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Making Syria’s “Little Gandhi”: Writer/Director/Producer Sam Kadi Discusses His Production Process

A recruit assisting on the Syria-based set of “Little Gandhi” observes an interview arrangement. Photo courtesy Sam K. Productions.

By: Marjorie Galas

Ghiyath Matar sensed his life may be cut short.  The 24 year old tailor had been following in the footsteps of his idols: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., peacefully opposing the war that raged in Syria.  In an effort to establish peace, Matar would pass out flowers to soldiers in his native Darayya, a suburb of Syria’s Damascus region.  He shared this message to his friends before he was arrested by the government September 6, 2011: Remember me when you celebrate the fall of the regime... remember that I gave my soul and my blood for that moment. May God guide you on the road of peaceful struggle and grant you victory.  Those words became a rally cry for the people of Syria when the lifeless body of Matar was returned to his family four days after his arrest, severely beaten, burned and shot.

Syrian native and an award-winning director of the internationally acclaimed documentary “The Citizen” Sam Kadi wanted to focus on the violent civil war that has raged in his homeland for nearly eight years, killing well over 220,000 people to date.  As he searched for a means to highlight the origins of how the war started, he decided to avoid the sensationalism of graphic violence and destruction.  Instead, he became influenced by the positive message Matar encouraged and chose to focus on the spirit of Matar that lives on in the young Syrian rebels.

“The real people, the real story is forgotten,” said Kadi on reflecting upon the fear many people have associated with Syrian rebels.  “This is a simple story, going back to the roots.  It highlights the young, outspoken Syrian society that is very smart and bright.”

Adds Kadi, “This film is not graphic but it is still tough to watch.  You feel connected to these people.  You feel the need to help.”

Kadi worked with DP Carl Balou on sections of the film that were shot in Turkey and the US.  However, getting footage from Syria was a battle unto itself.  No one is allowed into or out of the country, obviously posing a major roadblock in shooting interviews or b-roll.  Kadi knew he had to recruit someone inside that could capture what he needed.  Utilizing a network of roughly 3,000 activists he communicated with via resources such as skype and Facebook, he was connected to an amateur photographer who owned a camera and wanted to help.

Kadi and Balou set up a base in Turkey so they could be in the same time zone as their novice recruit.  Their process began with instructing the activist on best practices for setting up lighting, arranging an interview and other shooting necessities via skype. Noting their recruit had an exceptional command of English, they shared articles on cinematography and interviewing to assist with the recruit’s crash course, and reviewed photos he was able to send them to ensure he had the basics of good lighting and set up.  They encouraged him to find a few other individuals to assist him on days where interviews were shot, which Kadi directed remotely.  The team would help with tasks such as disguising and redirecting wires and electrical sources: any form of filming is forbidden by the government.  If the team was discovered, their gear would be confiscated and they would be subjected to severe consequences.

In addition to shooting in secret, the team also had to endure frequent bombings that disrupted their schedule.  Kadi and Balou were often left in limbo during these prolonged periods, uncertain of the fate of their recruit.  Fortunately, he routinely reconnected via skype once he safely could.  With a schedule bloated by weeks of downtime encompassing several days of consecutive shooting, Kadi and Balou had to finish their Syria segment from Los Angeles.

After the interviews and footage were gathered, the next major hurdle was getting the data safely out of Syria.  It could not be shipped out for the government would confiscate it.  Likewise, they could not upload it for the resources in Syria couldn’t accommodate that function.  With no safe solution at hand, Kadi and the recruits took a major risk.  The footage was placed on multiple thumb drives that were taped to a young rebel’s body who agreed to smuggle them out.   Once outside of Syria, he was able to ship the drives to Kadi.

After receiving and reviewing the footage, Kadi discovered an unexpected way the government foils anything recorded within Syria: there is a static signal emitted that places a persistent hum on all audio. The damage was widespread.  Repairing the audio would require a budget far beyond Kadi’s means.  Fortunately, he found a post facility that was willing to take on his case as a “pro-bono” exercise.  The repair was a laborious effort that was accomplished by sifting through the Syrian footage frame by frame.  The sound team also dropped the quality of the non-Syrian audio segments to ensure the film would have a consistent level that would not be jarring to an audience.  While the audio caused great frustration, Kadi admits he’s glad he didn’t know about the issue in advance.

“If I had known, what would I have done?”  said Kadi, aware the issue might have disbanded the shoot.  “Maybe it is good I didn’t know, because I would have felt I would have had to fix it.”

Once complete, the film began circulating in the festival circuit in 2016, earning the Best Documentary – Foreign Award at the 2016 International Family Film Festival and the 2016 Excellence in Filmmaking Award at the ECU European Independent Film Festival Award.  Currently, “Little Gandhi” is up for nomination consideration as the first Syrian entry in the 2018 Oscar race, despite a complete lack of support from the Syrian government.

Currently, Kadi’s Syrian cinematographer has a thank you “recognition” in the film.  However, resources such as IMDB do not highlight his name, for fear of government retribution.