This year’s winner of the IDFA DOC U award, which celebratesthe best documentaries chosen by and for young people, was Joe Piscatella’s poignant feature documentary, #chicagoGirl — The Social Network Takes on a Dictator.
Ala’a Basatneh looks like a perfectly normal 19 year old college student growing up in the American city of Chicago, yet her life is far from ordinary. Alongside juggling her studies, her work and her friends, she is helping to coordinate protests and demonstrations on the ground at the heart of the Syrian revolution from the bedroom of her family home.
#chicagoGirl — The Social Network Takes on a Dictator is a story of the“power” of social media, examining the possibilities that new technology can offer to citizens to help them fight against dictatorships, as exemplified in the Tunisian and Egyptian protests which made up the so called ‘Arab Spring’.
The film focusses on the power of everyday tools such as Facebook, Skype, Google Maps and Twitter, all of which Ala’a uses to help provide information to protest co-ordinators and participators. For her friends and connections within Syria, she is a crucial and trusted link to the world outside the horrors of the ongoing conflict. It is clear that Ala’a loves her role. Though the work is unrelenting, she displays an equally unyielding passion and dedication to the cause, full of hope that soon she and her friends on the ground will bring down Assad.
Yet as the conflict decends into civil war, the effectiveness of Ala’a’s work begins to decline. As the world becomes fatigued by the constant footage of violence and destruction, the broadcasters begin to lose interest. As the situation becomes more dangerous than ever, the international community turns it’s back on the conflict, wracked by indecision from the UN and a general reluctantness to start yet another foreign war in the Middle East from America, the UK and Europe.
Ala’a becomes frustrated, and her optimism begins to be slowly whittled away. The thing about social media is it can only be effective when there is a network and audience to connect with, and, on a more practical level, when there’s an internet connection.
#chicagoGirl — The Social Network Takes on a Dictator is a relevant and touching film, revealing the selflessness and absolute devotion of Ala’a – she is truly a unique and inspiring young figure. Yet it also emphasises the limits of technology and social media, tools so regularly imbued with the impossible capacity to solve the world’s problems. Consequently, the documentary concludes on rather a low note. In all fairness though, it is really hard to see an alternative ending given the current state of affairs in Syria. The conflict goes on, but at least Ala’a keeps on fighting for her vision of peace and justice.