PBS Frontline Documentary: Going Undercover in Syria is a terrifyingly moving look at the violent oppression facing Syrian opposition groups as they organize, and the courage of activists resisting Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
My reactions to the images in the documentary were more visceral than I expected, and it took some time to process before I decided to share this documentary (perhaps, because unlike other countries experiencing violent repression of resistance, I’ve actually been to Syria and walked these streets in safer times). When reporting hits me on a deep, emotional level I have a tendency to gloss over problematic content, sharing, reblogging or posting in and effort to provoke this same emotional reaction within others. Sharing journalistic content online can imply an endorsement of the content in it’s entirety, so I’m going to qualify my endorsement.
- I don’t endorse the simplistic narrative the documentary presents of the Syrian resistance, and I am uncomfortable with how it highlights Russian involvement in Syria without also acknowledging how the history of American and French imperialism also plays into the violent suppression that is happening today.
- I don’t endorse the way in which Ramita Navai’ narration uses words like “freedom” and “democracy” to describe Syrian resistance. This discourse plays into the self-validating narrative constructed by mainstream media and most western governments in their reaction to the complex paths of resistance that have taken shape throughout the Middle East. I don’t support the narrative that the entirety of the Arab Spring is about Arab populations pursuing Liberal-Democratic versions of democratic representations “like us” when the reality is much more complicated.
Democratic tendencies intersects with a range identities, ideas and histories in the Middle East that can differ from the Western Liberal-Democratic tradition; framing the resistance of these activists within a Liberal-Democratic discourse performs a double function of both erasing Arab identities and histories, and limiting the available ways the western audience can conceptualize and react to the exposure of revolutionary actions, images, and slogans that have come with western media coverage of the Arab Spring. If the western audience engaging with revolutionary actions and images are made to believe that the only major revolutions happening in the world today are in pursuit of the same ideas, institutions and democratic methods they already have, this can absorb the revolutionary potential of the west’s exposure to the Arab Spring.
This framing of resistance and revolution within the Liberal-Democratic discourse that gives words like “Freedom” its particularly American meaning serves only to validate the oppressive relationship that Western Liberal Democracies maintain in much of the Middle East and Syria particularly. Clearly there are ethical issues that must be addressed regarding this representation of Syrian resistance and the intentions of those who risked their lives to participate. I cannot endorse the entirety of this documentary, or the narrative it presents for these reasons.
However, in a somewhat contradictory way I do endorse parts of this documentary because of the extreme danger that so many Syrian activists put themselves in to just to contact, house, and inform western press members within Syria. Their courage is inspiring, and humbling, and I respect their decision to engage with western media. Theirs is a story that needs to be told, and it is out of deep respect for their decision to tell it that I have suggested a critical viewing of how it has been retold in this documentary, so that we do not undermine its telling.