An exclusive interview with the producer of the documentary “The boy who started the Syrian War”
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “I would love to go out of Syria to do humanitarian filming, because the most important aspect for the world is HUMANITY.”
He is a traveler, a dreamer, he has a personality based on kindness and honesty. His wish for a better world was born in times of blood, crimes, injustice and intolerance, when people around him were dying. He lost his brother, who was killed in the conflict, but he never stopped believing and working for a better world.
More than 250.000 Syrians have lost their lives in so many years of armed conflict. The war in Syria began with anti-government protests before the start of the Civil War.
Bakr is a Syrian cameraman and editor, working in Jordan and Southern Syria. His work focused on the war in Daraa and Quneitra, both from the frontlines and looking on broader humanitarian issues.
He came to Bucharest in Romania this year in October, to present his documentary “The Boy who started the Syrian War”, invited by Art Hub Bucharest.
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali produced films and reports in different areas of war, especially on Syrian territories, at the beginning of the war and later in the years that followed. He currently lives and works in Jordan and has been a guide and interpreter on the trip that our Romanian artists did in Jordan and in the Zaatari camp as part of the Bucharest Art Week 2017 Production, Documentation and Mobility Program.
I present you an exclusive interview with the man who was injured four times, twice seriously, but he continued filming and did what he could to show the world the reality of the Syrian war. He never asked or judged God why the most important people in his life were taken away from him.
Bakr is not just a journalist or a videographer; he is a symbol of courage and kindness in a world dominated by hate and blood.
Fairytale Traveller: First of all, I want you to tell me how this story started for you and more exactly, when?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “I finished my national service in February 2011 and in March I was in my homeland Daraa, southern Syria, and I saw people taking the street and protesting against… actually not against Government, they were asking for their children, because the regime arrested 16 children in February. On the 18th of March 2011, special forces were sent to Daraa and there were 2 young boys who were killed in the first day. Actually I am from a town near Daraa city. I heard about that and after that, in the next day I went there in the city and I saw what was happening.”
Fairytale Traveller: What were you doing in that period, when the war started?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “I was just at home, but I was surprised about what was happening. In the first days 2 people were killed in Daraa. Next day I joined protests and I wanted to see what is happening. I just saw civilian people taking the street and protesting against Mukhabarat. Then, in that day, the regime killed also one little boy. People got angry and angry in the 5th day of the protests and demonstrations in Daraa (it was 23rd of March 2011). More people came across Daraa city.
Fairytale Traveller: What was your first intention when you went there? You wanted to take photography, you wanted to be with the people? What you wanted to do? I am talking about the moment before filming your documentary.
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “I was not a journalist. I had no idea about journalism and about how to use a camera. I didn’t have experience when I joined the protests. This is a very different thing in my country, so I started to use my mobile phone, I had a Nokia N 70, an old phone. There were thousands and thousands of people on the streets, all together… asking for freedom, for democracy and asking for their children. On the 23rd of March 2011, 12 or 13 people were killed in Daraa. I just used my phone to film that. It was very strange for my country. (…) I started filming for one hour or maybe 2 hours, then I arrived in the center of Daraa city. The regime started shooting people.”
Fairytale Traveller: Were you angry?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “I was surprised more than angry. I couldn’t believe my eyes… to see those civilian people. In my country there was no one touching anyone on the street, no one was protesting against Government. I couldn’t understand why they arrested our children and why they killed us. No one was talking against Bashar al-Assad, just people asking for more freedom. I can’t explain you the feeling I had that day, when 14 people were killed and hundreds injured. I just kept my camera recording. Some of my friends and people from my village have been killed. In that day the people in Daraa changed their mind.”
Fairytale Traveller: Did you feel that the country was divided in 2 groups?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “That day changed my mind forever. I didn’t see any television channel in the world – Arabic or Syrian, talking about the crimes in Daraa. So, I got back home, I watched TV and saw nothing. So I decided to film everything that was happening in front of me. It was a crime. No one was talking about the events in my town.”
