WHAT IT’S ABOUT: Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, a fighter puts on a GoPro camera on his forehead and proceeds with the everyday grind on the frontline. First comes the rigorous training, like jumping through fiery hoops. Then, the scouting of the ruins of a local village, where the remnants of human life are still fresh, and the dust is still settling. Finally, a bus full of fighters departs for a special operation, where they will seize hostages and argue about the best means of dealing with them. The camera doesn’t even whirr, just indiscriminately captures everything that unravels in front of the fighter. Everything—even death and gore that the fighter encounters in troves and has to pass by like a driver speeding by billboards on a highway. Real footage from real insurgents fighting in Syria is carefully arranged into a narrative documentary essay that’s disturbingly akin to a Call of Duty screen-grab. It presents an unflinching, uncensored look into the realities of war. The film is currently under consideration for Best Documentary Short.
WHO MADE IT: Writer and director Heba Khaled is a Kurdish-Syrian filmmaker from Damascus, who has worked as a writer, reporter, fixer, producer, and radio host for CNN, Reuters, Al Arabiya and others in both Syria and Lebanon. Khaled started collecting footage for her film in 2014, through a network of cameramen on the ground in Syria that she encountered in her work. Having lost 20 relatives in the Syrian Civil War, Khaled finally moved to Berlin, where she finished the film. Talal Derki is Khaled’s husband, as well as the director of the acclaimed film “Of Fathers and Sons,” which was nominated for the Best Documentary Academy Award in 2019. When filming “Of Fathers and Sons,” Derki lived with a family of an Al-Busra insurgent to better understand the relationship between a radicalized father and his sons. Derki was able to procure additional GoPro footage from the war during work on his film, and became the producer for “People of the Wasteland.” There were six insurgent fighters in total making the footage used in the film, and their names and specific affiliations are never mentioned, although they were all fighting on the side of the Syrian rebels and the Turkish army. Khaled and editor Alex Bakri decided to frame the narrative in a way that makes it seem like there is only one combatant protagonist in “People of the Wasteland.” Out of the six contributors, five have been confirmed dead.
WHY DO WE CARE: There is an interesting split that exists in the common understanding of ongoing conflicts, specifically the Syrian Civil War. Visual and audible access to the participants’ lives and deaths, from civilians in sieged cities to ISIS fighters, gets easier every day, with journalists, filmmakers, and participants sharing a vast amount of oral and visual histories. At the same time, those who do not live in ultimate proximity to the war’s theatre remain vague on its subject, with its complicated pattern of factions and allegiances. It allows for propaganda and punditry from all sides to shape favorable opinions of the masses necessary for the support of attacks and strikes. The one truth of war, which seemed settled and finite in the aftermath of many previous ones, seems missing: wars are not only suffered but also fought by ordinary people. True, the Syrian Civil War, in particular, is rich in both fundamentalist military organizations, where ideology is the driving force, as well as mercenary fighters, who are engaged in war professionally. But frankly, there is very little difference between motives for participation in conflicts: the lures of religion, capitalism, or nationalism are all equally enticing, and worthless as grounds for loss of life. “People of the Wasteland” has a limited supporting narrative and omits details such as the fighters’ allegiance, instead allowing the viewer to focus entirely on the events unwrapping in front of the GoPro wielding fighter. This way, the film becomes a concise, gripping, and paralyzing view of absolutely pointless masculine exercises that end in most of the participants’ death.
WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: There is nothing that could be filmed with GoPro, one of the pinnacles of contemporary communications, that’s as barbaric, outdated, and unnecessary in the 21st century as military combat. And this seemingly irreconcilable duality is what makes Heba Khaled’s film absolutely brilliant. This absurdist merge of the medium and the message makes it a profound reflection on why we as a species are so utterly lost and confused. Watching it without prior introduction, one could easily think that the events unwrapping on screen come from the latest, hyperrealistic edition of “Call of Duty”, the video game that fetishizes the mundanity of military action. But the fact that it is real footage made by real people who had died real deaths is hard to classify using the usual ethical and aesthetic markers. And the film inadvertently transcends into the meta, or experimental category, when in fact, there is nothing about this film that’s not rooted in concrete reality. Sure, the narrative of “People of the Wasteland” is the product of Khaled’s writing and directorial decisions, and Barki’s editing. But unlike the majority of documentary films, this one wouldn’t drastically change if it had been consciously edited in any other way. Made less comprehensive and unwieldy, lengthier, perhaps, or more didactic—but only radical censoring would make the terrible outcome of the filming exercise at the center of the film, as well as the war in general, disappear. And while there is little about “People of the Wasteland” that’s optimistic, life-affirming or coddling to the viewer, it’s actually a film with much more humanity than most films about war: humanity not in its gentle, whitewashed version, but in the disgusting, deadly, twisted iteration. “People of the Wasteland” is a gut punch with no hug to follow, the ultimate “GAME OVER” message blasting the viewer’s head off, with no “restart” button to press. It must be watched because to avoid it would mean avoiding reality.
People of the Wasteland (Soukaan Al-Ard Al-Yabaab), 2019
Director: Heba Khaled
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