This campaign aims to help Abo Bakr Al Haj Ali fund a Master's degree in filmmaking at a London university. Bakr has been offered places on Three programmes (MA Social Impact Documentary Filmmaking at Central Film School, MA Screen Documentary at Goldsmiths University and MA Filmmaking at University of East London) and is waiting to hear on his applications for merit-based funding. He'll accept the offer with the most funding, but there will still be a gap between his savings and the cost of a year in London. We're trying to close that gap!
Bakr is a gifted and pretty much self-taught filmmaker. Like many Syrians, his losses over the past nine years are uncountable -- friends, family, country, possessions, opportunities. But he has managed to build a career as a video journalist and filmmaker despite astonishing challenges. His dream is to complete a Master's degree in the UK -- and I think the story of how he got to the point of admission is worth telling.
Bakr's career started in his native Daraa, in March 2011. Anti-government demonstrations broke out in Bakr's hometown -- demonstrations that would lead to the civil war that still burns today. Bakr picked up his Nokia N70 mobile phone and recorded everything he saw.
As the conflict escalated, Bakr continued to bear witness, uploading his footage to his YouTube channel in hopes of getting the story out to the world. He refused to pick up a gun -- as he puts it, "I hate weapons."
Bakr took immense risks to film the violence, abuses of authority and outright war that consumed southern Syria over the next two years. But by March 2013 he realized that he needed a better platform: "No one in the West was going to see my YouTube channel." So he crossed into Jordan, made it to Zaatari refugee camp, and then snuck out and caught a mini-bus to Amman. There, Bakr cold-called Reuters, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya and showed producers his mobile phone footage. Al Jazeera gave him his first real camera, a small Sony handycam, and said they'd pay for his footage."
Within days Bakr was back in Syria and sending Jazeera video reports on the conflict and the people around him. In September 2013 he was shot by a sniper as he was filming an interview. He was rushed to Amman for surgery and as he recovered, he started learning English and making contacts with international media. I am one of many Western journalists he met during that time, and for years afterwards Bakr was an invaluable fixer, source and advisor on my Syria coverage.
His work was soon seen by Vice News, who gave him the chance to make a documentary, The Battle for Syria’s South. Bakr shot the film over 3 months, with daily check-ins with the producers in London and at night uploading hours of footage on a dodgy internet connection. The film got over a million views on YouTube and was a finalist for the Prix Bayeux award for war correspondents. The photo below is him in the nominees section of the Prix Bayeux audience, before the show.
Bakr caught another break when Clover Films, a UK production house, offered him a chance to make a major film for Jazeera English over 2015-2016. The Boy Who Started the Syrian War won an Asian Television Award for best current affairs programme. The photo below is Bakr giving a director's talk to an audience in Windsor in April 2017. Beside him is Clover MD Tracey Doran-Carter.
As Bakr gained experience working with world-class editors and producers, he saw how much he needed to learn. In Amman, he re-started university from the beginning (couldn't transfer his credits from Syria) and earned a BA in Media and Press in January 2020.
Bakr's dream is to do a Master’s degree in the UK and in May he was accepted to 3 British universities including Central Film School in London for a Master’s in Social Impact Documentary Filmmaking. As he says, "For me this would be perfect. To get formal teaching of shooting, editing, scripting and production, in a democratic society where people have the right to speak openly... I have never experienced this."
Final words are from Bakr: "It’s not easy to get ahead as a Syrian. Most Syrians, like me, have family we need to support. It happens often that you do not get work opportunities because you are Syrian. There is a lot of discrimination. I know this degree will be difficult, but it will give me the tools to take my career to the next level. For me that means making films for NGOs as well as commercial productions. But the thing I want most is to use my skills to tell stories from this reg – stories about individual people living under dictators, people who are demanding freedom and change."
See more of Bakr's work on his website: www.abobakralhajali.com
Some more photos from recent years:
October 2017 - giving a talk on war reporting to an audience at Art Week in Bucharest
May 2017 - Taking a one-week documentary shooting course at the National Film and Television School in the UK
June 2016 - in France as part of a government-sponsored training programme for Syrian journalists
March 2016 - with Syrian children in a camp for displaced people in Qunaitra, southern Syria
April 2016 - in Syria at a demonstration. The signs say "We have the right to healthcare and live in peace and dignity"
June 2015 - Frontline filming in Daraa, Syria.
August 2015 - shooting for Jazeera in Daraa; this building was destroyed by an airstrike.
May 2014 - Filming with displaced people living in a cave.