Fairytale Traveller: Do you remember the first videos you took for media?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “The first videos I took were on the 19th or 20th of March, but most of them were on 23rd of March when those people were killed. It was just me and some other people filming with our phones.”
Fairytale Traveller: Were you afraid?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “Yes, of course I was afraid. But that gave me more energy to be against killing. So, I wanted to have a camera and to provide what was happening to the world. I became an activist and I started to write news for the local pages and for Facebook. The local newspapers and televisions in Syria are all controlled by the Government. There were some publications outside Syria, making badges for Facebook and I sent them news, what is happening, what was going on.”
Fairytale Traveller: How much time you spent filming the whole documentary and how long it took?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “In November 2011 I started to update my work. I had a small camera and I started to film. It was just one video that I put on You Tube. After that I went to Jordan for the first time, first to Zaatari, then to Amman. I met Al Jazeera, Channel Arabia, BBC, Reuters. I met them in Amman. When I met them, I asked them: “Listen, I am Syrian, I am an activist, I want to work with you, to inform you about the situation. It was a success with Al Jazeera, Arabia and Reuters. I got back to Syria in March 2013 and started filming for TV reports. I took feedback from Al Jazeera and Reuters how to take footage. At that time, in 2013, I worked with myself, I watched a lot of documentaries, a lot of TV reports. I learned how to take footage, how to arrange the lights, the background, to take stable shots and medium shots. In May 2013 I have been injured for the second time. I was filming in my home town Khirbet Ghazaleh.
In May 2013 I was injured by a tank. After that I continued to do filming, but in September 2013 I was injured for the 3rd time by sniper bullets, while I was filming for Al Jazeera in the front line. Then I moved to Jordan just to take surgery for my legs. It was dangerous and I was close to lose my left leg.“
Fairytale Traveller: There is an article written by The Times that is about you. You say: “all my wounds were infected, my ears and my sinuses are into my head”. They are talking about the barrel bombs. You said that “I felt that my head was going to explode. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t hear. I thought I was going to die.”
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “I don’t actually remember what was happening when I was injured, I just remember afterwards, when I was in Jordan. I sat in Jordan for 3 months and I took treatment for my leg. In that time I started thinking to do more than TV news. I thought to do documentaries. I think when you make a documentary, it is kept for a long time to watch, but a news story is kept only one day. I watched documentaries and learned English before that. I wasn’t speaking any word in English. I also learned how to edit videos by myself. In November 2013 I went to Doha for the first course in my life: to edit TV reports, I had an Al Jazeera media training. After that I went 3 weeks to Al Jazeera and back to Jordan for 10 days. Al Jazeera told me not to go back to Syria, but I said that I want to continue in my way.”
Fairytale Traveller: So you started to film professionally. Tell me when was the first day of filming for the documentary?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “I went back to Daraa in December 2013. I worked about 6 months for Al Jazeera and Reuters and then, in summer 2014 I just got back to Jordan to continue my treatment. I had to continue for my legs. I wasn’t feeling well. In December 2014 I went back to Syria. You know… you just feel the noise of the barrel bombing. I think that sound make people scared forever. I felt I lost my life, I wasn’t feeling my head, I just remember people trying to take me out from the building, from Al Jazeera office to outside, to take me to hospital. There were 4 months – February, March, April and May 2015, when I had treatment in Jordan. I thought then to do documentaries, I asked Al Jazeera for that, but for Al Jazeera Arabic they weren’t accepting documentaries. Because I learned English, I started to talk with foreign journalists, especially in the UK. I contacted Vice News. For one month we talked about how to do stories from Daraa, because a lot of journalists were coming across Syria. But in Daraa, no foreign journalists were coming, because Jordan closed the borders. It is different than Turkey. Turkey opened the border for journalists going to Aleppo, going to Hama to film. Until that time we didn’t have in Daraa any documentary talking about what is going on. So I talked with Vice News, I gave them my stories, but there were not accepted. I went back to Daraa in June 2015. I did TV reports for Middle East Eye, a British newspaper, just for 3 minutes and I think Vice News watched this report. They sent me a message. My colleague Tom Dale sent me a message and he told me: “I saw your report for Middle East Eye. It is very nice. You did good work.”
