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Emotion and truth

‘Reality doesn’t interest me,’ said Leni Riefenstahl in a piece in Der Spiegel in August 1997 (Leni Riefenstahl über ihre Filme, ihr Schönheitsideal, ihre NS-Verstrickung und Hitlers Wirkung auf die Menschen Spiegel 18.08.1997).

Hitler’s favourite film-maker died in 2003 aged 101 and this quote, usually lifted out of context, did nothing to mitigate her notoriety. Her statement was an answer to the following question: ‘When you photograph a Greek temple and at the side there is a pile of rubbish, would you leave the rubbish out?’ ‘Definitely, I am not interested in reality,’ Riefenstahl replied.

My immediate reaction is ‘But wouldn’t we all leave the rubbish out?’

It is the sort of self-editing that most of us engage in when we are taking holiday photographs. We compose our shots to leave out the construction site that marrs the view of the old town, the unknown family that spoils our white-sanded beach, the cars that intrude into the sense of loneliness we want to capture on a coastal path.

My second reaction is ‘But what is the purpose of those pictures?’

If I am taking holiday snaps to remind me of how a place resonated with me, that allows me to be transported back there when I look at them, I am looking to take pictures that evoke an emotional response. I want to capture scenes that evoke memories of how beautiful a place was, how bleak it was, how peaceful it was. I am not looking to capture the essential truth of the place except in so far as that emotion is concerned.

Of course, there are other photographs I might be wanting to take – ones that document how disingenuous the holiday brochure was, how crowded the beach was, how the traffic crashed in on you at every moment. These may not evoke the same memories or feelings when I look at them, but they are ‘true’ in a way that those I self-edit aren’t. When we look at photographs in a newspaper, or we watch a documentary film, we place some trust in the film-maker that, whatever our emotional response, what we are seeing is ‘true’.

The power of Riefenstahl’s National Socialist propaganda film-making, as seen in the likes of Triumph of the Will, came from creating images and using soundscapes designed to evoke a powerful emotional response, whilst presenting them as documentary truth – even though some of the scenes were rehearsed fifty times, camera shots were distorted to create senses of scale and it allows a sense of party, state and people being a single united entity to emerge as unchallenged fact, exactly as her Nazi paymasters wanted.

Propaganda as a word is Italian in origin, taken from the modern Latin: ‘Congregatio de Propaganda Fide’ or ‘Congregation for Propagation of the Faith’. This was the committee of cardinals charged by Pope Gregory XV in 1622 with overseeing evangelical foreign missions and ensuring uniformity of teaching and interpretation – of ‘truth’. Its modern political interpretation emerged in the early twentieth century, encapsulating Riefenstahl’s style of film-making perfectly.

Yet bending the truth in film is not the preserve of dictators and repressive regimes.

War and lies

The Battle of San Pietro is a documentary film made by acclaimed director John Huston, apparently showing the Battle of San Pietro Infine as it happens, Huston claiming that the cameramen, who were attached to the U.S. Army’s 143rd Regiment of the 6th Division, filmed alongside soldiers as they fought their way up hill towards San Pietro. Later research by Peter Maslowski, in his book Armed With Cameras, demonstrated that this was false.  Once again, those watching were led to believe that the events recorded were as they happened. And elements of course were true – the body bags, the distraught Italians coming home. However, crucially, large elements were re-enactment. Or, to put it less generously, made-up.

The viewer doesn’t know where truth ends and fiction begins.

More recently, Canadian Michael Jorgensen made the controversial film Unclaimed, seeking to substantiate the oft-repeated claim (reinforced by various Hollywood blockbusters including Rambo: First Blood Part II), that some troops listed by the U.S. government as MIA were actually POWs held long after the cessation of military action.

Jorgensen’s film seeks to tell the story of former Special Forces Green Beret Master Sgt. John Hartley Robertson, who, shot down over Laos and listed as MIA, but who was allegedly actually imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese. After a year, it is claimed, he was released and married a Vietnamese woman, living in a remote village in south-central Vietnam. Robertson forgot how to speak English and forgot the names of his American children.

It is a powerful piece of film-making, including at-first-sight reunions and was intended as a device to reunite Robertson with his family.

Again, however, its central claim had considerable doubt cast upon it. The Independent newspaper carried an extensive report debunking the claims:

‘According to a memo sent to a UK news organisation yesterday evening, the man claiming to be Sgt Robertson is in fact Dang Tan Ngoc – a 76-year-old Vietnamese citizen of French origin who has a history of pretending to be US army veterans.

