Credit: Daniel Green. Sue Llewellyn and Waad Al-Kateab speaking at Mojofest (6 June 2019)

"We used mobile phones as our weapon when we were protesting in the streets," said Waad Al-Kateab, a Syrian filmmaker, speaking at Mojofest (6 June 2019).

In Syria, ranked 174th out of 180 for press freedom by Reporters Without Border, the citizens joke that even their thoughts and dreams are controlled by the regime forces.

As Al-Kateab explains, the atrocities that were unfolding before their own eyes were being denied on local TV, and foreign journalists were not allowed into the country either. The government had a tight grip on the political narrative.

But everything changed in 2011 when the people in neighbouring countries like Tunisia and Yemen started documenting political uprisings in the streets, also known as the Arab Spring.

"We can now speak and hear our voices, we can change our lives for the better in ways we hadn’t thought about before," she explained.

"We felt the only thing we could do, as Syrians who really believe in what’s happening, is to pick up your phone, film whatever you see around all you.

"No one can ignore this when it is recorded."

Putting a mobile phone in the arsenal of local citizens proved a real threat to the regime. Enough of a threat anyway that destroying cameras was a more valuable strategy to them than arresting - or worse - their owners.

"This evidence could be really key in the world, in that what’s happening is a revolution and something for freedom, dignity and nothing else."

So up until 2016 when Syrians started to flee the country, mobile journalism has been invaluable to those on the ground trying to report out Syrian’s stories via social media and foreign media channels.

"You don’t always have the time to prepare a shot. In the critical moments, when you are in a bad situation and you don’t have the equipment or electricity, a phone is easier to charge and quicker to edit on.

"It’s easier to upload material and reach out to other channels. At one moment, my camera wasn’t charged, so all I could do was use my phone, but my footage was used by Channel 4 News."

In Aleppo, 2015, the broadcaster was looking for journalists or citizen journalists to share some first-hand videos when the Russians started a military intervention in Syria.

Al-Kateab's story on a 15-year-old boy went on to be published and reached 1 million views. It confirmed to her that these stories needed to be told, as she was initially puzzled why Channel 4 would care about the story.

"That’s when I felt this was important and these platforms could reach a huge number of viewers, that’s why we started to work together," she said.

But she was not alone to report stories which gained international prominence. Activist Lina Al-Shami is another voice that managed to penetrate international media.

Sometimes, low-resolution and low-frame rates have to suffice. That, for Al-Kateab and those risking their lives to obtain the footage, is secondary.

"All these things do not matter, what we are trying to do is risk our lives to document these moments," she explained.

"This is maybe how we can share their story, or your story, out to the world. This is just how we can be the voice for the people who don't have the activity, skill or chance to tell their story and what’s happening.

Although fighting has ceased in some parts of Syria, cities like Idlib are still at war.

"How can we, as people around the world, engage with these people and do something to stop these massacres and to stop what we have seen?

"I do believe without mobile phones, we would have never had this chance to tell our story or prove what was happening. The control by security forces was very strong. We couldn’t know what was happening in other cities without my friends sharing with us footage from their phones."

Now, Al-Kateab's story is set to go further, as her film For Sama hits the big screens this month (26 June 2019).

It chronicles her story of giving birth to her daughter Sama in the war-torn country, pulling together five years of leftover footage after fleeing the country.

"After the displacement in 2016, I was desperate and felt whatever I shared would make no difference to our lives. I didn’t expect that we would be displaced," Al-Kateab explained.

"This is about shock, how the world in 2016 didn’t deal with the massacres, the US, the UK, all of the governments. The only way was to free ourselves. I felt like I didn’t want to do journalism anymore, I felt like I couldn’t do anything.

"Navine [Mabro, deputy editor, Channel 4] was trying to convince me that although I couldn’t feel the result then, what we did was really important for us to share with the audience."

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