Thanks to mobile tech, the camera has never been as candid
Documentary directors use powerful footage from mobile phones to craft their narratives around. Democratisation of technology has also allowed people in undercovered, underserved parts of the world, document atrocities, able to document human rights violationscolumns Updated: May 12, 2017 16:42 IST
The smartphone that you carry along comprises more computing power than the machines that crunched data for the lunar missions of the 1970s. The cell is still evolving. One of its functions is shooting, though not for the moon, but clips that aren’t just making it to newscasts but into the world of movies, specifically documentaries.
This generation of cellphones is now part of a rapidly evolving genre, where documentary directors use powerful footage to craft their narratives around. Among them is Academy Award-nominated Matthew Heineman, who sought to make a film about the Islamic State and faced the dilemma that defies the media – how do you cover a conflict where your head could end up on the chopping block and that brutality promoted online through slick propaganda videos.
His solution was in the form of the citizen journalist group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently or RBSS, with its expat members sourcing video and images, shot on the sly by anonymous comrades countering the ISIS tale of a utopian Caliphate.
This is the story, as Heineman told me the afternoon after his film, City of Ghosts, screened at Toronto’s Hot Docs film festival, of “democratisation of technology that has allowed people in undercovered, underserved parts of the world, who are able to document atrocities, able to document human rights violations: Use their phones, use social media to spread information around the world.”
This film would not have existed a decade back. And it’s a potent vehicle to hitch a ride on, as Hot Docs’ director of programming Shane Smith believes: “There’s nothing more powerful than a first-person account of what it’s like to be living in this situation.” As Smith elaborates, directors take the raw material and burnish it with cinematic styling: “They are able to broaden focus to include the big picture of what the story is but also intimate, on-the-ground accounts of what happened.” And that certainly makes for moving pictures.
For instance, Exodus, another documentary with footage filmed on camera phones by refugees as they flee their homelands towards Europe, aboard dinghies that are less than seaworthy. Or Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait, where an exiled Paris-based director Ossama Mohammed collaborated with Kurdish activist Wiam Simav Bedirxan in besieged Homs, while using cellphone footage uploaded online by “1001” Syrians to make for 92 minutes of the telling of modern Arabian nightmares.
That much of this pioneering material is originating from West Asia is obvious – because of the sheer human drama that is occurring across the region, mostly away from the lens of professional filmmakers and journalists, leaving the unwilling, often unwitting, actors in these tragedies to also play the role of chronicler; leaving them to their own devices.
In that sense, the cellphone is playing a role larger than that of being a selfie-serving object. The mobile is, literally, the latest device in filmmaking and chronicling extremism. The camera has rarely been as candid.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs
The views expressed are personal