For most of us, social media is a strange entity firmly rooted into our daily lives but with little consequence in the larger picture. Yet for protestors around the world, this is a tool vital toward the fight for freedom and democracy. #chicagoGirl (fittingly the first film I’m aware of that has a hashtag in the title) is the story of 19-year-old Ala’a Basatneh, whose use of the internet serves as a key intermediary in both organizing protests and making sure that the media worldwide knows about it. Having someone who is far away from the conflict is crucial because she can put herself out there online without risking her life near the conflicts.
Ala’a started out like any other teenager using Facebook and Twitter, just to post selfies at the mall or share milestones in her life. But as soon as she became aware of the Syrian conflict, she found a call to action that dominated all other priorities. The biggest issue with the film, however, is that it doesn’t cover the leap between Ala’a being a regular teen to an influential coordinator. Since this is the leap that is so pivotal and could potentially inspire others to do the same, it should have been a more integral part of the story. However, it isn’t hard to get past this since the content that follows is so gripping.
If we are going to make a difference in the world, it has to start with people like Ala’a who are passionately working to do so without any formal title.
Ala’a has abandoned her social life and academic prowess in order to continually coordinate the uprising. She serves as a liaison to the press, but more interestingly uses her social network to connect protestors that otherwise wouldn’t meet. When anyone she knows is detained, she is given their Facebook password and deactivates it to avoid letting the government find out who else they are connected to. It is no exaggeration to say that Facebook has never served a greater purpose. In past regimes, dictators could carry out heinous crimes because there would be no visual record. The power of video and sharing has never been harnessed more than it is today. With the advent of the internet, an “information cascade” allows for so much to be shared so quickly.
Unfortunately, as optimistic as all this sounds, the government is still in complete control, and sadly the Syrian regime has been much more difficult to topple than any contemporary uprisings. The film doesn’t shy away from the casualties of the revolution: it is rare to be so emotionally swept by a documentary. We learn that cameramen are often the first people to be targeted in shootings due to them knowing how powerful these videos can be. Because of how much footage exists from the various people documenting the ongoings, especially from photojournalist Bassel Shahade, there is a wealth of great documentation that keeps the film engaging. As mentioned above, there are certainly moments where the film could benefit from being more specific, but the overwhelming power of the storytelling here outweighs these criticisms.
The reason I love this film is for what it represents. This documentary is as much a call to action as any other piece of media that you will see this year. If we are going to make a difference in the world, it has to start with people like Ala’a who are passionately working to do so without any formal title. The ultimate irony that makes this film so powerful is that the message ends up being that in order to make a difference you have to go beyond using just social media. True change comes from tangible work – the social media is just there to document it. This is a message that ought to be shared all across the world. The end of the film left me wanting to know what has happened in Syria since the events depicted in the film, but I imagine so much has occurred it wouldn’t be possible to include it all in post-script. I hope this documentary can inspire all those that see it to take action toward something they’re passionate about.
#chicagoGirl screened April 24th.