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Ottawa shows support at screenings of documentary about Syrian uprising


Recent Ottawa screenings of the award-winning film Little Gandhi: The lost truth of the Syrian uprising, were warmly received by parliamentarians and the public alike.

The film shares the rarely told story of Ghiyath Matar and other brave Syrian activists who led the country’s first non-violent protest in the Damascus suburb of Daraya in 2011, before Syria’s descent into civil war. When Matar was faced with soldiers sent to quash activist demonstrations, he greeted them with flowers and bottles of water to keep them hydrated in the hot sun. This message of peace and tolerance became his hallmark, sparking a movement of peaceful protest that eventually earned Matar the nickname “Little Gandhi”. He was arrested for his activism in 2011, and brutally tortured and killed while in custody.

IDRC helped to fund the production of the documentary as part of broader research on the Syrian conflict, transitional justice, and the country’s future, carried out by the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies (SCPSS). “The important thing about this project and this movie is that it addresses what happened in the past, but also thinks about how to build a democratic Syria,” says Roula El-Rifai, senior program specialist in IDRC’s Governance and Justice program. “The repercussions of the conflict are felt far beyond Syria’s borders, and the film helps people develop some knowledge and understanding of the situation even if they live far away from the violence.”

Parliament Hill screening

Several Members of Parliament and Senator Jim Munson attended the parliamentary screening on February 22. IDRC’s host, the Member of Parliament for Brampton East, Raj Grewal, emphasized the importance of the film in educating Canadians about the approximately 40,000 Syrian refugees the country has welcomed. “If we are truly to welcome and integrate our Syrian brothers and sisters in our great nation, we must make an effort to understand where they come from, what they have suffered, and what they stand for,” he said.

Stephen McGurk, IDRC vice-president, Programs and Partnership, introduced the film by explaining that its production is part of an IDRC-supported project motivated by questions of what a post-conflict society would look like in Syria. “The project includes research on transitional justice issues, methods to conduct criminal prosecutions, options for reparations, ways to commemorate the dead, and approaches to national reconciliation,” McGurk said. “The ultimate goal is the development of a Syrian-led and implemented transitional justice process. Little Gandhi makes an important contribution to the coming need for reconciliation by featuring victims’ perspectives.”

Mayfair screening

The Mayfair Theatre screening on February 25 was a full house, with more than 300 members of the public eager to learn more about the Syrian uprising. Following the film, a question and answer session with the audience explored the international community’s role in helping to resolve the Syrian conflict, the media’s influence and portrayal of the conflict, and how the film has been received by audiences.

When IDRC grantee Radwan Ziadeh, executive director of SCPSS, was asked what the solution to the Syrian conflict could be, he explained that the international community has divided the Syrian crisis into three issues: the need to eliminate terrorist organizations such as ISIS, the outflow of Syrian refugees, and the Syrian transition. He said the world is focusing on the first two issues, but “nobody is interested in the transition aspect. Unless we interconnect these three things, I don’t see any solution to the Syrian crisis.”

The film’s director, Sam Kadi, shared the challenges of filming in a warzone. Kadi and his crew were unable to enter the besieged city of Daraya (a suburb of Damascus), so they recruited and trained a local activist online to film some scenes and interviews, with Kadi providing direction remotely via Skype. Activists took great personal risks to ensure the film would be made, smuggling the footage from Syria on thumb drives taped to the body of one of the activists. “Syria is where the alphabet was found, where the first musical note was invented, where the oldest church ever existed, where the oldest inhabited city was created,” said Kadi. “It is a treasure that needs to be protected.”

Little Gandhi: The lost truth of the Syrian uprising won the Best Foreign Documentary Award at the 21st International Family Film Festival in Los Angeles, and the Ahmed Khedr Award for Excellence in Arab Filmmaking at the Independent European Film Festival.