Title: #ChicagoGirl: The Social Network Takes on a Dictator
19-year-old Ala’a Basatneh, a Chicago resident and college freshman, says she used to spend her time at the mall hanging out with friends. Now she runs a revolution in Syria from her computer. She still has friends, but now they are a network of activists, protestors and journalists ‘on the ground’ in a country she hasn’t been to since she was 6.
Her contacts send her news, photos and videos from the inside and she posts these on internet outlets that many of her contacts don’t have anonymous access to and tries to get them enough exposure to be covered by the mainstream international media. She plans protest marches with built-in escape routes. She runs campaigns to spread awareness in the US. She brokers between various anti Bashar al-Assad groups that don’t necessarily know about or trust each other. In the course of the documentary she deals with the death of two physically distant but very close friends. She sees others give up on peace and resort to violence. Even on US soil, she receives death threats from the foreign regime. This is not an ordinary gal.
For me the moment that really drove home ChicagoGirl’s shocking discipline and responsibility occurs while she is trying to balance her college attendance with her activist duties. She gets a text that a friend has been captured alive. Her job is to drop whatever she is doing, even an ‘important’ exam, and log onto their social media accounts (they trust her with their passwords), deactivating them before their login credentials are tortured out of them and their networks compromised.
#ChicagoGirl as a documentary is interesting for two reasons: 1) because Ala’a Basatneh herself is so interesting and the disjunction between her and American teens as we typically think of them never gets old and 2) because of what this particular example of online activism implies in a broader sense about social media, nonviolent resistance, mass communication and political evolution. If the film doesn’t quite break through into brilliance it is because it tries to tackle both the personal story and the wider scope at the same time, but can’t quite capture the latter.
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