joe Piscatella, whose prior credits include co-writing the screenplay for Underdog (2007). How he went from canines with superpowers to the violence in Syria is a mystery, but he presents the story with the skill of an experienced war photographer. He bounces between Ala’a in the U.S. and the civilian journalists in Syria with a heightened level of urgency. Whether he is filming or using another person’s footage, the camera does not hesitate to stick itself in the crossfire. There are moments where bombs are exploding just meters away, but Piscatella stands firm to show as much as possible. There is a nervous energy during these sequences. The regime is well aware of the power online video contains, and instructed the military to fire on anyone who appears to be recording. At one moment, we see a gunman shoot his weapon right at the camera.
We cannot speak of the footage in Syria without mentioning a major contributor, Bassel Shahade. Like Basatneh, Shahade attended school in the U.S. (Syracuse University) and graduated with a degree in film. But he felt compelled to return to Syria, and fight back using his camera. Shahade is a critical member of the revolution, teaching civilian journalists how to shoot the crimes and without implicating other countrymen. The footage in Syria are mostly taken by Shahade himself, he is listed as the film’s director of photography for those scenes. What he shot has an instant effect. He runs, jumps, and eludes explosions happening all around (we often hear him panting for breath), but is always rolling. There is an extended part where Shahade follows another person as they weave through war-torn buildings, climbing through holes made by missiles. What ultimately happens to Shahade I will leave out of this review, but no question the documentary would not leave such a lasting impression if it weren’t for him.
As much as Ala’a and Bassel Shahade utilize cameras, cell phones, and social networking platforms, the resonating question is: how long can they keep this up? Comparisons are made to the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, both of which toppled their governments within thirty days. In the timeline of the documentary, the Syrian Revolution has been going on for months. Frustrations mount when U.N. efforts for intervention fail, and al-Assad’s wave of murder increases. Countless YouTube videos show the gory details, but support from the international community come only in words. For some, simply presenting the atrocities is not enough if the evidence is falling on deaf ears. A scene is dedicated to the emergence of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) a militant group opposed to the regime, and willing to use violence against violence. There are opposing viewpoints at play, one of peace and the other of force. How one decides to choose their path is really what gets to the heart of the matter here.
Piscatella has done something unique with #chicagoGirl. He has taken a very pressing issue (one that is still developing today) and filtered it through the eyes of the Millennial Generation. Information can travel much faster than ever before. Sites like Facebook and Twitter can upload news at a quicker pace than network stations. A person using a phone and a computer can branch out to thousands (even millions) of other people. And in the case of Ala’a Basatneh, group them all toward one singular purpose. That is power in the 21st century.
Also, be sure to check out our interview with director Joe Piscatella and subject Ala’a Basatneh from SIFF 2014.