Dr. Josepha Wessels is a visual anthropologist/human geographer, Associate Professor in Media and Communication Studies, and Senior Lecturer for Communication for Development at the School of Arts and Communication, Malmö University, Sweden. She speaks six different languages and has over 25 years of experience traveling and working in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region and is currently carrying out research on Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey, and Sweden.
After graduating as a visual anthropologist and filmmaker in Holland, Professor Wessels lived and worked in Syria as a Media and Communications officer at the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (aka ICARDA) from 1997 to 2002 and witnessed the regime change from father to son after the death of Hafez Assad.
Although Professor Wessels is extremely busy she was gracious enough to spend some time with the Syriawise Team answering questions about her relationship with Syria which continues to be a personal priority.
Q: You were accused of being a “jihadi” because you supported the Syrian revolution after it began. Was there ever a time that you felt threatened by the long arm of the regime even though you were no longer living in Syria?
Yes, this was interesting: In 2014 I visited some of the liberated areas in and around Azaz, Daret Izza, and Atarib. I also visited the Atmah camp and when I returned some so-called Syrian friends accused me of being a jihadi. Actually, I was visiting people from Azaz whom I have known for many years before 2011 and they were certainly anything but jihadi. However, they were revolutionary and I support the Syrian revolution.
the regime benefits by saying that everyone who supports the Syrian revolution against the regime is a terrorist jihadiProfessor Josepha Wessels
This area was under the opposition government at the time and still is. It wasn’t ruled by jihadi groups and it definitely was not ruled by Da’esh otherwise I would not have visited this area. So the fact that you’re accused of being a jihadi just because you support the Syrian revolution is ridiculous, it’s insane. It was true that there were jihadi groups in Idlib, I do not deny that, but I avoided them. But the regime benefits by saying that everyone who supports the Syrian revolution against the regime is a terrorist jihadi.
I never felt really threatened by the long arm of the regime because they cannot do anything to me, but I do see that there still is fear among Syrians even in Sweden. Unless they have a Swedish passport and no family whatsoever any longer living in Syria, they are still frayed because there is a Syrian embassy in Stockholm so the long arm of the regime is here. There are regime informers here in Sweden and that’s still very much a huge problem for Syrians in the diaspora.
For example, in 2014 there was a film called “Letters from Yarmouk.” It was about the siege in Yarmouk and was made by Palestinian director Rashid Masharawi. He was based in Ramallah in the West Bank and was contacted by a Syrian-Palestinian video activist and filmmaker called Niras Saeed who was documenting the siege in Yarmouk. Niras was an activist in the revolution against Assad and was specifically filming to show the world what was happening.
there is a high probability that there were shabiha in the audience in Malmö watching this film who called back to Damascus to inform the mukhabarat. Niras was tortured to death.Professor Josepha Wessels
Throughout the whole film, you don’t really get to know who’s doing the siege, which was obviously the Assad regime. In fact, in the beginning, it was the Assad regime bombing and besieging Yarmouk and then suddenly ISIS fighters appeared which was of course staged by the regime. But in this particular film, you are not told who is doing the siege. So after watching it during the Malmö Arab Film Festival, I asked the Palestinian director during the Q&A that followed if he could explain explicitly who was carrying out the siege of Yarmouk, but he avoided the question. He refused to answer.
It was sort of like there was this big elephant in the room, the Assad regime, which was not going to be mentioned and I was really taken aback because Niras’ main purpose was to document what was happening: What the Assad regime was doing against the Palestinians in Yarmouk. This particular film shows exactly what Niras looks like. Actually, if you are clever, you would know where to find Niras if you’ve watched this film.
When not much later the mukhabarat arrested Niras, and he was thrown into prison by the regime, I wondered who had been in the audience in Malmö watching this film. I don’t have any proof but I’m sure that there is a high probability that there were shabiha in the audience in Malmö watching this film who called back to Damascus to inform the mukhabarat. Niras was tortured to death.
They try to intimidate and do everything to change the narrative and change the history. This is how they work. It’s a dictatorship.Professor Josepha Wessels
As I said I don’t have any proof, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this would have been the case because the arm of the regime is indeed long and it’s international. They try to intimidate and do everything to change the narrative and change the history. This is how they work. It’s a dictatorship.
Q: Have you been able to help any of the Syrian refugees who ended up as asylum seekers in Sweden?
Yes, I’ve helped several Syrians come to Sweden either on student visas for courses that we organized or that were developed with the Swedish institute. They would stay after that and ask for asylum. This was more in 2013. Then in 2015, I started volunteering at the Malmo station and we were also able to help some old friends from Aleppo.
