Little Gandhi [subtitled in part]


The “Little Gandhi” referenced in the title of this documentary is Syrian activist Ghiyath Matar. Matar was a leader of the Syrian resistance to Bashar al-Assad in its early days. Evidently he operated primarily in Daraya, a city not far from Damascus.

I was fortunate enough to attend a screening of the film that included a talk and question-and-answer session afterwards with the director Samer Kadi.

One reaction I had to the movie is that the title and description are just a little misleading. Only to a limited extent is this a biographical documentary about Matar. I suspect Kadi billed it the way he did because the story of a heroic Gandhi-like individual would likely draw more people than if the movie were described more accurately as the story of the Syrian resistance in general, focusing on a number of people in the opposition, including Matar but only in his case through hearsay.

Not that a movie focused more on Matar wouldn’t be worthwhile. The problem is he couldn’t be interviewed because he was already dead before Kadi started work on Little Gandhi, and evidently there is no video footage of him. (Until the end of the film I would have said evidently there are also no photos of him, as none are shown, but then the film closes with a single photo of him. Indeed, the very fact that we never see him until then no doubt adds to the power of that image, which I found startling in its depiction of a kind, gentle, ebullient, charismatic young man.)

Plus the regime tortured and killed Matar quite early in his “career,” at age 26. He isn’t a “Gandhi”; he is someone who I suppose one could speculate might one day have become a “Gandhi” had he lived long enough. Like Fred Hampton—murdered by the FBI at age 21—Matar’s is a story about certain accomplishments, yes, but much more about extraordinary potential that was violently stolen from the world.

Little Gandhi is an important and powerful film, however I found it rather taxing to watch.

The overwhelming majority of it consists of talking heads interviews. Apparently there isn’t much quality footage of what they’re talking about available, just occasional shaky cell phone video of demonstrations and such.

Excessive scenes of people being interviewed can be a problem with documentaries in general—I actually have more tolerance for this than I suspect most filmgoers do, but I know it’s something documentarians typically try hard to avoid—and it’s aggravated by the fact that this is a subtitled movie. There is a great deal of reading in this film.

So much, in fact, that there’s frequently overlap between one interview and the next. As the shot switches from person A being interviewed to person B being interviewed, often the subtitles for the last thing person A said remain at the bottom of the screen for a few seconds while person B is speaking.

There is also at least one shot of text on the screen during an interview—I don’t remember if it is a newspaper or poster or what—and there is insufficient time to read what it says and also read the current subtitles of what the interviewee is saying before they are replaced by the next set of subtitles.

Not to mention there are a few typos and misspellings and such in the subtitles, which is distracting. It’s not terrible, it doesn’t look completely amateurish, but really that’s the kind of thing that should have been cleaned up.

I don’t mean to go on so long in criticism of the style of the film as if it’s a huge deal; all I’m saying is that the impact of the substance of the film is slightly lessened by the process of having to hastily read through so many interview clips.

But it’s still, as I say, a powerful and important film.

One of the main points Little Gandhi seeks to impress upon its audience is that initially—back in the “Arab Spring” days and even before that—the internal Syrian opposition to Assad was overwhelmingly nonviolent.

Matar got his start as an activist in Daraya working on mundane issues like local anti-smoking laws. But he soon ventured into exposing and opposing government corruption, which is never something the powerful look kindly on.

When the Syrian resistance escalated its tactics to illegal but still nonviolent demonstrations and such, Matar was one of those working hardest to keep the movement as peaceful and respectful as possible.

When Syrian troops were sent to Daraya to quell the disturbances—and bear in mind that these are troops that have had it drilled into their head that they will be facing not their fellow countrymen but bloodthirsty terrorists seeking to destroy all social order in Syria, and thus that they must be ready to fire upon them without hesitation if and when ordered to do so—the response Matar organized was to pass out bottled water and flowers to the soldiers. (This is the symbol, as it were, of the movie. Indeed, at the screening I attended, volunteers gave everyone in the audience a bottle of water with a rose attached to it as we left the theater.)

The film makes the important point that, as is typical of oppressive regimes, in a sense the Assad government preferred violent resistance to nonviolent resistance and acted accordingly.

This is something that Gandhi certainly understood. Nonviolence is unifying; violence is the opposite. Once a movement becomes violent, there is a much better chance that those in it will fall to fighting amongst themselves. And by abandoning the moral high ground of nonviolence, its reputation will suffer both internally and in the eyes of those watching around the world.

So the purpose of snatching and torturing and killing Matar and those like him is to manipulate the opposition into abandoning nonviolence. Assad’s best shot at survival may well be to arrange things so that instead of facing some popular Gandhian movement, his primary opponents are ISIS-types that are actually even more hated than he is.

The members of the Syrian opposition that are interviewed in Little Gandhi unanimously praise Matar for his loving nature, his dogged persistence in pursuing what he believed was right, and his enthusiastic, optimistic spirit. Clearly he was an inspirational figure, a natural leader.

But in the end Assad got his way, and the opposition felt that it had no choice but to abandon Matar’s nonviolent path and take up arms.

Some of the interviewees kind of fudge this, insisting that even after the opposition switched to an armed struggle it was still essentially “nonviolent” in some sense. I’m not sure what that’s supposed to mean; certainly it’s not literally true.

