“In the front is red fire
In the rear is red smoke
Stay wisely in between
Stay near the standard bearer
The first ones always die
The last ones are also hit
Those in the center come home.”
War is unimaginable to those of us who have not been in it. We depend on reporters and cameras to tell us what it is like, and even then we can feel numb to the explosions and “collateral damage,” as the spinspeak goes. As a teaching artist, I think of myself as more of a domestic worker, someone working to strengthen schools and community centers back home, rather than as someone who could be involved in telling the stories of the tragic outcomes of armed conflict.
This past year I congratulated myself repeatedly on how adept I had become at using my iPhone to record snippets of song ideas in workshops I led at Carnegie Hall in New York City. I even mentioned it again as part of my presentation at the International Teaching Artists Conference in Edinburgh (ITAC3, #ITAC3C), you know, cleverly urging people to use the technology at hand, and that sort of thing. Imagine how my mind was blown when I learned at that same conference about Yasmin Fedda and the work she does with filmmakers in Syria to create heart-wrenching and thought-provoking documentaries with nothing but a mobile phone.
A film about a young boy who loses his hand and much of his mental ability as a result of the detonation of a bomb he thinks is a toy. A film about a teenager who watches the devastation of his country and responds by building elaborate models of a new city that could someday rise out of the ashes. A film about the barbed wire fences at the border between Syria and Turkey, which eventually beckon desperate Syrians to hurl themselves directly into the face of death. All these stories told through footage shot entirely on the same iPhone I carry in my pocket, the same iPhone I use to casually check the weather or receive a text from home. The films are edited in a hurry, usually no more than 2 hours per film, and under conditions that are as hard to imagine as the stories they tell.
Teaching artists in Syria bring equipment and coaching expertise, support, and the opportunity to share the work beyond the borders of Syria. Just as we try to allow songwriters to write their own songs and conceive their own arrangements, these film editors support their directors as they storyboard and then edit their documentaries, fighting the clock all the way. There are so many things we have in common, as teaching artists, and yet there are so many ways in which they are war journalists, and so many ways in which I strain to imagine the complexity and danger of the work they do.
Yasmin Fedda said, “I have a bias. And I have to acknowledge I have a bias, otherwise I cannot work in such a situation [like Syria]…” She is opposed to the actions of the Assad regime, and she has a specific agenda when it comes to what she believes should happen to resolve the conflict. She said, “I must be totally transparent about my opinions, with my collaborators, but most importantly, with myself.” I realize that that is true of me, too. I do not work in a war zone – though this work certainly makes me ask why not? – but I have a bias, too. It has to do with growing income inequality and racism and the place of education in the United States, but she made me realize how important it is to recognize our biases and be transparent about them. Often we are timid about our own political stances because we work for cultural institutions, and we don’t want to rock the boat or needlessly offend a board member or a funder. But more and more it seems, we are in need of clarity and confidence about the purpose of our work. And that includes acknowledging we have an opinion about what should happen in the world.
Yasmin Fedda and her amazing project have helped me think more deeply about that this summer. I am grateful to ITAC3 for bringing me into an international community of teaching artists whose work I am only beginning to learn about.
You can learn more at: http://highlightarts.org/projects/category/syria/
More stories of ITAC3 to come!