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Spencer Osberg’s ‘The War Show’ at King’s

November 19, 2016

Spencer Osberg, MFA , 2015

Spencer Osberg’s own backstory to The War Show begins in Lebanon in August 2012. The 2003 King’s Bachelor of Journalism grad — then the editor of Beirut-based Executive Magazine — met two young Syrian men at an electronic music festival. They were, he would recall, “taking a break from the revolution to smoke hash, trip on acid, and stomp barefoot in the dancing pit. We became friends and they invited me into their world.”

By the time he arrived at King’s College in Halifax a year later to begin his MFA in Creative Nonfiction, Spencer thought he knew what he wanted to write his book about — the war-torn Syrian world of his new friends “beyond the headlines, casualty counts, and geo-political conferences… the human experience of ordinary people caught up in revolutionary times.”

And then he met Obaidah Zytoon. Two years before, Oby, the host at an alternative Damascas-based radio show, had founded a loose collective of young artists and activists participating in — and documenting — their country’s 2011 Arab spring uprising. As the regime’s violent response triggered a bloody civil war — and their hopes for a better future led to “violence, imprisonment and death” — they continued to film.

By the time Oby showed up at Spencer’s house north of Beirut in the spring of 2013, she had more than 300 hours of footage she and others shot.

Her initial plan was to work with a Danish director to shape it into a documentary, but Oby eventually “stopped this process when she felt it was not being true to her and her fellow characters.” Spencer who helped mediate Oby’s discussions with the first director, continued to work with her and others — as a facilitator and eventually as co-writer — while The War Show slowly, painfully emerged.

“It was a brutal process,” Spencer recalls. “There were a hundred different movies you could have made, stories you could tell.”

It is clear now that Oby, Spencer and the Danish production team that eventually came together, made well.

The War Show had its world premiere at the Venice Days festival in August where it won the festival’s Jury Award. It has already garnered other awards and much critical praise, including from Variety, which called it “a highly personal yet universally affecting documentary shot in Syria, encompassing the euphoria of protest to despair in the face of the unthinkable.”

There will be a special presentation of The War Show — followed by a Q&A with Spencer — in Alumni Hall at the University of King’s College in Halifax on Tuesday, November 22 at 7 pm. Admission is free, but donations to Syrian relief and refugee sponsorship are welcome.

As for Spencer’s MFA book project, he jokes “the idea is highly developed. Working on the film helped galvanize the direction of the book,” which is now more about trying to help readers understand in a more nuanced way where the stories they see and hear about Syria really come from and what they mean.

“Thanks to the film,” adds Spencer, who graduated with his MFA in 2015, “I think I’m now better equipped to tell the story of how the story gets told.”