Using Skype as a Long-Distance Interviewing Tool to Tell the Story of the Early Days of the Syrian Uprising
Little Gandhi is a documentary from a war zone. Interview subjects perch on plastic chairs in a ruined building, offering audiences a view of the devastated neighborhood as a sniper’s fire rings out in the distance. Cinéma vérité footage documents tanks rolling down city street, bombs dropping from above, and the lifeless, sometimes brutalized bodies of civilians. But the film also finds grace notes. It focuses on the influence of Ghiyath Matar, an activist who became a symbol of peaceful revolution during the early days of civil uprising at the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. It was Matar, nicknamed “Little Gandhi,” who suggested that, instead of meeting the weary, sweaty soldiers of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the streets with Molotov cocktails, the resistance would do better to hand them bottles of water and flowers. It was a way to express their shared humanity, and to counter the idea that the protests were made up of rioters and villains. The notion was idealistic and the gesture was arguably naive in the face of such a brutal regime. (Matar was eventually arrested, tortured, and killed.) But it was inspirational and motivational. It endured. And that’s the story that filmmaker Sam Kadi was driven to tell.
Kadi made Little Gandhi without setting foot in Syria, conducting interviews via Skype and smuggling footage out of the country on USB thumb drives. He says he wanted not just to get their stories out into the world outside Syria, but to remind the Syrian activist community about the beginnings of a conflict that was rooted in righteous, peaceful protest. Little Gandhi has already made a political splash with screenings for members of the U.S. Congress and the Canadian Parliament, and at the United Nations. Now, Kadi is hoping to take the film even wider with an awards-season push in the Oscar categories honoring documentaries and foreign-language films — as a submission made under cover from a hostile political regime, Little Gandhi would be not only the first submission from Syria but also the only submission not supported by the government of its home country. We talked to Kadi about how he got it made in the first place.
StudioDaily: What a vivid and harrowing piece of work. I don’t want to say it puts you in the situation, because obviously it doesn’t. But the level of immersion is so different from what we see on [U.S.] television, where the [international] news is so watered down and processed and there’s a lot of received wisdom, so you don’t hear much directly from the people whose lives are being overturned.
Sam Kadi: What we’re seeing on TV and in the media is everything but the people themselves — the real people. Where are they? Why can’t we hear their stories? Instead, we’re talking about ISIS or refugees. We’re seeing everyone but the real Syrians themselves, and their hopes and fears and dreams. I wanted to bring it down to the people who rose up and demanded freedom and dignity peacefully. To me, they did everything right, and I wanted to remind them of that. I said, “You protested peacefully, and you tried to have your voices heard.” Bottles of water and roses? What a beautiful, peaceful initiative.” Unfortunately, the world didn’t react and didn’t help. And here we are.
Your project was obviously reliant on conducting interviews and getting footage out of Syria itself — and I understand that you never set foot in the country while making it. Was it clear to you that it would be possible to use Skype and other technology to tell this story?
It wasn’t clear at all. Until the last day, I wasn’t sure this project was going to be completed. I had faith that somehow we would manage, but I can’t lie to you and say, ‘Oh yeah, I knew I could do this.’ We were coming up with solutions on the fly and taking suggestions as we went. I have never gone through something like this — never shot a film in a war zone, never directed something over Skype. We were trying to be very innovative and creative. I’ll tell you something about filmmakers. The minute I heard from the activists themselves, on the ground, that this would be a very hard story to tell, that’s what really ignited everything for me. The government had seized everything Matar’s family had — his footage, his pictures — and people thought it would be impossible to make a movie about him. And I said, ‘This is the story I want to tell.’ I didn’t want to fall into the Syrian government’s trap, where they tried to make it too difficult for you to accomplish. This is the mind of a filmmaker — how stubborn we are when it comes to storytelling.
That challenge made you more determined.
I feel that the challenging stories are the right stories. They push you more and make you think out of the box just to get things done. But you don’t really think, in the process, about what you’re actually doing. I was trying to plan things in advance, but I was always getting hit with obstacles. I had never done it before this way, but we found solutions to most of the problems.
So did you start by sitting down and writing the story you wanted to tell, and figuring out the structure? Was that much business as usual?
