The woman with the flag is a figure from Delacroix’s painting, Liberty Leading the People. Erected as a universal symbol, she recently made an appearance at a Damascus demonstration, embodied by a woman paradoxically brandishing the flag of the Syrian regime, rather than that of the revolution. Who is this woman that puts the viewer in a state of discord? News images can’t provide a response – unless the risk of a discordant montage of these images is taken.
Woman with Flag concerns the word “revolution”, the usage of which has various connotations in Syria’s recent history. It has been used in highly differing contexts – at least three, if the deliberate chain of images here proposed by Abounaddara is followed: the “great Revolution” of 2011, part of the broader Arab Spring movement; the July Revolution of 1830 in France, referred to in Delacroix’s painting, Liberty Leading the People (1830), which is analyzed in the film; and lastly, the revolution laid claim to by the al-Assad family, at the head of the country for more than a half-century, and hardly leery of “revolutionary propaganda”. The film’s title clearly resonates with Delacroix’s great painting, and the commentary confirms to us that the portrayal of this “young woman with the flag” “is directly inspired” by the French painter’s work. “At first glance”, the voice-over commentary continues, the iconography in question is presumably celebrating the 2011 uprising. Yet this is not at all the case: this nocturnal celebration, with its chorus of horns, in fact took place in May 2021, the evening of Bashar al-Assad’s crushing win, decided well in advance, for his fourth term as the country’s leader. The tricolor flag with two stars – symbol of the regime – may have guided the public’s gaze as the festivities kicked off, although the anonymous young woman on whom the camera is focused, with her white leggings, striped crop top and backward Nike cap, might disorient those seeing the sequence for the first time (who is she? But also, where in the Middle East are we?)
Abounaddara’s work has always sought to deconstruct our gaze on Syria. By using the codes of a TV report here, and placing the revolution on different levels holding varied meanings, it pulls us in diverse directions; or in other words, it distracts us, in the etymological sense of the word “distraction” – to be in a state of disunity, pulled asunder. That is, the distracted being we become upon viewing Woman with Flag is also a way of being led to a position where indifference or compassion as regards the situation in Syria no longer function. This is the positive aspect of the term, bringing us to what might be called a politics of distraction. This is where our ability to navigate current events is clouded, and in this clouding, propels us onto the very terrain of what Abounaddara is also denouncing: a news system that continually diverts us from what is happening in Syria – for the better (the uprising of a people) and for the worse (a dictatorship crushing this uprising). Mainstream news also distracts us, but in ways relating to this word’s darker side: a set of indistinguishable images which, in claiming to objectively map it out, instead lead us astray from a turbulent story set on the verge of escaping a dictatorial yoke, or to the contrary, of its agonizing prolongation.
With Woman with Flag, Abounaddara presents us with an apparent imitation of this media-spawned lack of differentiation, while seeking to create a breach, a hitch, a difference within the very indistinguishable images that have become the trademark of news today. The use of disoriented perception, grown distracted but not alienated, is perhaps one of the conditions for escaping this utter lack of distinction. There are others. The singularity of Abounaddara’s staging lies in how this produced disorientation in no way yields to the facilities of satire. The imitation is less an example of mockery of television journalism than an inversion plunging us into the literality of the event, of which television is unaware. Accordingly, all of the film’s allusions to the relationships between the Russian and Syrian governments should be understood straightforwardly. When Putin enters a military command center in the company of his Syrian counterpart positioned a few meters behind him, this physical distance is the sign of one country’s subordination to the other. This is why Abounaddara chose this archive, and links it to images of the Syrian presidential couple: Syria has become a link in the Russian “federation”, and the al-Assad regime’s National Guard is in fact viewed by Putin as a “militia” at the service of his army. This is where we are, in the wake of Syria’s “great Revolution” that almost brought the dictatorship to its knees. Distraction as a way of shaking up our ways of seeing and thinking has this merit, among others: that of placing us into a form of disquiet that combats the forgetting of an uprising anticipated by no one.