Reflections on non-violence inside Syria

This blogpost is part of a series about the Digital Steps program, a collaboration between Build Up and the British Council Syria. Over the past 9 months, Build Up has been working with a group of Syrian artists and innovators who are building peaceful coexistence inside Syria. Their peacetech work is truly inspirational, and you can find out more here.

From animation to conversation to animation…

Bebesata, meaning ‘simply’ in Arabic, is a youth-led organization that seeks to promote the value of non-violence in Syria through animation films. Through Digital Steps, they are developing an interactive animation series: people watch a short episode on Facebook that ends with a dilemma about the use of violence, and are then prompted to talk to the main characters via a Facebook messenger bot. The bot asks the audience questions designed to provoke a discussion, building on the theme of the series. It is both a way to deepen the message, and to allow audience members to collaborate in the story-writing process — the outcomes of the conversations are used by the Bebesata team to write the next episodes.

Animators as peacebuilders

Bebesata’s vision is to create an animation studio that is a force for peace. Hussam Hajj Hussein, co-founder of Bebesata, explains:

“To create the animation series, we have trained 10 young Syrian animators, providing them with the tools to develop high quality animation, as well as training on peace messaging. By teaching them how to use animation as a means of peaceful communication and expression, they have become much more than technically skilled animators, they have become peace agents. This kind of training, provided for free, is unique in Damascus.”
Training animators in Bebesata’s office in Damascus.

Mahmoud Bastati, co-founder of Bebesata, is also clear on why peacebuilding in Syria requires a discussion about violence and non-violence:

“Violence isn’t a problem that only armed people have. It’s part of the culture of the whole community in Syria now, it’s taken for granted. If we truly want to create peace, we have to add something to the culture, something that is missing. That’s why, for the last two years, we’ve been working on how to create and share messages of peace through animation. There is an enormous demand for more non-violent content in the media, and especially for Arabic content that has a culture of non-violence. So far, there is almost no processes of peace education and we want to change that.”

A challenging context

Building an animation studio for peace in Damascus right now is extremely challenging. Hussam explains:

“The kind of animation we are doing is very complicated — it requires years of experience to produce top quality work so it’s been a real challenge to produce the first episode. It’s been even more difficult in the last month, as we’ve been unable to access our office. We’ve been working from cafes — 10 animators all around one café table was quite a challenge! Despite this, the enthusiasm of the trainees has been a great help.”

And it’s not just the operations that are challenging, there’s also a problem with trust, says Mahmoud:

“For me, the most difficult part of a project like this is putting all the pieces together, managing all the different stakeholders. We have to develop the trust of the trainees, of our own team, of donors and so on. Even if you plan for all the problems you can think of, new problems emerge that you have to juggle.”
Shot from a rough draft of the first episode.

Three lessons on peacetech

Mahmoud and Hussam shared their top three lessons from the last 9 months with us:

  1. Thinking from a user perspective. This was the first workshop that we’ve been to that really focused on this concept, and we’ve spent the last 9 months trying to think in that way. It’s a really helpful approach for all kinds of planning, from choosing what kinds of Facebook posts to write to developing training and so on.
  2. Simplicity! The simpler you are in your messaging, the easier it will be to understand you.
  3. No matter how illogical your idea might sound and no matter who tells you not to do it, do it! When we started this project, we knew we would face a lot of challenges and we had no financial or time commitments from others. But we started regardless and have found ways to support our work.

What next?

“We’re not going to give up now…we will keep producing new episodes of the series, and with each episode a new chatbot, a new conversation with a new way of helping people talk about violence and non-violence, supporting them to reconsider existing points of view.”

Bebesata’s pilot episode and first bot are in the final testing and post-production stage, and will soon be shared publicly here.