“5 Seasons of Revolution” Review: Sundance Syrian Civil War Doc

Lina’s real-life film documents the disintegration of a nation and a group of friends after the Arab Spring.

Thirteen years have passed since the start of the Syrian civil war, which tore the region apart and contributed to a devastating global migration and refugee crisis. The Arab Spring of 2011 was initially a time of hope for Syrians, filled with dynamic, peaceful protests against the corrupt regime of President Bashar al-Assad. When Syrian journalist Lina (who uses this pseudonym to protect her safety) began documenting what was then called a “revolution,” she and her friends thought it wouldn’t last long. And when state forces started attacking and imprisoning protesters, they still thought it couldn’t get any worse.

In “5 Seasons of Revolution,” Lina documents the terrifying, real-time transition from peaceful revolution to all-out civil war. The footage taken between 2011 and 2015 is rough and impressionistic, which often makes it difficult to navigate. Lina sometimes takes a picture from inside her bag, while her hand partially covers the lens so that the police won’t notice. His material is unpolished and incomplete, a far cry from the kind of war coverage you might get in a news segment or a more traditional documentary. Instead, it’s largely made up of shaky footage like this, as well as segments of Lina and her friends sitting around watching the news and smoking cigarettes, waiting for someone they know to be let out.

A deeply personal portrayal of wartime life, thanks in large part to Lina’s ever-present voice. His diary memories lend a relaxed form to this otherwise abstract film, as he looks back with a kind of dazed reverence on how he lived through this dangerous period of his life. He divides this time into five “seasons,” each representing a more brutal shift in the government’s response to the revolution, as well as subtler fluctuations within his personal sphere.

As the film opens, Lina lovingly introduces her friends one by one—each more optimistic, opinionated, and energetic about Assad than the next. They band together to form a secret activist group to help organize protests and strikes and wipe people’s computers if they go to jail. This lively spirit is in stark contrast to their attitude at the end of the film, when each member is badly affected by the war – and one is no longer alive to fight it.

As Assad’s crackdown on all forms of dissent becomes increasingly brutal, Lina adopts multiple aliases to protect herself depending on where she is. Among the journalists, Maya. Among the activists is “Maiss”. She is the “Layla” of filmmakers. And “Lina” remains the apolitical upper-class persona she takes on whenever she confronts authorities at checkpoints, protests, or in prison, where she spends 44 days.

Lina’s friends develop their own, different reactions to the increasing violence. Some, like her provocative friend Rina, are emboldened to wave a red banner reading “Stop the Killing” in front of the parliament building in Damascus, starting a national movement for Syrians. He’s taken to jail – although he hasn’t been arrested, he suspects, to keep the media out.

But Susu begins to distance herself from riskier acts like this, disillusioned with the movement and to some extent with Lina. “I don’t believe in this movie,” he tells her one day. Susu’s face is obscured by deep-fake technology to protect her identity, further separating her from the events that took place.

Lina doesn’t try to make sense of what happened, and she doesn’t try to give context to her audience by offering them a timeline of events. In fact, we fall into the narrative without much pretense, almost as if it could happen anywhere, to anyone. This technique is as effective as it is disturbing. Audiences witness the often banal reality of war – not the frenzied, action-packed scenes we’d imagine, but the anticipation, uncertainty and confusion. A film made by a woman living through the Syrian civil war is very different from a film made by an outsider—she’s not here temporarily. He has no choice but to move on with his life.

The recording exudes an eerie calm thanks to Lina’s soft, steady narration. Like most of his friends, he was forced to leave the country in 2015, and time became even more distant from what happened. As we’re caught up in coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the film reminds us that war always has a personal dimension outside of explosive media cycles. It’s not as engaging as we’d like, but perhaps its specificity gives a more complete and realistic picture of a conflict.

grade: B

“5 Seasons of the Revolution” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently distributed in the United States.

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