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Khaled Abdelwahed’s first feature JELLYFISH was originally invited to premiere at the Forum, but after one of the film’s protagonists was detained in Syria, the filmmaker and his producers deemed that screening the film at the festival might bring undue harm to his already ominous situation. The film will therefore only be screened once the protagonist in question has been released and is safe. This conversation is an expression of the editors of this publication’s admiration and support for Khaled Abdelwahed’s achievement in making JELLYFISH.

The well-known saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” gains true salience when applied to war journalism, with one of the earliest uses of the adage stemming from a 1918 advertisement of the "San Antonio Light" that reads: “One of the Nation's Greatest Editors Says: One Picture is Worth a Thousand Words; 'The San Antonio Light's Pictorial Magazine of the War' exemplifies the truth of the above statement—judging from the warm reception it has received at the hands of the 'Sunday Light' readers.”* Whether in the realms of popular culture or the collective imaginary, the association between conflicts and images is indeed far stronger and more common than that with words, texts, even slogans.

On the one hand, the production of images and representations is part and parcel of the battleground because the spectacle of war has the power to incarnate. On the other hand however, there is another kind of representation, the sort of observational or eye-witness reporting which photojournalists produce and whose mandate is a mediation aimed at mobilising the understanding and empathy of the world’s eyes and conscience with respect to the fate that others are enduring under the duress of conflict, whether nearby or in some other far-off corner of the world. These images are essentially intended to protect the defenseless and safeguard the humanity of all within conditions that are inhumane. The 2011 civilian insurrection in Syria that later devolved into an armed conflict might be a milestone in the history of war photojournalism because an unquantifiable number of still and moving images were and continue to be produced by amateur, untrained or unaccredited photojournalists. This massive body of images has constituted the only visual documentation of the conflict available to the media.

Syrian photographer Khaled Abdelwahed was in the US when the insurrection broke out and found himself glued to his television and computer screens, following the unimaginable uprising through images captured by others. In 2012, he could no longer bear experiencing the political upheavals mediated in such a way so he travelled back to Syria. By then, violence was beginning to pervade the entire country and Damascus had become a heavily policed security fortress. He expected to produce images himself, both still and moving, but he did not. Shortly after his return, he was forced to flee and escaped to Beirut, where he once again found himself glued to screens, spellbound. As Abdelwahed recounts: “Those images hounded me and I hounded them. When I went back to Damascus, I was disheartened that I was not able to produce any. When I had to leave Syria and found myself grasping the country’s everyday reality through them again, I began to interrogate the role and value of such images. The most obvious thing about them was their tragic destiny, these images that first emerged to convey hope and celebrate life that within a short period of time became a confirmation of death. Furthermore, the images that attested to a ‘victory’ of one party were in fact legitimising killing and fuelling the machine of war. In fact, the images that were being disseminated and broadcast were almost exclusively part of the conflict. There was no longer any impartiality. I also became aware that a single event was captured from different perspectives.”

In Beirut, Abdelwahed met a photographer from a small town that had been the site of fierce battles. It is then he decided to make a film about these images and their makers, to sound out the intriguing bond between ‘truth’ and its ‘image’ – as if to unlock their spell. And that’s how JELLYFISH, his feature-length came to be. “My set-up had to be simple and rigorous”, he explained, “I sat in a darkened room with a camera, my ‘protagonist’, his/her images projected on a blank wall and asked questions. I chose four people who were active in that same small town. They were surprisingly uninhibited in disclosing and reflecting on their approach and motivations and very generous in sharing all their images.” The four protagonists embody the different ‘devolutionary’ stages of the political crisis, from non-violent insurrection to outright war, a structure inherent to the transformation of content and role of the images. He filmed the protagonists where they had fled to, in Beirut, Istanbul and Paris, systematically replicating the same set-up. “The only thing that changed in every city is what the window in the room faced”, he commented. As he filmed and listened to their stories, the spell was unlocked, but his “position” was increasingly unsettling, in his words: “I was lodged between the images projected on the wall and the window on to the outside world. The images had lost their evocative, emotional power over me.” Would Syrians have been better off without all these thousands of images circulating across media and social networks? “Absolutely not. The images come from a necessity, their motivations and uses are able to be diverse, multiple and part of the conflict. This is what I wanted to unearth in the film, what is outside the frame and behind the image. For instance, one of my protagonists who had been detained in the regime’s jails went after his release to a small town controlled by anti-regime forces and started to photograph and to film. Soon, he found himself taking photographs of a jail and its detainees, representing a ‘familiar’ experience he had endured from the point of view of the victims, but was now accessible to him from with the point of view of the tormentors/fighters.”

Why JELLYFISH? Abdelwaheed sighed with sadness, “I read the story of a mother and her three daughters who had taken a boat to Italy seeking asylum in Europe. The boat capsized, the three daughters drowned but the mother survived. The newspaper story noted there were no images of the fatal accident. At that time, I was feeling drowned in images, and I could no longer see. The story moved me deeply. I began to wonder what might have been the most beautiful thing the daughters could have seen as they were drowning in the Mediterranean? A jellyfish perhaps, no doubt. They are actually quite beautiful. Those drowning girls had given me back my sight, the film is also my debt of gratitude to them.”

Funded by:

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