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Reel Syria / Firefly International

Syria

Reel Syria came as a response to the ongoing repression in Syria, allowing people in the UK to engage directly with Syrians and as a way of showing solidarity with those engaged in creative resistance in the country. Firefly International works to overcome boundaries worldwide through friendship, education and the arts. Projects include Firefly Bosnia, which is a youth arts and education Centre in Br?ko, North East Bosnia; and Reel Festivals – arts and dialogue events focused on areas in conflict. Firefly International has engaged with Syria since 2008, and was involved in youth exchange projects in 2010. In 2011 the aim was to host the first Reel Festivals in Syria, which were due to take place in May 2011 as part of a three way exchange between Syria, Lebanon and Scotland. However, the governmental repression of the peaceful protests in March 2011 led to moving events from Syria to Lebanon. Firefly still managed to host Syrian poets and filmmakers in Lebanon and Scotland, but aimed to return to Syria in 2012. As it became clear that this wasn’t going to happen it was decided to engage with Syria from the UK, marking the one-year anniversary of the uprising in March 2012 with a celebration of artistic resilience in Syria, and by giving UK audiences the chance to engage in a nuanced way with artists working in incredibly difficult circumstances in Syria.

Reel Syria was initiated by Firefly International, following discussions with Firefly’s partners inside Syria and with the support of the British Council, amongst others.. They worked together with a large team of artists and activists to make the events possible, and particularly closely with ‘Mosaic Initiative for Syria’, who at that point were a fledgling organisation focused on awareness raising and fundraising for humanitarian aid for Syria. Since these events Mosaic Initiative has grown into a registered charity in the UK.

The Reel Syria events were based around three central strands: film, music and literature. Each strand took the form of several events in order to attract the broadest audience possible. For the film strand Reel Syria took part in the DoxBox Global Day, DoxBox being Syria’s only independent documentary festival. For the 2012 edition the decision was made not to hold events inside Syria, but rather to screen Syrian films around the world to raise awareness about Syria and as an act of solidarity with those struggling for human rights and democracy in the country. As part of DoxBox Global Day films were screened in London by Omar Amiralay at the Frontline Club and Reem Ali’s ‘Zabad’ was shown at the Free Word Centre.

For the music events Mosaic Initiative for Syria coordinated a major fundraising concert, with support from the Asfari Foundation. This saw Syrian musician Samih Choukeir perform his song of the revolution ‘Ya Heif’ to a packed audience in London’s Kensington Town Hall and raised over £36,500 for humanitarian aid for Syria.

The Literature events saw Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat come to London to discuss his work and the uprising for the first time. This event was held at the Free Word Centre in London and alongside Ali Ferzat, panellists included Syrian author Manhal Saraj, academic Donatella DellaRatta and musician Steve Chandra Savale. As Ferzat said ‘the barrier of fear has been broken’.

Future plans

Firefly is now developing Reel Iraq, marking ten years since the invasion of Iraq through a celebration of Iraqi creativity and the resilience of the arts, working closely with Iraqi artists and arts organisations both inside and outside the country to make sure the events are representative and of high quality.

Challenges

Dan Gorman, Director of Firefly International:
“Political developments constantly challenge our work. We engage with complex political situations through the arts, and thus have to navigate challenging political landscapes. Funding is always difficult to mobilise, and we currently have no core funding for our projects, meaning we work on a project-by-project basis and the vast majority of those working on the events are volunteers. Although we have not experienced direct state censorship, we have a lot of experience with artists self-censoring, due to the volatile situations they are coming from and returning to. We work with many artists under conditions of anonymity for protection.
The main practical challenge we encounter regularly is that of the UK immigration requirements. Many of the artists we have invited have been refused visas, often for no given reason, and many following previous visits to the UK, which had taken place without issue. This visa system is part of an ongoing challenge, where the voices coming from areas in conflict, which we most need to hear, are denied entry to the UK.

There is no one answer as to how to work within conflict situations, or how to navigate complex visa systems. The way we deal with these challenges is to engage in long-term cooperation rather than one-off projects, and to work with a broad group of informal advisors, both in country and in the UK.

Impact

Our projects have been very well received in the UK, however they are slightly difficult to place. They are cross-disciplinary and take place in a number of venues. Furthermore, we place a strong emphasis on contextualising the work on display, and encourage interaction with the makers of work. The key emphasis for us is always on quality rather than tokenism.
Our interaction with Syria continues, predominantly through our linking of various organisations with Syrian cultural producers, poets, filmmakers, writers and musicians. We focus on long-term engagement and thus will continue to support existing projects in Syria.

What could help the project/activities in the future?

Unfortunately the honest answer to ‘what would help the activities in the future?’ is funding. Whilst our specific projects have been supported by the British Council and Creative Scotland, and and we have had excellent support from other organisations working on similar projects in the UK, such as Index on Censorship and Amnesty International, in order to make these projects sustainable we would have to find a way to access core funding.”

Reviews of Reel Syria:

‘The Film Festival in Exile – Dox Box Global Day Celebrates Omar Amiralay’, by Stephanie Van de Peer:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/filmblog/2012/mar/14/dox-box-global-day-omar-amiralay
‘Reel Syria Event Gives Audiences a Look Beyond the Conflict’, by David Stelfox
http://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/film/reel-syria-event-gives-british-audiences-a-look-beyond-the-conflict

Related links:

Reel Festivals

http://reelfestivals.org
http://www.reelfestivals.org/why-syria-lebanon-and-scotland/

Reel Syria (Festival Summary)

http://www.reelfestivals.org/reel-syria-summary/

Mosaic Initiative for Syria

Mosaic Initiative was founded in December 2011 by a group of humanitarians passionate about the Syrian cause and determined to assist the Syrian people in their humanitarian struggle. Mosaic Initiative is a non-governmental, not-for-profit organisation working directly with human rights defenders and NGOs inside Syria and neighbouring countries. It fulfils a variety of objectives that fall within the framework of providing humanitarian relief to Syrian citizens inside the country, as well as displaced Syrians within Syria and in refugee camps on the borders.

http://mosaicsyria.org/

DoxBox

DOX BOX started as an initiative of independent filmmakers in 2007 as the first non-profit and open-to-public creative documentary film festival in Syria.
http://www.dox-box.org/

Reel Iraq

Marking ten years since the invasion of Iraq, Reel Iraq 2013 will shine a light on the conflict by celebrating the resilience and diversity of the art and culture of Iraq. It will explore the contribution of art, culture and creativity to Iraqi life in conflict – encouraging debate and discussion of what has, and hasn’t, happened over the last decade. The festival will celebrate Iraqi film, music and literature and take place in cities throughout the UK in March 2013.
http://www.reelfestivals.org/reel-iraq-2013-coming-soon/

Asfari Foundation

The Foundation’s target countries are the UK, Syria, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Lebanon. The Foundation also supports Palestinian citizens of Israel. The Foundation currently has a future leaders programme, a civil society programme and a humanitarian relief programme.
http://www.asfarifoundation.org.uk/

Thank you to Dan Gorman, Director, Firefly International

Dan Gorman is the director of Firefly International, a UK based NGO, which aims to break down barriers between communities via the arts and education, and co-founder of Reel Festivals. Outside of Firefly International Dan also has worked on many community arts projects, both in the UK (such as the Forest Café and Roxy Art House in Edinburgh) and in Europe and the Middle East. All of these projects have the aim of increasing dialogue, communication and collaboration, while promoting social justice and equality through the arts. Dan is a co-founder and coordinator of Reel Festivals

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