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Laura King writes:When journalist and filmmaker Ramita Navai speaks of courage, she isn’t taking about her own, considerable though it is. In discussing her award-winning documentary film “Syria Undercover,” she alludes again and again to the bravery of activists and dissidents who helped her and producer Wael Dabbous piece together an often harrowing portrait of the early days of the Syrian opposition movement.
Unable to report openly on the uprising, the pair spent weeks in clandestine constant contact with activists who had left behind lives as teachers and businessmen to devote themselves the struggle against the Assad regime _ a ragtag band that was just beginning to coalesce into the Free Syrian Army. The filmmakers endured danger and hardship along with their subjects, including a heart-poundingly close call when Syrian government forces and militiamen raided homes adjacent to the safe house where they and a trio of fugitives were sheltering in the town of Madaya.
Getting into Syria, and convincingly playing the part of innocuous tourists once there, took both ingenuity and steely nerves. Navai and Dabbous posed as a wealthy Middle Eastern couple taking in the sights. The British-Iranian Navai recounted the jarring incongruity of sailing through government checkpoints done up as a “Beiruti cutie” complete with heavy makeup, designer clothing and immaculately coiffed hair, all the while plotting their next assignation with the opposition.
Alternating between their “cover” and their perilous tasks, the two constantly feared discovery by the authorities, which would have likely resulted in expulsion for them, but imprisonment, torture or death for their activist contacts. They used proxy servers to communicate via Facebook, carried relatively unsophisticated home-video equipment, and hid or handed off new footage as soon as it was shot, replacing it with harmless-looking touristic scenes.They knew many of their subjects only by their noms de guerre - it was safer for both.
The enterprise ended abruptly when Navai and Dabbous realized they had been compromised, returning after midnight one night to their boutique-style Damascus hotel only to learn from the frightened receptionist that security operatives had come looking for them. Reluctantly, they realized it was time to go. But their smuggled-out trove of footage - injured fighters and civilians and the defiant doctors who risked death to treat them, riveting eyewitness testimony about the regime’s abuses - awaited assembling.
Even now, more than a year after the fact, Navai’s admiration for her opposition contacts is clear_ as are her continuing fears for their safety. It is worth bearing in mind that the events depicted took place in 2011, when the opposition cause carried greater moral clarity than now_ before word emerged of some rebel factions engaging in atrocities of their own, and prior to the split between the “mainstream” opposition and hard-line Islamist rebels.But as a portrait of a time and place, “Syria Undercover” stands as a clear-eyed look at not only the grassroots battle against a brutal regime, but a glimpse of the power of an unflinching lens.