A personal, gutting, and complex portrait of the early days of the Syrian conflict, Obaidah Zytoon and Andreas Dalsgaard’s documentary The War Show starts off empowered and unassuming. Zytoon, a young radio DJ in Damascus, begins documenting the jubilance of 2011’s Arab Spring and the fall of the Assad regime with her camera. Obaidah and her artistically, emotionally, and idealistically like-minded friends revel in their ability to protest against the system and embrace wholeheartedly a sense of change and positivity that began to sweep the nation. For young people like them, these protests are a positive force of potential change. They document their encounters in public and private because the camera and the media were more powerful than guns when it came to standing up for their freedoms. The War Show is told entirely from their cameras and points of view, even if they’re just sitting around, getting high, and shooting the philosophical breeze with one another.

Then, as anyone familiar with the ongoing Syrian civil war will recognize, The War Show becomes something a lot darker, messier, and mournful. As fighting intensifies and more divisions between the Syrian people start to form, Zytoon (who eventually left the country in 2013) can only watch as friends and close colleagues are kidnapped, tortured, disappear, or murdered for their protesting. The War Show unfolds over just two years, but the happiness and positivity at the start of the film feels light years removed from where Dalsgaard and Zytoon’s collection of footage ends.

Many great documentaries have been made about the Syrian conflict, and many will continue to come out of the country thanks to the bravery of people like Zytoon and their desire to show how war devastates everyday citizens far more than it hurts those seeking control. The Syrian civil war is hard to keep track of, and Zytoon and her close-knit band of friends seem to have difficulties keeping up throughout The War Show because changes sweep through the region so swiftly that battle lines become irreparably blurred. The protesting slows down and the more important fight for survival begins.

Not long into the conflict, Zytoon pays a visit to her hometown of Zabadani, and she finds the land she once knew almost unrecognizable due to heavy fighting. Zytoon and some of her friends make a trip to Homs in hopes of celebrating the New Year, but they have to deftly duck past regime checkpoints and end up eerily staring down a sniper not too far from their location. The War Show moves from youthful jubilance (and possible naïveté) to all encompassing terror so swiftly that it feels appropriately like being plunked into the middle of a quickly escalating danger zone. It’s all the more difficult to stomach because Zytoon and Dalsgaard make sure the viewer is able to intimately understand who the filmmakers are on personal levels before things get deadly, with Zytoon’s well written and delivered first-person narration acting as a moving open letter not just to her friends, but to everyone who cares enough to listen.

The War Show is a heartbreaking and heartfelt account of a large scale tragedy that grows more wrenching and graphic as it continues along, but it’s also an invaluable case for the validity and necessity of citizen journalists in the modern era. Dalsgaard (The Human Scale) and Zytoon expertly outline how the camera can be used not only to document atrocities, but also its ability to create heroes, martyrs, and villains. Through these unfiltered images and encounters with those most affected by conflict, Zytoon shows viewers the pain and chaos of a populace unsure of its fate. Each passing scene offers something eye opening and bone chilling to behold, and while The War Show almost purposefully falls apart on a structural level in its final thirty minutes, that’s only because the footage has begun to act as a reflection of the world in which it has been created. If Syria has no structure, the film acts as a spot-on reflection of that society. We can only be told what Zytoon knows to be true.

It might not be the best or most polished film to come out of the country in recent years, but it’s one of the most impassioned, emotional, and invaluable documents to depict what everyday Syrians have been faced with every day for years.

Is The War Show essential viewing?

Yes. Absolutely.

The War Show opens Friday, July 21, 2017 at The Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. Check their website for more information.

The War Show Trailer