After 3 or 4 days I got an email from Vice News, from Tom Dale. He said my story was approved: “We need a documentary story from Daraa.” They sent me a contract for the documentary.
I was for 2 months filming my first film from Southern Syria, to the world. The film had 22 minutes and it was done for Vice News.
Somehow, in that period I got in touch with Clover Films in UK. It’s a production company, making documentaries around the world. I got in touch with Jamie Doran, the owner of this company. He is 61 years old now. He gets a lot of awards. He talked to me and supported me so much… He said: “You are a boy and you can do a lot of things, but you need someone to manage you, because you didn’t study journalism or filmmaking.” He taught me every day and I talked to him every day. When I was talking with Vice News, I was talking to him in the same time.
In the same time I filmed both for Vice News and for my latest film – it is called “The boy who started the Syrian War.” So in June 2015, I started filming for both – Vice News and Clover Films, and also for Al Jazeera Arabic. There were 3 things in the same time. I spent maybe 12 or 13 hours every day filming. I finished the film for Vice News, but the Al Jazeera English film it is not finished. Then I went back to Jordan. In August 2015 I went back to Syria to continue my work and in that time in Jordan, Jamie visited me, just to talk about the film. I showed him some of the footage and we kept talking about the story. I was very lucky to find Clover Films. There was so much support from them and it is a really professional company.
They said we have to make the story from the very beginning. So I went back to Daraa in November/ December, I continued my filming and then I was back to Jordan in January/February. From March to May 2016 it was my last trip for the work in Syria. I finished my film with 3 cameras – a drone, a Go Pro and my small camera. In December 2013 Jamie came to Jordan to be with me, to direct my work. He directed my work on the phone all the time. I sent him footage and I got feedback: this is right, this is not right.”
Fairytale Traveller: Who is actually the boy who started the Syrian War?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: The boy was 14 years old. He wrote together with other children, on the school wall some words against Government. He wrote: “Your turn next, Dr. Assat.” The boy was arrested by the regime.
Fairytale Traveller: Do you consider the word “BOY” to be a metaphor for your documentary?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “He is 20 years old now. He is still in Daraa. He lost his father because of bombing in 2017. He is from a very poor family in Daraa. He doesn’t have time to dream, because when he was a boy, he was arrested. I finished filming in May 2016. In August I went to UK to do a promo for the film. We managed to do a trailer in August and in September it was approved for Al Jazeera English. Jamie managed to do the film for Al Jazeera English. He also did films for Al Jazeera English, for BBC, a lot of media around the world.
Fairytale Traveller: How do you see the situation in Syria right now? How much are the people there, depending on the humanitarian help from abroad?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “They don’t have electricity. We don’t talk about food, water, about gas or petrol. Nobody can continue work over there. A lot of farmers can’t do the work also. It needs years and years to rebuild again. People are getting tired of that.”
Fairytale Traveller: Is there any situation for people to leave the borders?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “No. They can’t. Most of the borders are closed. Most of the people leave Syria. In 2011, because of the Bashar al-Assad regime 10% of the Syrian civilians left Syria. Most of them left to Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan.”
Fairytale Traveller: What about children? How are they going to school with all these bombs?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “All over the world, children have activities like swimming and sports, but children in Syria play with guns. They even have a guns GAME. They learn how to protect themselves. They know which type of bombing is one or the other. They learn and know even more about bombs than a lot of people in the world. When they hear the sound, they know the specific type of bomb, of the barrel bombing.”
Fairytale Traveller: How do you feel when you see the little ones?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “I feel sorry. It’s like we have destroyed generations in Syria, this generation can’t have a normal life as the children around the world have.”