The memo, taken from a Defense Prisoner of War Missing Personnel Office report in 2009, apparently says Ngoc first came to the attention of the US military in 2006 when he started telling people he was Sgt John Hartley Robertson.

He was apparently questioned about the claims but quickly admitted he had been lying and was in fact Vietnamese.

In 2008 Ngoc apparently began claiming to be Sgt Robertson once again, and he was taken to a US embassy in Cambodia to be fingerprinted. It was quickly established that the fingerprints did not match those of the missing army veteran.’

Later in 2013, a DNA test conducted reluctantly by the family showed that the man who was presented as Robertson was unrelated to Robertson’s nephew.

Of course, questions remain about the story of John Hartley Robertson, and who the man in the jungle is, but the ‘truth’ is certainly not as presented in Jorgensen’s film, just as it may not be as is presented by the Department of Defense (this article explores those questions further).

Modern falsehoods

Jump forward to November 2014.

On Armistice Day, Metro, the free paper handed out on the tube, carried an incredible story entitled ‘Hero Syrian boy ‘braves sniper fire’ to rescue girl in amazing video’. It described how a Syrian boy, under fire from snipers, rescues his friend, a young girl, and pulls her to safety. Incredibly, the whole thing had been captured on film.

It is an extraordinarily powerful piece of film-making.

It was Armistice Day. I had recently written about my great, great uncle. Every morning for a month I had disembarked at Fenchurch Street and seen the crowds building to see the incredible poppy installation at the Tower of London. I remember how I felt reading that story against a backdrop of reflections on war, evil and loss. This small victory of tremendous youthful bravery over evil created a sense of defiant hope. I remember thinking that I should find a moment to blog it.

The trouble is, it has emerged that not a single frame of it is true.

The millions of us who viewed that film, that reacted to it, who wondered on the fate of the two children after they escaped the sniper’s bullets, were duped by Lars Klevberg, a 34 year-old film-maker from Norway. In a piece for the BBC he said:

‘If I could make a film and pretend it was real, people would share it and react with hope,’ he said. ‘We shot it in Malta in May this year on a set that was used for other famous movies like Troy and Gladiator,’ Klevberg said. ‘The little boy and girl are professional actors from Malta. The voices in the background are Syrian refugees living in Malta.’

Were they comfortable making a film that potentially deceived millions of people? ‘I was not uncomfortable,’ Klevberg said. ‘By publishing a clip that could appear to be authentic we hoped to take advantage of a tool that’s often used in war; make a video that claims to be real. We wanted to see if the film would get attention and spur debate, first and foremost about children and war. We also wanted to see how the media would respond to such a video.’

Klevberg’s audacity is breath-taking and his intentions, surely, dubious at best. It is possible to generate a debate about war without faking footage and misleading people.

Zero Dark Thirty is a powerful piece of film-making which purports to show the events that lead up to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Director Kathryn Bigelow often uses documentary-style camera shots to create a sense of immediacy and reality, reflecting the sorts of camera shots we see in contemporary news reports. At no point, however, does she claim that the film is documentary truth. The viewer is able to make a judgement as to whether or not the events were as depicted because we know this is a Hollywood film.

Klevberg’s clip is particularly insidious. It plays on the emotions that we have about children, especially children in war. It uses the sorts of footage that we have come to associate with documentary film-making and news reports. It depicts scenes that we imagine and that we have read about. Some of us have friends in Syria who are living this hell day in and day out. Yet Klevberg’s footage is entirely fake.

Who had heard of Lars Klevberg outside his native Norway before this emotionally-manipulative stunt? No-one beyond a small group of aficionados. Now he has trended worldwide on social media. For all of his protestations, it is difficult to see this as anything other than a cynical device for self-promotion, to register with a world hungry for some sense of hope in a conflict whose manifestations of evil affect us on a very primal level.

Deception and destabilisation

I think its effect is more dangerous.

It is a deliberate lie that reinforces our scepticism about everything we see. Many will argue that is a good thing. However, at a time when it hard enough to discern truth in the images we are presented with, when videos of IS terrorists committing murder for worldwide audiences of billions have to be ‘verified’, Klevberg’s actions seem utterly irresponsible, even to this liberal who instinctively distrusts power and questions constantly the evidence he is presented with. Scepticism built on a deliberate lie is as misleadingly useless as blind faith in authority.

Klevberg has done nothing to further confidence in documentary film-making and journalism. At best he has cast aspersions on his profession. At worst he has deliberately sought to manipulate emotion, mislead a worldwide public and construct events in a manner that fundamentally undermines trust. In doing so, he reinforces terrorist claims that what we see on our TV screens is nothing but Western propaganda.