Yes, of course. I’m director and producer, so I know the story and I can structure things the right way and I know the people who I want to talk to. Those were given. But I’m talking about the technicalities of getting it done without being there on the ground. And your subjects — they might not be alive the next day. That is something I always worried about, and it scared the hell out of me. I was always trying to isolate that idea and not even think about it. You know, would this guy I’m interviewing be safe tomorrow? Would he be alive? Sometimes people would disappear for a week or 10 days and we would have no idea where they had gone. Hopefully they’re safe. But I was watching the news, and this city was getting bombed with an average of 40 barrel bombs a day — and I knew that each barrel bomb could take down an entire building. And then a week later they’d come out of their bunkers, or wherever they had been, and connect with us again.
So I knew my story, I did my research, and I knew who I wanted to talk to. But I didn’t know, technically, how to execute it. At the beginning, we thought we’d be training an activist to shoot material inside the city, and he would end up directing those parts in Syria, conducting interviews and all that. But as we went through this I thought, there’s no way I can do that. I want to talk to these people, and I don’t want anybody to enforce his take on me. I want to dig deep, and I want to meet these people. I want to talk to them as if I am there. So that’s when the idea of doing the entire film over Skype came up. At the beginning it seemed a little delusional, but as we started talking about it, we decided we could get it done.
Was someone shooting the Skype interviews with a separate camera, so you weren’t relying on webcams?
My cinematographer and I used our hotel in Istanbul as our base camp. And we were lucky that our guys [in Syria] had multiple laptops. Basically, we would turn Skype on and they would position their laptop right next to the camera as if I were sitting there — so when you watch the movie, you don’t know that I’m not there. I need the eyeline to be at a certain level to make it believable, but they’re looking through laptop [cameras] at me, sitting in Istanbul. And then we have another laptop that’s monitoring the camera itself, and they have their laptop directed toward the camera. My cinematographer was focused on the framing of what’s on screen, and we were also monitoring the entire set to see how everything was going, including some of the lighting. So I was directing remotely and my team was instructing the crew remotely, but I was calling the shots and the cut as if I were on set — “stop the shot, put the camera here, move closer.” It’s easy to say, but it was a difficult process with all the technicalities associated with doing this in a war zone.
What were some of the other unforeseen challenges?
We never asked, “How are we going to smuggle the footage out of Syria?” Until we were done shooting, I thought we could just upload the footage. I never thought that would be impossible. They were dealing directly with satellites, and you can connect that way — but uploading and downloading is very slow. They could only upload one GB per week if their computers were working 24/7. They said, “We could do that, but it will take three years for you to get the footage!”
How did you get the footage out?
We had to come up with another creative idea. This was on them, to be honest. Finally, after six months, they managed it. One of the activists was brave enough to smuggle the footage out of the city for us. We split up most of what we shot and put it on thumb drives that were taped to his body under his clothes. He managed to smuggle all of those thumb drives to Damascus, and from there we smuggled it to Lebanon, where it was all gathered and put on a hard drive that we shipped to Turkey. From Turkey, the footage was uploaded. We managed to get about 70% of the footage we shot. There were technical issues, as well. We asked them not to send the raw footage. We wanted the lowest resolution we could work with so the files were smaller in size.
It was surprising to me — when I heard this was a documentary shot using Skype, I expected choppy, webcam-quality video. But this footage looks really nice, and that helps make the stories more vivid and compelling.
I always believe that the audience doesn’t really care about your challenges. They care about your story. They want to watch a proper film. Some incredible products are offered for people to view, and you want to meet those high standards, regardless of the challenges you face. That is how I designed it. But when people heard about the challenges we went through just to get the film into the theater, their appreciation was incredible. People were in tears during the Q&A. And that story help us get the attention of Skype itself. They were amazed that we directed a film using their technology.
Have the people in the film had a chance to see it?
Yes, most of them have. We did screenings in a couple of cities in Turkey and invited some of the activists. For the people inside Syria, we managed to get the film to them using a password-protected link and getting them to some temporary place where they could see it. Some of the most important people we wanted to show it to were in Matar’s family, and we managed to show it to his sister in Istanbul, where she delivered an incredible speech after the film. It was a very stressful screening, I can tell you that. These are the people who matter the most to me, and I want to make sure I’ve done what’s right. One thing they asked of me was that they wanted their voices to be heard. I promised to do everything I could to get this out into the world, and I hope I’m honoring my promises.
Little Gandhi will screen for members of AMPAS and industry guilds on Thursday, December 7, at 7 p.m. at the Raleigh Studios Chaplin Theater in Los Angeles. To RSVP, email firstname.lastname@example.org
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