#Chicagogirl brings Syrian activism to SIFF

Ala'a Basatneh sits in her Seattle hotel room. Basatneh and director Joe Piscatella have spent the last seven months screening #ChicagoGirl in Europe. Seattle is its U.S. debut. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)
Ala’a Basatneh in her Seattle hotel room. Basatneh and director Joe Piscatella have spent the last seven months screening #ChicagoGirl in Europe. Seattle is its U.S. debut. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)

Before the Syrian revolution started, Ala’a Basatneh was a typical 19-year-old college freshman who spent her time hanging out with friends in malls.

Now her cell phone and laptop serve as video portals to the front lines of the Syrian revolution. The Damascus-born, Chicago-raised teen, who has over 5,000 followers on Twitter, has become a revolutionary leader through social media. Her story is documented in the film #ChicagoGirl, which screens today at 4 p.m.

In Seattle yesterday, the Chicago Girl has her fingers and eyes glued to her phone, which an American flag bedazzled onto its plastic backing. Basatneh scrolls through her Twitter feed and a tiny smile crosses her face. It’s only been a few hours since #ChicagoGirl was screened to about 400 students at Redmond High School, and already she has 150 new followers. In Twitter speak, it means they were listening.

As part of SIFF’s Educational Outreach Program, Basatneh and director Joe Piscatella are presenting the film to local student groups at Redmond High School, Mountlake Terrace High School and Franklin High School before its final festival showing today at 4 p.m.

Ala'a in her Chicago bedroom on the computer in a still from #ChicagoGirl.
Basatneh in her Chicago bedroom in a still from #ChicagoGirl.

For the last three years, Basatneh’s been organizing protests and shipping recorders, cameras and medical supplies into Syria and uploading videos taken by activists inside. In 2011, she received a death threat from Syria.

At the time, Piscatella was planning a project about the dark side of social media in revolutions. Basatneh’s death threat seemed like exactly the kind of thing that showed even activists online and in America weren’t exactly safe.

He contacted Basatneh. But her story was much bigger than it first appeared. Inside Syria, there were activists trying to get information back out to the world. And Basatneh was a digital link, sharing footage from activists on the ground with the rest of the world.

“I was asking her about this death threat and she said to me ‘Joe you’re asking me all the wrong questions,’” Piscatella said.

Joe Piscatella outside the Uptown SIFF Theatre, where #ChicagoGirl had its U.S. premier on Sunday. Piscatella grew up in Tacoma and says the choice to debut #ChicagoGirl at SIFF was no accident. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)
Joe Piscatella outside the Uptown SIFF Theatre, where #ChicagoGirl had its U.S. premier on Sunday. Piscatella grew up in Tacoma and says the choice to debut #ChicagoGirl at SIFF was no accident. (Photo by Alisa Reznick)

That was back in 2011. It was early enough that people still hoped for an outcome like Libya or Egypt, where dictators fell quickly to the same social-media-harnessing protesters that had organized in Syria.

Back then, Piscatella and the producers also envisioned a much different end to the movie — a triumphant Basatneh returning to Damascus after the fall of the regime, the friends she made across grainy Skype feeds finally meeting her in person.

Of course, things in Syria have not turned out like Piscatella imagined. And neither did #ChicagoGirl and its characters.

After we talk,  Basatneh tightens her headscarf and gets ready for photos. Every so often, she glances down at her phone to check for new messages. Basatneh, now 22, graduated from college in Chicago two weeks ago and plans to pursue a Master’s degree in international human rights.

She’s still working with people online and on the ground in Syria, but things haven’t been easy.

Three years after meeting Piscatella, some of #ChicagoGirl’s main subjects – Basatneh’s close friends – didn’t live to see the end of the film.

Sometimes she feels helpless. But  it doesn’t mean she’s giving up.

“Seeing what many people went through in the revolution… they sacrificed their lives,” she said. “To me it’s betraying them to just say okay, I’m just going to stop. It’s not an option.”

 See the film:

#ChicagoGirl screens at 4pm today at SIFF Cinema Uptown
Director Joe Piscatella and subject Ala’a Bastaneh scheduled to attend

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