DUBAI: Seeing Middle Eastern war zones through the eyes of a soldier is a daily occurrence for many people across the globe. For two decades, first-person-shooter video games including “Counterstrike” and “Call of Duty” have replicated the region’s battlefields and allowed players to gleefully commit acts of violence for recreational purposes. These perennially popular games continue to evolve with the times — and to make their developers very, very rich: 2019’s “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” grossed $600 million on the first weekend of its release. It was directly inspired by the ongoing conflict in Syria.
In 2013, Syrian filmmaker Heba Khaled was given footage shot on a GoPro that was eerily similar to the experience of playing a video game. In it, a Syrian revolutionary, wearing the camera on his head, was engaged in combat — shooting at enemies and running for his life.
“It was just one piece of footage — five minutes long — (but just from that) I decided to make a film about the war in first-person view that looked like ‘Counterstrike’ — which most teenagers in Syria used to play until the moment they found they could carry a weapon in real life,” Khaled says. “It’s about how, unconsciously, masculine brains accept the idea of killing if someone gives them an ideology or a reason.”
Khaled uses that original footage and more like it to string together a narrative — part-documentary and part-fiction — that gives viewers a first-hand perspective of a day in the life of a soldier on a Syrian battlefield. The resulting film, “People of the Wasteland,” is a powerful and upsetting document of the realities of war from a perspective to which so many have become desensitized.
“In those games you get the impression that you know how war looks,” Khaled tells Arab News. “But with those games, when you die, you stand up again. In our film, when a person gets killed, he doesn’t get to play again. Someone else takes the game from him and puts it on his head.”
Khaled is no stranger to the violence and destruction of the war in Syria. She has been working as a media correspondent, with her husband Talal Derki — the Oscar-nominated director of the harrowing documentary “Of Fathers and Sons,” about a loving father raising his young sons to be Islamic militants — from the start of the conflict, which has claimed the lives of people she loved and destroyed the areas in which she and family members were raised.
“I met Heba when she was working for the radio when the revolution started in Syria,” Derki says. “We worked together for two years as anonymous reporters on the ground for Thompson Reuters, CNN, and Arab channels. I moved to Homs, and then to Europe, and we were still discussing how we can be valuable. We were always focused, together, on what we should export to the world.
“We worked on ‘Of Fathers and Sons’ together, and it was tough,” he continues. “We support each other differently from project to project. We are very strong partners. We are both from Damascus, and we both speak Arabic, and we know the same people on the ground, so together we were able to develop this project.”
As the two worked on “Of Fathers and Sons.” with Khaled serving as producer, she gathered as much GoPro footage as she could find through her and her husband’s various connections across Syria, slowly compiling 10 hours of footage that she whittled down to a final product the length of a sitcom. In order to make the narrative more cohesive, her collaborator Ahmed Nasser shot some additional footage to complete the story. The rest of it is all real — even the deaths.
“This is the endless death of the frontline. This is the most savage moment you can imagine that a person can live in his life, especially as a man,” says Khaled. “There’s no way I could have shot this myself, because I’m not a fighter. This could only be filmed by a fighter, not a filmmaker. For me, I feel very sad for all of the things that are gone and lost in this war. That’s why I made this film, to be a message to show what the war really looks like,” she continues. “It looks like a video game. But there is no happy ending. The war will never end.”
The film isn’t solely an unflinching depiction of the brutality of combat, though. At times it zooms in on the humanity and emotional range of its subjects, as they try to find their bearings in an irrational and toxic setting.
“It was my (deliberate) intention to use moments that show people confused and stressed — becoming very human, but like animals at the same time — in order to make people feel the chaos of war,” Khaled explains. “For young people, there is not a clear idea of what it means to be at war and to participate in a war. The film never tells you who the soldiers are, or who is fighting who, (because I wanted to) give the viewer a sense of general war, rather than just the war in Syria.”
Derki, who, along with Khaled, has traced the entire tragic arc of the conflict in Syria through his documentaries and journalism, can’t help but be reminded how any cause — no matter how righteous — can become poisoned by violence.
“The footage, when I look at it, makes me feel so bad that all these valuable ideas can end in a savage way,” he says. “If you look at the beginning, at where it all started, and the values, and the honor, and the sacrifice… everything turned so that you become the monster that you fight.”
“These soldiers have an idea that they are on the right side; that they are the victims,” says Khaled. “Whatever your (situation) though, when you decide to carry a weapon and go fighting, the result will change you from victim to killer. Using weapons, in any conflict, makes things worse than anyone could anticipate.”
Her film ends with the anonymous soldier falling to the ground, dead, as the camera continues to roll — underlining the difference between bestselling videogames and the grim reality of war.
“More than 80 percent of the people who appear in the film are already dead,” says Khaled. “Not just the man (with) a camera on his head. He didn’t have the camera for reporting — they made this footage to make propaganda about their victory for their group — a victory that never came.
“It’s important for people to know that this is a circle of death, and nothing can change that cycle,” she concludes. “It will smash everything and continue on with new players.”