Fairytale Traveller: Do you have younger brothers or sisters?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “My younger sister is 15 years old and I feel so sorry for her. Every time she tells me that she wants to get out of Syria. She was 8 when the war started.”
Fairytale Traveller: You are living far away from her?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “I am in Jordan. My parents and my sister are in Syria. I lost my brother, my youngest brother. He was 18 years old when he has been killed by a barrel bombing in Daraa.”
Fairytale Traveller: Are you angry about this?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “When I think about my brother, yes. When the conflict started he was 11 years old and he didn’t see anything in his life. He didn’t go to university; he didn’t experience anything in his life. He didn’t want to be an activist. For his generation, he didn’t have a normal life and he was killed in 2017.”
Fairytale Traveller: He was alone?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “Yes, he was on the street. My parents are still so sad and me too… When I am talk with them, they are crying all the time.”
Fairytale Traveller: How are they continuing their lives over there? What are they doing right now?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “They just live. I send them money every month since 2013. I will keep doing this till the day I die.”
Fairytale Traveller: Bakr, your work is impressive. For me as a journalist and for many other people who think and have the same values as us. Do you consider yourself fighting against the barriers of the society you are living in right now?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “I would love to continue my work the same as before and provide a situation for my people, for my country around the world. I need to focus. Even if I am in Jordan now, I will continue to do what I am doing. In Jordan I am working also with Syrian communities, in Zaatari camp and in Syrian communities. I did a lot of stories for Associated Press, a lot of TV reports in Jordan now. Every month I am working 3 or 4 stories about Syrian communities in Jordan. I did a lot of stories about the artists in the Zaatari camp, how they continue their work no matter what… I did stories with people that have different talents, no matter what is happening in Syria.”
Fairytale Traveller: They are continuing their lives, no matter what…
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “I think something will change in Syria in the next months. So I am still waiting to see what’s going on. “
Fairytale Traveller: What are you covering now?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “I am covering Syrian situation in Jordan.”
Fairytale Traveller: Bakr, what it means for you to be a Fairytale Traveller?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “I would love to go beyond Syria to do humanitarian filming, because the most important aspect for this world is HUMANITY. People lost their lives in Yeman, Libya, Somalia, Iraq. A lot of people don’t have a stable life, like they do in Europe, America or Canada. I want to do the sort of work that highlights this.”
Fairytale Traveller: You want to give back to the society what the war took. Are you collaborating with NGOs from other countries also?
Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali: “I did some work with NGOs in Jordan and Syria. I January I did 3 short projects about women and healthcare, together with the United Nations Population Fund. They support reproductive health for women around the world. You can find my projects on my YouTube Channel.
For his great work and sacrifice for the Syrian people, BAKR is not only a Fairytale Traveller, he is one of the most courageous people I met. His story is a story about life and death, sacrifice and honor, love and friendship all together.
He is one of the Fairytale People who makes us to go forward, no matter what. His tough, difficult, brave and fascinating story about life, war, death, family, kindness and survival, change mentalities and destinies forever.
For all the documentaries in Syria filmed by Bakr, you can access his You Tube Channel, over here:
Winner – Asian Television Awards (November 2017)
“The Boy Who Started the Syrian War”, won in the Best Current Affairs Programme category at the 2017 Asian Television Awards in Singapore.
Finalist – Prix Bayeux – Calvados (October 2016)
His first film, “The Battle For Syria’s South”, was one of five finalists in the Television Grand Format category at the 2016 awards in Bayeux, France.
Prix Bayeux award ceremony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U7xGKgK0tlo
Winner – Al Jazeera Shield Award (November 2013)
He was awarded this journalism prize in recognition of his work as a field cameraman for Al Jazeera in 2013. He sustained three injuries during this work.
Shield award ceremony: http://bit.ly/2alv49V
Interview taken in Bucharest, October 2017