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Canadian-funded film about Syrian hero shown in Ottawa

By Micaal Ahmed      

The film took two years to make. Detroit-based Sam Kadi directed it over Skype with the help of a team based in Syria.

Little Ghandi's director Sam Kadi and Liberal MP Raj Grewal, pictured last week at the film's screening. Photograph courtesy of the IDRC
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PARLIAMENT HILL—Gunfire, bloodshed, torture, murder, water, flowers—these words perhaps best summarize the eventful, but tragic life of tailor-turned peace activist, Ghiyath Matar, who valiantly tried to  fight against violence in Syria by offering flowers and water, but ended up being tortured and killed. He was known as Syria’s Little Gandhi which was turned into the award-winning documentary Little Ghandi: The Lost Truth of the Syrian Uprising, funded by Canada’s IDRC.

The film, directed by Sam Kadi, is part of the IDRC’s research on the Syrian conflict, which made the documentary into a reality. It was screened last week on Parliament Hill and was hosted by the IDRC and Global Affairs Canada.

In December 2010, the Tunisian Revolution set the wheels in motion for a wave across the Middle East known as the Arab Spring. In 2011, when the moment came for Syria to fight against the status quo, Mr. Matar was one of the leaders of the protests in his city of Daraya. As the protests grew, the violence of the Syrian army did too, but so did Mr. Matar’s belief in peaceful resistance.

When soldiers tried to break up the protests of Mr. Matar and his supporters and friends, they were greeted with flowers and water. Mr. Matar apparently believed that love could win over hate and that peace could overcome violence. When Mr. Matar and his fellow rebels were attacked by Syrian forces, many suggested they fight back, either with batons or even Molotov cocktails.

“From the Molotov rose a flower,” said Osama Abo Zayd, one of Mr. Matar’s friends featured in Little Gandhi.

Little Ghandi’s director Sam Kadi and Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Syrian Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. The Hill Times photograph by Micaal Ahmed

As the threats against his life grew, Mr. Matar left Daraya. But he did not give up his stand against the government. He kept protesting until one day in 2011 his story came to a tragic end. He was lured into a trap because he believed an accomplice had been injured and needed help. Little Gandhi was surrounded, shot, captured, tortured for days, and then killed by Syrian forces.

In the midst of Syria’s civil war, which started with the Arab Spring and goes on to this day, Mr. Matar and his flowers became a symbol of peaceful resistance.

Screened on the Sir John A. Macdonald Building on Feb. 22 and at the Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa on Feb. 25, Mr. Kadi’s film tells the story of Mr. Matar’s proclamation of non-violent protest, a proclamation which spread from Darya to other cities and which came about because Mr. Matar believed all Syrians were brothers and that brothers shouldn’t hurt each other.

The film took two years to make. Mr. Kadi directed it over Skype with the help of a team based in Syria.

The IDRC’s Roula El-Rifai. The Hill Times photograph by Micaal Ahmed

Little Gandhi won the Best Foreign Documentary Award at the 21st International Family Film Festival in Los Angeles in October 2016 and the Ahmed Khedr Award for Excellence in Arab Filmmaking at the Independent European Film Festival in April 2016. Since then, Mr. Kadi has taken the film to various locations around the world, such as Washington, D.C., Vancouver, Paris, London, and Doha, Qatar. It was screened to the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C., and to government officials in Doha.

The IDRC took the initial steps that made Little Gandhi possible. Its governance and justice program managed and funded a project with the Syrian Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, headed by Radwan Ziadeh, on transitional justice.

“The project aimed to support a transitional justice process to address human rights violations and to aid an eventual shift in Syria toward peace and democratic rule,” said Roula El-Rifai, the senior program specialist at the IDRC who was the one to decide to fund Little Gandhi. “The project explored options for criminal prosecutions and reparations. It also led to the production of the documentary Little Gandhi, which speaks to the need for addressing human rights violations as a critical ingredient to achieve a just peace. I have seen the movie so many times now and I still find it extremely moving and very powerful and it gets me every time.”

“I am always amazed at the power of individuals in being able to make a difference in their societies, and do it while risking their lives but in belief that they can indeed make a difference and build a better future for their children,” said Ms. El-Rifai.

Liberal MP Raj Grewal (Brampton East, Ont.), who also helped host last week’s screening, said the documentary is an eye-opener for anyone who watches it.

Little Gandhi tells the story of what was going on in Syria,” Mr. Grewal said. “When you only analyze a situation in that part of the world by what you read, you can’t fully appreciate it. … Canada has done a great job in welcoming over 40,000 refugees. But watching a video, a documentary, like Little Gandhi puts into perspective what was happening on the ground.”

Mr. Grewal said the movie will have an impact.

“I think that there’s always a good time to show a movie like Little Gandhi, about the Syrian perspective and how these activists came together to try to make a better future for the people of Syria, and ultimately what ended up happening,” he said.

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