In 2015, I was also able to help many friends who had fled from Syria by communicating with them and translating whatever information they would getProfessor Josepha Wessels
One came to Berlin via Egypt with the help of a German friend but wanted to come to Sweden. He called me and said, “I’m in Berlin I’m taking the bus tomorrow. Where should I go in Stockholm?” I said, “Well, maybe perhaps just go to the police.” After arriving in Stockholm with his mother he said “OK they’re sending us to Boden” and asked, “is that close to Malmo so I can be near you?” I said, “OK… well that’s up north, it’s dark, it’s cold, I hope you are happy with it, but hopefully it will only be for a few months”. Now he’s living very close in South Sweden.
In 2015, I was also able to help many friends who had fled from Syria by communicating with them and translating whatever information they would get. If they arrived at a Greek island, I would give them information about where to go and what routes would change because if they were taking the Balkan route sometimes borders would close and I would tell them to go another way. Many of them became our friends even if we didn’t know them before the revolution.
So yeah, there is quite a network of friends we have here in Sweden and then I’m also on the board of the Syrian Swedish Association and we do a lot of advocacy work for the Syrian revolution and Syrian democracy.
Q: What inspired you to create the documentary film “Documenting Syria”?
I’ve always liked the films by Omar Amiralay, like Al Toufan and Chickens. They’re all films that are filmed in the areas where I did my anthropological fieldwork so there are a lot of personal memories that I have which are depicted in these films. It’s really a documentation of Syria and the rural areas of Syria and the frustration of people there and then.
people in the countryside were fed up and these were preludes of the Syrian revolution that came from the countryside, especially in Aleppo.Professor Josepha Wessels
When in 2013 we had two days for Syria at Lund university and Christa Salamandra who is a professor at NYU specializing in Syrian television, invited her friend Nabil Maleh to come and visit Lund to screen his film “Damascus, oh Damascus” (A Sham, A Sham) I met him and realized that I had seen one of his films, “The Extras” (Kompars) in Damascus but this film was actually forbidden inside Syria even though it was made with the Syrian national film organization. It was a very critical film and I remember watching it sort of in a private screening in Damascus with a friend and then going out on the streets and thinking “Oh I’ve seen something that I shouldn’t be seeing inside Syria” and I felt a bit paranoid because I had watched this film.
There is a lot of symbolism in the film about the mukhabarat, imprisonment, etc. and I never realized that it was actually made by Nabil Maleh whom I talked to in 2013. He had made another film in 2010 about the rural countryside, a sort of road movie going all the way from Deir Ezzor to al Hasakah to Raqqa to Aleppo to home in Damascus just to talk to people in the countryside, to farmers mainly, but also people in the rural countryside for UNICEF. He came back with stories that didn’t really fit the narrative of the Syrian regime and the Syria Trust which is the NGO formed by first lady Asma Assad.
So, the regime forbid the film because Nabil didn’t come back with the right stories. It should have been the story of the success of rural development. This film was screened in 2013 in Sweden and it really showed that people in the countryside were fed up and these were preludes of the Syrian revolution that came from the countryside, especially in Aleppo.
the real push of the revolution came with the demonstrations in Daraa after the regime tortured boys from the area who did not count as human beings for the regime and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the people in the countryside of SyriaProfessor Josepha Wessels
But I’m sure you know that the real push of the revolution came with the demonstrations in Daraa after the regime tortured boys from the area who did not count as human beings for the regime and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back for the people in the countryside of Syria. There is for me a direct link to this feeling of discontent in the countryside of Syria and why the Syrian revolution was so strong, and why the reaction was so strong to the torture of these young 15-year-old boys who simply wrote graffiti in 2011.
When I had done my project on Syrian video activists, I was wondering if there was already a book about the history of Syrian documentary film and video activism and there wasn’t. So I decided to write the book myself and it came out in 2019. It’s called Documenting Syria: Film-making, Video Activism and Revolution (Library of Modern Middle East Studies). It’s really a testament to the incredible cinematic legacy and critical filmmaking: documentary filmmaking by Syrian directors of all ages from the 60s until now. And of course, Omar Amiralay, who died at the beginning of the revolution that he always predicted in his own films, is one of those main icons.
Q: Do you have any plans to work on another film related to Syria in the future? Like hopefully a victory documentary when the regime finally falls?
Yes, I’m a filmmaker myself besides being a media scholar. My first film was about the qanat renovations in Syria, which was broadcast by BBC World in 2003. It features the village that I used to live in. It also has a longer ethnographic film that is still with the Royal Anthropological Institute in the UK. I did my Ph.D. in 2008 with three films about Syria, specifically on traditional water management.
The film I’m developing now, and hopefully in the last stages of, follows the community of one of the qanat villages that has dispersed all over the world. It’s a testimonial based on more than 20 years of footage of people that I filmed when they were four years old, and then filmed again when they are 24 years old and living in Europe. Basically, going from a village in the year 2000 that had no electricity and just mud brick houses and a Roman tunnel that provided water, to 20 years later the same people living in Europe. This in one lifetime is a massive difference, and obviously, the trauma of the revolution and the war in Syria are all throughout that film as well. That’s what I can say about it. Hopefully, my film will come out in the next two years or so. We’re working in the post-production phase at the moment.