'Ayouni', the documentary film that puts a face to Syria's forcibly disappeared

The bus of the NGO 'Families for freedom', which calls for the release of prisoners forcibly disappeared in Syria at the hands of the regime or various armed groups.
The bus of the NGO 'Families for freedom', which calls for the release of prisoners forcibly disappeared in Syria at the hands of the regime or various armed groups. © Ayouni, Yasmin Fedda 2020

Award-winning Palestinian director Yasmin Fedda's latest documentary, "Ayouni", sheds light on Syria's forced disappearances through the intimate stories of Noura, widow of cyber-activist Bassel Safadi, and Machi, sister of Italian priest Paolo Dall'Oglio, who was abducted in Raqqa in 2013 and whose whereabouts are unknown.


"I don't know if he's alive. I can't be sure he's dead. Until I see his body, I can't mourn him," said Noura Ghazi, who learned in August 2017 that her husband, Bassel Khartabil Safadi, had been executed, five years after he was detained in Damascus and two years after he disappeared. But she knows nothing else. Not where, nor when, nor how: "With a gun? Day or night?” she demanded. For years, the 38-year-old Syrian lawyer and human rights activist has been travelling around the world in search of answers and the "most basic right to say goodbye to my husband". 

Ghazi shares the questions that haunt her in "Ayouni", Fedda's latest documentary, which will be available for streaming on July 1. The Palestinian filmmaker, nominated for a Bafta and the maker of several films about Syria, where she spent her childhood, filmed Ghazi in her quest to find answers about her absent husband. Fedda also followed Immacolata – known as "Machi", the sister of Father Paolo Dall'Oglio. The latter is the Italian priest who in the 1980s founded the Syrian Catholic monastery of Mar Mûsa, north of Damascus, and was later kidnapped in Raqqa by the Islamic State group on July 27, 2013. He has not been heard from since.

Like Safadi and Dall’Oglio, approximately 100,000 people have been forcibly disappeared after being arrested by Bashar al-Assad's regime or abducted by various armed militias, including the Islamic State group, since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011, according to Amnesty International

""Machi" Dall'Oglio holds a photo of his brother, Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, kidnapped in Syria in 2013 by the Islamic State group and missing ever since.
""Machi" Dall'Oglio holds a photo of his brother, Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, kidnapped in Syria in 2013 by the Islamic State group and missing ever since. © Ayouni, Yasmin Fedda 2020

An auteur's film about the complexity of emotions

For six years, Fedda filmed these two women, who did not know each other but were brought together by a common tragedy. "I had started a project on Father Dall'Oglio, a friend of mine, when we learned of his kidnapping. My film then took a different turn," the director told FRANCE 24. From Iraq to Italy through Lebanon and the United Kingdom, she recorded their secrets, their tears and their questions, and filmed their struggle for truth and justice. 

"I tried to capture the complexity of their emotions. In six years, there have been different stages, ranging from anger to hope, but the search for truth has always kept them going," Fedda said. As Machi told her brother's kidnappers in a video posted in 2014, "we hope to hug Paolo, but we are ready to mourn his death."

Neither a journalistic investigation – although the facts are verified – nor a human rights campaign film - though the film’s release partners include Amnesty International and pro-democracy NGO The Syria Campaign, “Ayouni” is the film of an auteur. It is a thought-provoking documentary about war crimes seen through the lens of intimate stories.

"It's not just a film about Syria and forced disappearances, it's a film that touches on universal themes," said Fedda.

The "bride and groom of the revolution"         

"'Ayouni' means eyes in Arabic," Fedda explained. "But it's also a term of affection for the people you love. It can therefore be read in two ways: either what people see or as a testimony of love.”

It’s this second meaning that unites Noura and Bassel, "the bride and groom of the revolution". The couple met in 2011 during an anti-Assad demonstration in Douma. Through video archives, Fedda introduces us to Bassel, a Palestinian-Syrian activist and open-source developer who played a leading role in the free Internet movement, notably by creating Arabic versions of Wikipedia and the Firefox web browser. "I wanted to make him a presence before filming his absence," she said.

The couple got engaged in 2011, before the revolution turned into war. Although Assad has already ordered his armies to fire on demonstrators, Noura and Bassel still believed in change. "We have come such a long way..." they said in archive footage. But in March 2012, Bassel was arrested by the regime. Nevertheless, the couple got married in Adra prison on January 7, 2013, hiding from the guards. Then Bassel disappeared from the radar in 2015, the year in which he was allegedly executed. Allegedly. Noura has learned to learn to live with the uncertainty but has been relentless in her attempts to find out what happened. 

A plea against violations in Syria 

Ghazi, a lawyer and founder of the NGO Nophotozone, which provides legal assistance to the families of the disappeared, has become the voice of tens of thousands of Syrian families who have seen their loved ones vanish into the jails of the Damascus regime. Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria in 2011, an estimated 100,000 people have been forcibly disappeared. On June 16, Ghazi pleaded their case again before the UN Security Council, at the invitation of French President Emmanuel Macron. 

"I'm here to tell you about the suffering of the families of the forcibly disappeared, mostly men, leaving us women to raise children without fathers," she said in a video conference. "I am here to talk to you about the violations of Bashar al-Assad who flouts our laws and our Constitution. (...) I am here to talk to you about the lack of political will to put an end to it. I demand justice and I am ready to pay the high price for it."

Fedda relayed the plea in her generous and empathetic documentary. "I would be happy if my film could make a modest contribution to making their struggle known," the director concluded.

This has been translated from the original article in French.

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