In a first, Al Jazeera English is airing a war documentary filmed entirely on an iPhone. Syria: Songs of Defiance, which premiered on the People and Power program this week, consists of iPhone footage smuggled out of the war-torn country. An anonymous Al Jazeera reporter—whose identity is being kept secret for fear of endangering his or her contacts—filmed throughout Syria in what appears to be early 2012. While the documentary itself is testament to the bloodshed of the Syrian rebellion, it’s also an indication of something else: Footage from the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S is good enough to make television with.
The 25-minute documentary consists of footage from Damascus, Homs, Idlibs, and several remote villages. According to Al Jazeera, the iPhone’s "tiny camera, filming secretly on street corners, through car windows, and behind closed doors, [let the correspondent] gather images that reveal ordinary people showing extraordinary courage." It also makes it easier to hide from the Syrian government, which is actively targeting journalists trying to cover the conflict.
Al Jazeera’s correspondents were forced to flee Syria last year after government authorities accused the network of trying to destabilize the government. Syria, meanwhile, reportedly banned iPhone imports and served mobile phone-wielding activists with notices from the customs department of Syria’s Finance Ministry.
At the beginning of the film, the correspondent states:
I can’t tell you my name. I’ve spent many months secretly in Syria for Al Jazeera. I cannot show my face and my voice is disguised to conceal my identity, because I don’t want to endanger my contacts in Syria. Because carrying a camera would be risky, I took my cell phone with me as I moved around the country and captured images from the uprising that have so far remained unseen.
It is important to note that there are marked differences in coverage of the Syrian situation on Al Jazeera English and on the network’s Arabic-language sibling. Coverage on Al Jazeera Arabic skews towards open sympathy with the rebels, in contrast to the more neutral tones of the English-language network. Three Al Jazeera employees in Beirut quit the network in recent months, charging inconsistencies between the network’s Syria coverage and its critical stance towards protests in Bahrain. Al Jazeera has close ties to Qatar’s royal family; Qatar has leveraged the Arab Spring to become a major player in Middle Eastern geopolitics. Al Jazeera English reported extensively on the Bahrain protests in 2011, something its Arab sibling conspicuously did not do.
While some documentaries have been filmed on iPhones on an experimental basis before, this is the first time an iPhone-filmed documentary has been aired on television. Mobile phone cameras have been responsible for a series of negative social changes—just think of the way phones are now commonly lifted into the air at concerts, ruining the view of the band. But around the world, from Occupy Wall Street to the revolutions in Syria and Egypt, camera phones have allowed citizens and activists to discreetly videotape events of genuine importance. And now it’s become a tool for intrepid undercover journalists, as well.