welcome to the postmodern world, where nothing is real

Syrian ‘hero boy’ video faked by Norwegian director
Anne-Marie Tomchak, Charlotte McDonald, BBC, Nov 14 2014

Millions of YouTube viewers have been captivated by the ‘Syrian hero boy’ who manages to rescue a little girl while under gunfire. Now a group of Norwegian filmmakers have said they are behind it. They say it was filmed on location in Malta this summer with the intention of being presented as real. Lars Klevberg, a 34-year-old film director based in Oslo, wrote a script after watching news coverage of the conflict in Syria. He says he deliberately presented the film as reality in order to generate a discussion about children in conflict zones. Klevberg said:

If I could make a film and pretend it was real, people would share it and react with hope. We shot it in Malta in May this year on a set that was used for other famous movies like Troy and Gladiator. The little boy and girl are professional actors from Malta. The voices in the background are Syrian refugees living in Malta.

Were they comfortable making a film that potentially deceived millions of people? Klevberg said:

I was not uncomfortable. By publishing a clip that could appear to be authentic we hoped to take advantage of a tool that’s often used in war; make a video that claims to be real. We wanted to see if the film would get attention and spur debate, first and foremost about children and war. We also wanted to see how the media would respond to such a video.

In fact the film received funding from the Norwegian Film Institute (NFI) and the Audio and Visual Fund from Arts Council Norway in Oct 2013. The NFI awarded 280,000 kroner (£26,480) towards its production. The filmmakers say their application for funding made clear they wanted to upload the film to the internet without making it obvious it was real or fiction. They also claim that those who financed it were aware of, and supported, these intentions. Producer John Einar Hagen said:

The children surviving gunshots was supposed to send small clues that it was not real. We had long discussions with the film’s financiers about the ethics around making a film like this.

Ase Meyer, short film commissioner for the NFI, said:

It was not a cynical way to get attention. They had honest motivations. I was surprised people thought it was real. When I see the film, the little boy is shot but he keeps on running. There is no blood on the child. It was a really low budget film. People normally apply for more money.

However, when Ms Meyer heard that the film was online she contacted the filmmakers to encourage them to reveal it was fiction. When asked if the NFI had a responsibility to tell people the film wasn’t real, Ms Meyer said:

It was the responsibility of the filmmakers.

So once the film was made, how did it go viral? Klevberg said:

It was posted to our YouTube account a few weeks ago but the algorithm told us it was not going to trend. So we deleted that and reposted it on Monday (Nov 10).

The filmmakers say they added the word “hero” to the new headline and tried to send it out to people on Twitter to start a conversation. It was then picked up by Shaam Network, a channel that features material from the Middle East, which reposted it the same day. Then it began to attract international attention. Shaam’s repost has been watched more than five million times and inspired thousands of comments. There has been a big debate about whether it is genuine. How those viewers will react to learning that it’s a work of fiction remains to be seen. Klevberg said:

We are really happy with the reaction. It created a debate.

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