We can be forgiven a creeping sense of déjà vu.

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Alkarama is increasingly alarmed at the state of health of Haitham al-Maleh and has issued the following appeal to the Syrian President:

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To mark Syria’s National Day, 17th April, friends and supporters of Syria’s wrongly incarcerated prisoners of conscience protested outside the Syrian Embassy at 8 Belgrave Square, in London. Between 70 and 80 people were in attendance, many of them signing a letter to the President that was delivered via Embassy officials.

Simultaneous protests mounted in Berlin, Bern, Brussels, Canberra, London, Montreal, Paris, Stockholm and Washington.

There is always a danger that in the tumult of an election we forget about those who would wish to be doing exactly as we will be able to do on May 6th: vote for those we want to represent us.

Don’t forget our friends: Kamal al-Labwani, Anwar al-Bunni, Haitham al-Maleh and Muhannad al-Hassani amongst the many, many others. We must do what they cannot and speak up for their right to be heard.

Pictures from the demonstration are below.

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As Syria prepares to celebrate 64 years of independence, the European Union continues to work towards cementing relations with Syria through its EU-Syria Mediterranean Association Agreement. Maureen Thomas, however, has alerted me to a demonstration outside the Syrian Embassy to remind the world that despite its reformist rhetoric, peaceful and democratic reformers such as Kamal Labwani, Anwar Bunni, Haithem Maleh and Muhannad Hassani are still locked up on trumped-up charges in defiance of Syria’s commitments on civil and political rights.

In an email to Maureen, Iyas al-Maleh, son of imprisoned human rights champion Haitham al-Maleh, thanked her for mobilising support for the demonstration, to be held at 3pm on Saturday 17 April, 8 Belgrave Square, London, SW1X 8PH. Similar demonstrations are already planned for Brussels and Washington, with work ongoing to organise similar protests in Berlin, Geneva and Paris.

If you are a friend and supporter of Kamal, and his fellow prisoners, please see if you are free and visit the sign-up page to register:

http://sites.google.com/site/syriademo/

News of the proposed demonstration comes at the same time as the UNHCR reports that the Syrian regime continues to harass its political internees. It makes for upsetting reading and you are left wondering at the strength of men who still find the courage to defy the authorities even in Adra prison, preferring to surrender their visiting rights instead of succumbing to the indignity of being forced to meet family in prison garb.

So please see if you are free on 17 April and make a standard for freedom of conscience and human rights.

And our friends.

Kamal in prison uniform

Kamal, in prison uniform

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Kamal Labwani’s family have written to Maureen Thomas, describing the latest humiliations in Adra Prison, Damascus. Maureen’s covering comment is a timely reminder of the human frailty of our friends who have been imprisoned in Damascus: “One can only admire the prisoners’ pride, determination and courage but I worry for Haytham, Muhannad, Anwar and Kamal who still have a long time to go with no money or medication to help keep them healthy.”

The letter from Kamal’s family speaks for itself:

“We are ok actually and our father but now we are not visiting him because he asked us not to.

Him and all the prisoners of conscious in Adra prison reject to be visited because the authorities want them to wear prison pajamas during the visit and not civilian clothes or even sports pajamas as they say they want them to be equal like other prisoners.

So the prisoners of conscience rise up claiming that they should be also equal to other prisoners in other rights like their visit is not being watched and have the right to visit for two hours rather than only half an hour and other fair requests.  They say if you want us to be equal let us be equal in every single right.   It is really not a matter of wearing prison pajamas or not, they want to be treated like other prisoners.   If the authority wants them to be equal with civil prisoners they wish to be really equal.

And so now we cannot visit him because if we go he will refuse to come out and see us. We cannot give him money and provide him with medication. Not just us but the other prisoners’ families.

I would not be accurate if I called what the prisoners of conscience are doing as a strike because I really don’t know if they will end it or keep doing this until their demands are accomplished.  We really don’t know what the circumstances will bring but until now it seems that they insist to go on.

I’m sorry for this long letter. We all hope the new days will bring good news.”

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I meant to post this correspondence with Liz Lynne MEP before now. It provides some interesting information, not least of all the link to the EU’s delegation to Syria which would appear to be a useful way of staying up to date with news regarding the EU’s engagement with Syria.

Me

Dear Liz,

We’ve corresponded previously about the EU/Syria agreement (I used my personal address).

