Austin Film Festival: #chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator

Trying to light a revolution using social media

The events of the Arab Spring made crystal clear the fact that being able to harness the power of technology is now an integral component of civil resistance.

Shot over two years, beginning in 2011, #chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator is a documentary that follows Ala’a Basatneh, a 19-year-old college freshman in Chicago who was essential in helping to coordinate protests in Syria, 6,000 miles away. Bastatneh was born in Syria, but her family relocated to America when she was a child, as they (rightly) feared the worst from Bashar al-Assad’s regime. From her home in a suburban Chicago neighborhood, Basatneh organizes Syrian protest routes (and more importantly, escape routes) via Facebook, uploads videos (after blurring faces) to YouTube showing the bombing of civilians, and translates Arabic into English (and vice versa) for communiqués and testimonials from the frontline. First-time feature director Joe Piscatella cuts between Bastaneh’s tireless work and dispatches from Syria, where filmmaker Bassel al Shahade and Aous al Mulbarak chronicle the seemingly never-ending missile strikes and snipers who target anyone holding a camera (or a smartphone). Things get so bad that Basatneh and her father travel to Syria, smuggling much-need medical supplies to underground clinics.

This is harrowing stuff, for sure. I just wished that Piscatella engaged the material a little bit more intelligently. There are broad-stroke back stories on the history of conflict in Syria, but it is easily digestible, elementary-school explanations. He is more concerned with the use of technology as furthering the cause, but it becomes narratively limiting. I found myself with more questions than answers when the credits rolled (some of which were answered by the post-film Q&A). That said, #chicagoGirl is a devastating account of an attempt to overthrow a despotic regime that, well, if you are up to date in world politics, you know the result: extremist groups beheading journalists, bombings galore, and unfortunately, no end to al-Assad’s reign. But don’t let that stop you from checking this doc out, it is, at the end of the day, a well-told tale of everyday people rising to the call of duty that might make you rethink the power and breadth of social media. And yes, I'm talking about you obsessing on how many likes that photo of your fucking pet got.

#chicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator screens again on Tuesday, Oct. 28, 7pm, at the IMAX Theatre.

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Austin Film Festival, #chicagogirl, Austin Film Festival 2014, Ala’a Basatneh, Joe Piscatella, Arab Spring

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