Mariam Hallaq’s face is like a moon: a tightly pinned white hijab frames her moist yet steadfast eyes. She’s a mother in mourning, determined to one day bury her son Ayham Ghazzoul, a student at Damascus University and a human rights activist who disappeared at 25 years old on November 5, 2012.
Ghazzoul is just one Sara Afshar’s three main subjects in her newest documentary, Syria’s Disappeared, screened at Loyola University and DePaul University last week.
Considering possible locations of her son’s remains, Hallaq says her best case scenario is that Ghazzoul lies in a mass grave, and DNA analysis might one day identify his remains; if he was pulverized, as she fears, then there is little hope for giving him a proper grave.
Ghazzoul's is one of several stories of detainment in Afshar’s devastating doc. His haunting face is numbered “corpse 320 belonging to detention facility 215” from a government defector’s dossier of smuggled photographs of the dead. He is the motivating force behind a mother not unlike the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo.
Afshar follows stories of detention, government defectors, and international war crime investigators on their campaigns for the release of the disappeared, even as international attention turns elsewhere. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, more than 65,000 people have disappeared in Syria since 2011 and over 200,000 are being held in state-run prisons.
The British journalist and filmmaker worked for the BBC for 16 years, but Afshar says this was her longest investigation yet—totaling around 18 months. The DePaul screening was followed by a discussion with Elisabeth Ward, executive director of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul, Noura Almasri, executive director of She Leads, and a member of Amnesty International's Middle East Coordination Group last Thursday.
Here’s what else Afshar had to say.
On what inspired her to make the film
“I came across photographs from the military defector, code-named Caesar. Many of these photographs were someone’s beloved husband, father, child, or friend, and his friends and family spent months or years searching for him. I was driven by the idea that no one was covering this story, and I couldn’t live with it being forgotten.”
On telling stories outside mainstream narratives
“As a journalist you feel this very real pressure to focus only on ISIS when it comes to Syria—and there should be documentaries done on ISIS—but there are so many other narratives to cover in Syria beyond the West’s fascination with a group that has become something of a Hollywood baddie. As journalists, we have a moral obligation to share the stories of people often forgotten.”
On covering male sexual violence
“Undoubtedly there are female prisoners and their children, including toddlers, who are being held in detention centers. But, this documentary focuses on male voices, and oftentimes the sexual violence they endure while in detention."
On the difficulty of covering torture as a storyteller
“With a subject like torture it can be so cold and alienating. You really need the personal stories to deeply relate to their journeys of survival, and my goal was to have viewers feel like that had just left the room with an individual, knowing not just what they endured but to restore humanity to their story.”