I’d be grateful if you or your office could briefly explain what the preparatory phase described in the attached link is – and what opportunity there is to raise pertinent human and civil rights concerns. The stock response when anyone in the EU is questioned about this is that engagement with Syria will promote human rights. However, no-one has yet pointed me to an example where that sort of engagement with other countries has produced a measurable improvement.

In addition, the Syrians have even indicated a readiness to sign yet. (There was also something very galling about the very earnest discussions around “civil society” at the recent Damascus conference, right at the time the Syrians are continuing to “disappear” journalists, human rights lawyers and opposition activists.)

Your advice would be much appreciated – together with contact details for anyone you think I might appropriately contact.

Best wishes,

Ben

(Writing in a personal capacity, rather than as Secretary to the Parliamentary Party)

Liz Lynne

Dear Ben,

Thank you for your further correspondence regarding the Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement with Syria. The preparatory phase is part of the conciliation procedure which is used in the formulation of this Agreement This process, in part, requires consent from the European Parliament, which currently has not been given.

The provisions of the European Union’s Association Agreement with Syria are the prerequisite for full European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) status, but signature and full participation only come about once a number of steps have been adhered to. The aim of the agreement with Syria is to support economic and political reforms in the region. This process requires dialogue on human rights, democracy, terrorism and nuclear non-proliferation. The EU advocates engagement and diplomacy as the best way to do this, particularly in relation to reforming human rights.

However, the EU can also deny engagement and put on hold its support to instigate human rights reformation. For example, the EU’s decision to suspend the upgrading of its Association Agreement with Israel means that the expansion of trade and economic relations in the region have been delayed. Consequently an upgrade to the Agreement, thus further engagement, is unlikely to occur until Israel increases its efforts to abide by international law.    

In order to stay up to date with the latest bilateral and regional developments in EU-Syrian relations I suggest viewing the website of the Delegation of the European Union to Syria. A link to the site can be found here: 

http://www.delsyr.ec.europa.eu/en/index.asp.

You can also contact the Delegation directly via email on 

delegation-syria@ec.europa.eu.

Thank you again for your correspondence and I hope this information is useful to you.

Kind regards,

Liz Lynne MEP

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One of the country’s leading champions of those imprisoned in Syria for human rights abuses is  Maureen Thomas. The journalist Christiane Schlötzer recently sent her a copy of her article about the disappearance of Haitham al-Maleh that first appeared in the Süddeutsche Zeitung last weekend. Geoff Williams has translated that article.

“They fear an old man”

How a 72 yr old lawyer disappeared in Damascus

Haiham Maleh, Süddeutsche Zeitung

After  lawyer Haitham Maleh gave his last interview he received a telephone call. He was to report the next day to an office of the secret service. Maleh didn’t. A day later three men in civilian clothes were waiting for the 78-yr-old when he arrived to unlock his car, at midday, in the middle of Damascus. The three strangers overpowered him and forced him into a car. Now the Syrian lawyer gives no more interviews. Instead, his son  Iyas Maleh is giving them, and this week in Berlin he has been recalling his father’s fate.

It was the week in which the USA appointed an ambassador to Syria for the first time in five years of diplomatic ice-age. President Obama sees Syria as a signficant player in the Middle East and would like to release the country from its close alliance with Iran. Iyas Maleh regards the approach to Damascus  by the West with scepticism. “The offer to improve relations must be linked to conditions” is his demand. “Syria has to show that it respects human rights.” Europe cannot simply “turn away” Maleh told the Süddeutsche Zeitung . He didn’t understand that both the Union (CDU/CSU) and the FDP stressed in Parliament (Bundestag) recently that deportations to Syria should remain possible. The opposition had demanded a stop to them.

Iyas Maleh did not know where his father was for eight days after his kidnap in Damascus on 14th  October 2009. When he then  appeared before a military court it became clear to the son that it would be a long time  until his father was freed. The charge against him is one of “spreading false information and so undermining national morale”, an accusation frequnetly used “when they want to throw someone in prison. Punishment is 3 to 15 yrs imprisonment”.  Haitham Maleh has already served six years in jail. He was chairman of a prohibited “human rights organisation” in Syria. Most recently, in written articles and an interview with the London-based Arabic TV company  Barada TV  he insisted on the rule of law within the state and criticised state corruption.

Thanks to a letter smuggled out of prison Iyas knows that his father has to sleep on the floor of an overcrowded cell. Iyas Maleh was also once arrested, in 1980, after which he fled to the USA. The 49-year-old computer engineer has not returned to Syria since. He has three siblings also living abroad. Their father remained in Syria.

“This allegedly so powerful Syrian government is afraid of an old man,” he says bitterly.

Translated by Geoff Williams


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