Fassbinder, known for his keen eye and deep understanding of neo-realism and Soviet cinema immediately recognised the unmistakable Russian influence, both in terms of style and content, on those videos. For decades, Syrian filmmakers were trained in Russia and the influence of Russian cinema can be seen even in Syrian drama and even in TV soaps.
Fassbinder argues that these influences have permeated the collective visual and story-telling psyche in Syria, and this is being exhibited subconsciously by Syrian rebels while filming in less than ideal film-making circumstances, with no sound equipment, absence of typed scripts, and non-existent catering. These conditions represent a return to pre-corporate film-making akin to the French nouvelle vague experience, and in his view represent the rawest visual critique of the neo-liberal order you could come across today.
Fassbinder was fascinated by this short, a visual monodrama filmed in a Russian helicopter.
According to Fassbinder, the relationship with machinery represents the paradox encountered early on by Eisenstein. Machines are symbols of modernity, but they are also symbols of destruction. This ambivalent relationship created a fascination/revulsion that in Soviet cinema that the Syrian filmmaker is clearly making an homage to. The absence of the subject, depicted only as a roaming eye, highlights this destabilising relationship.
The sudden turning of the camera onto the man filming is a clear nod to Velasquez. It also captures that moment of alienation and disconnection, highlighted by the Russian Cyrillic script used on the dials of the helicopter. This moment of post-industrial claustrophobia is then broken when the camera steps outside, providing fragmented images of the helicopter. Poignant.
In the next film that, Fassbinder picked, there's a return to this obsession with machinery, in fact one could argue that the machines are the actors while the humans are the scenery. Fassbinder saw that as a powerful critique of war, 'on par with Kubrick'.
To the untrained eye, the film seems to consist of random footage of people walking around among tanks and military trucks. But according to Fassbinder, there's a carefully orchestrated sense of movement, including visual allusions to Tati with a strong element of farce about them. People seem to materialise out of nowhere, doors open and close purposelessly, and the line between nature and the man-made world is constantly highlighted.
Fassbinder again depicted the preoccupations of Russian cinema and its paradoxical relationship with the depiction of the subject and the deeply troubled relationship with nature, lurching violently between subjugation and exploitation. The fire is but a symbolic depiction of that, it's burning but it's contained within four walls, a perfect metaphor for human taming of nature, not unlike the heroic shots of tractors in early Russian cinema celebrating the Second Agricultural Plan.
But it's perhaps in cinematography where the Russian influence is strongest, sharply accentuating the displaced vantage of the modern subject. The quick zooms and pans are far from arbitrary, there is an order here that 'needs unpacking'.
This cinematographic destabilisation is taken further in the next clip, Fassbinder thought it was a gem.
Here, the film-maker boldly sheds any inhibitions about trying to depict the world 'as it is' as the camera swings violently, doing hitherto unheard of 270% sharp turns. It's the short films in which the strongest influences of Russian expressionism can be detected, with a near-complete disregard for the observer and the bourgeois notion of a coherent external world.
Inexplicably, for you and me but not for Fassbinder, the clip is repeated twice, without any sound the second time around. Our critic thought this was a clear nod to silent film and Eisenstein in particular. When we asked Fassbinder, but what is the film depicting, what is it showing, other than some men behind a mound, he was dismissive. 'Bah, you're spoiled by Hollywood and news reports, this is not about an external reality, it's about an internal search for meaning and expression'.
One detail that attracted Fassbinder's attention was the small-calibre handgun that appears briefly. Fassbinder's deep knowledge of Arab culture spotted the subversive gesture of what is after all considered a woman's gun in the Levant. The juxtaposition of that with the clenched manly fist is a great comment of how capitalism constructs gender roles, Fassbinder thought.
Before leaving, Fassbinder coined the term 'The Eisenstein Mujahideen' to describe this emerging genre, for which we are grateful. Fassbinder also noted that there is a sub-genre among those films that is clearly more influenced by Tarantino rather than Russian cinema, but we left that for another session.