One could make a case that after experiencing imprisonment and torture, and seeing many of your allies in the movement and other innocent civilians massacred, it is understandable that you would be unable to adhere to a strict code of nonviolence. Many people—indeed most people—would argue that in such extreme circumstances it isn’t just excusable but justified to abandon nonviolence. (Gandhi himself wouldn’t be one of them, of course. If you’re only nonviolent when it “works,” especially if you require it to work in obvious ways in the short term, then you’re no Gandhian.) But understandable violence, even justified violence, isn’t nonviolence.

Aside from the extent to which some of them felt they had no choice but to embrace violence in opposition to a regime that refuses to respond to nonviolence, the interviewees are consistently impressive, admirable people, and there are some truly moving scenes in this movie.

One that stands out to me occurs late in the movie. The bulk of the activists are interviewed outside of Syria, having fled the very real risk of torture or death. One of them who I believe is in Turkey gets choked up talking about how guilty he feels having left Syria rather than, like Matar, bravely facing whatever awaited him there.

So basically here is someone who has been more heroic in standing up for what he believes is right than 95%—or probably 99%—of the human population, but he’s wracked by guilt because he knows it’s possible to be even more selfless. Pretty amazing stuff.

Another striking clip—or series of clips—is from one of the few interviews done in Syria itself. Two activists are on the third floor of a bombed out building in an area where virtually everything has been reduced to rubble. Each time they commence speaking, the loud sounds of gunfire compel them to wait. They are totally calm, if a little sheepish and almost apologetic, about the noise intrusion. They note that it’s “probably” OK in that the shots are coming from a sniper 200 meters away (the implication being that that’s too far to constitute a significant risk). It’s harrowing and strangely comical at the same time.

Former U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford is interviewed at some length in Little Gandhi, and mentioned by other interviewees. He comes across quite favorably. I remembered his exploits being praised by Rachel Maddow on her show a few years ago, and my impression of him from the movie is consistent with her presentation of him. (When I got home I Googled the segment of her show where she talks about him—though I think there were actually multiple such segments—and watched it again.)

Dubbed the “Am-badass-ador” by Rachel, Ford was a vocal supporter of the Syrian resistance, and defied the host government by venturing into areas of Syria that foreign diplomats were forbidden to travel to, gathering information for himself about the resistance, and meeting with rebels and giving moral support and publicity to their cause. On occasion he was able to talk other Western diplomats into accompanying him on his prohibited activities, including when he attended Matar’s funeral.

Ford is mostly perceived by the Syrians as a respected and appreciated ally of the resistance to Assad, though there is a minority opinion that his actions were counterproductive in that they got the Syrian people’s hopes up that the U.S. was on their side, and then once they went out on a limb and openly opposed Assad at great personal risk it turned out the U.S. wasn’t standing with them after all.

But as I understand it, when communicating with the activists Ford consistently told them the U.S. was not committed to any kind of intervention to help them and that they should proceed accordingly. In that sense his defiance of the Syrian regime and his very public support of the opposition was a bluff. But a bluff is different from a lie or from promising something and then not delivering. It is a strategic ploy, and sometimes a justified one. Ford knew there was no guarantee of any specific concrete action by his superiors back in Washington, so he gave the only kind of support he could, which was moral, verbal support, with an implication that the U.S. would be displeased by any crackdown on democratic and nonviolent dissidents.

But this leads to the question of what is to be done about Syria. Little Gandhi is in large part an advocacy documentary, put together by people heartbroken over the brutal oppression and unimaginable suffering happening in Syria, issuing an urgent call to the U.S. and to the world to do something. In the question-and-answer session after the movie, there was much talk of how to get as many members of Congress, members of the Administration, etc., as possible to watch this film so that they would understand the urgency of taking action.

Unfortunately, the difficulty lies in coming up with something more specific than just to “do something.” Little Gandhi suggests little in the way of such specifics, certainly nothing it argues for at length.

The implication seems to be some form of military intervention. But what would that be? Bombing government troops? Enforcing a no-fly zone over some or all of Syria? Using U.S. ground troops within Syria? Giving more money and arms to those opposing the Syrian government?

Haven’t we been down this road far too many times in far too many countries already?

And it isn’t just that it’s exceedingly difficult to use military force for humanitarian ends. I’m highly dubious that any country, definitely including the United States, would be so motivated, regardless of what rhetoric it offered.

Not that I can fault those in Syria pleading for such U.S. intervention. When you’re being slaughtered in a one-sided fight against a repressive government, you welcome any change that gives you a nonzero chance of reversing the fight; you can’t be too picky and insist on only what is certain to work and has no strings attached and such. Anything, however unpromising, is better than nothing.

But really, “If only the American military would rescue us and help us defeat Assad and establish a Syrian democracy!” is only a tiny step above pleading for such intervention from Russia, China, Iran, al Qaeda, etc.

The American military isn’t an instrument for righting all the wrongs in the world. Its use is routinely billed that way, but rarely is such altruism more than a tiny portion of mixed motives, and even when it is, it rarely produces better consequences than doing nothing would have.

No doubt there are non-military actions that could be taken that would help—countries being more willing to take in Syrian refugees being one obvious example—but I don’t know of anything that would likely turn the tide and result in the ultimate triumph of the good guys in Syria.

I totally agree with Little Gandhi that we should care about what’s going on in Syria, want to help alleviate the suffering, and prefer an outcome that leaves Syria with a democratic regime with a commitment to basic human rights, but I’m at a loss as to what we’re supposed to do about that.

I mean, my preference as a Gandhian would always be for people—both those in the Syrian resistance and those outside Syria who sympathize with them—to rely on strictly nonviolent means in pursuit of good consequences, but that approach has already been largely abandoned.

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