'Mani' documentary questions ethics of Syrian video activists

Syrians protest against President Bashar al-Assad's regime following Friday prayers in Binnish, Idlib province, near the Turkish border. Syria reportedly accepted the six-point UN peace plan that calls for a cessation of hostilities, evacuation of wounded, and political reconciliation.

A new documentary out of Homs by an up-and-coming filmmaker and journalist known as "Mani" showed some amateur Syrian video activists dramatizing footage in their fight to keep world attention focused on the crisis there, Britain's Channel 4 reported.

The documentary out of Syria's flashpoint city of Homs, which aired Tuesday on Britain's Channel 4, follows activists over several weeks in January and February.

The man behind the camera goes by "Mani" to protect his safety, with Syria in the grip of a humanitarian crisis due to a brutal government crackdown on a nearly year-long popular revolt against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad. The United Nations recently said over 9,000 people have been killed in the violence, to widespread international outcry. 

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While most of the footage out of Syria focuses on rights violations there, Channel 4's Mani, who speaks fluent Arabic, turned his camera on the activists busy behind their own lenses.

The result? Mani's documentary depicts a group of young, passionate, tech-savvy activists caught up in a pivotal debate over the most effective way to depict events there -- reporting decisions that take on significance at a time in which the world has little choice but to rely on such citizen journalism work. 

 “I’m not saying what they upload is not real. It is. But they are selective,” the 40-year-old French filmmaker told The Daily Beast. “There is no nuance. But I think it’s difficult for them to be nuanced.”

The documentary is likely to be welcomed by Syria's embattled regime, which has already gone to great lengths to change the media narrative domestically and internationally, going so far as to establish a Syrian Electronic Army to monitor the information war online.

But Jillian York, the director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation told The Daily Beast that Syrian activists "are up against a whole lot more than Tunisians and Egyptians" faced during anti-government uprisings in their respective countries, "not just in terms of violence, but also with the pro-regime narrative.”

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Still, Channel 4 editors see the documentary as critical to getting beyond a black-and-white picture of Syria. “News organizations have been relying on these guys for footage for the last six months, but they’re not journalists," editor Nevine Mabro told The Daily Beast. "They have a message they want out.”

Some of the footage shot by these amateur filmmakers goes straight to CNN or Al Jazeera. The videos posted by 23-year-old Danny Abdul Dayem, for example, has led to his christening as “voice of Homs" by CNN

But as Mani's documentary makes clear, when it comes to events on the ground, some activists can change their tune. The Washington Post noted the case of Syrian amateur video journalist Omar Telawi, who Mani depicts adding a staged smoke backdrop to a shot.

Telawi "made no apologies to Channel 4," the Washington Post observed, with Telawi arguing the special effect was merited if it reflected the greater truth on the ground and helped draw world attention.

Countries in conflict can pose a host of moral questions, but Mani's work shows Syrian activists caught up in their "fog of war" -- sometimes, apparently, it's one of their own fabrication.