Syrian voices cry out from behind the camera as the harrowingly familiar scene unfolds. Against a backdrop of crumbling buildings, a young boy runs amidst sniper fire towards a burnt out car. He stops short, crumples, and falls, seemingly hit in the chest by a bullet. Yet another innocent kid caught in this very grown up war. But wait. The shaky, blurry footage, supposedly caught on a mobile phone, then appears to show a miracle. The boy stands up and runs to grab the hand of a little girl trapped behind the car. Together, the two children flee the street for safety - bullets flying through the air behind them.
Uploaded to Youtube on 10th November, the video received more than 5 million views in less than a week. Then, to uproar amongst journalists, activists and human rights defenders, BBC Trending reported five days later that the 'SYRIA! SYRIAN HERO BOY rescue girl in shootout الطفل السوري البطل' video was a fake. Shot in Malta on the same set used for Gladiator, the film used professional actors as well as Syrian refugees and was funded by both the Norwegian Film Institute (NFI) and the Audio and Visual Fund from Arts Council Norway. Norwegian director Lars Klevberg uploaded it in the hope that it would "create political action and debate and focus on innocent children growing up in war".
While those who produced this film quite clearly had good intentions in drawing attention to the plight of children caught in war, one still can't help but wonder why they felt compelled to make a hoax video of the conflict. A commercialisation, even. In a war which has seen too many children killed, injured, orphaned and made homeless, there is plenty of footage showing the horrors these kids face. Try this one, which shows children screaming in terror as Assad's forces shell their school. Or this video of a young Syrian girl whose singing is cut short by an airstrike. Or Lyse Doucet's heart-breaking interview with 13 year old Kiffah at the end of her report from inside Yarmouk. There are thousands like these, each one showing the pain, terror and grief inflicted upon children, and each one staggeringly painful to watch. This stuff simply does not need to be staged.
Of course, what gained the 'Syria hero boy' video its viral status was the "magic" - the boy surviving against the odds and even managing to rescue a frightened little girl. As the filmmakers wrote in a press release, "with this magic, we wanted to give a touch of hope to those affected by war." Perhaps they thought that no hope can be found in Syria, that the country has no heroes. If so, they were mistaken. Take the White Helmets - Syria's apolitical volunteer civil defence forces who risk their lives 24 hours a day rescuing Syrians trapped in the rubble. Their work has inspired local children to start playing at 'civil defence' rather than 'war', and if you take a look at their videos, you can see why. In one, a young crying girl trapped in the rubble is pulled to safety. In another, a two-week old baby boy is rescued from a collapsed building. Had time been invested in sharing and publicising their work, not only would it have helped illustrate that there is genuine hopefulness amidst the tragedy, but it may also have helped these life-saving volunteers gain more international recognition and support.
Unfortunately, 'Syria Hero Boy' does not enter the fake video scene alone. Both sides in the conflict have long acknowledged the power media holds, and both the regime and its opposition have used hoax footage and images to further their own campaigns. Footage and images from wars elsewhere are shared - from Gaza, Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Mexico - as well as videos purporting to prove opponents' manipulation of media. (According to Global Post, this video - which supposedly shows members of the Syrian opposition preparing fake scenes of a massacre - was widely circulated amongst Assad supporters.)
In its careful ability to deceive, the success of the Syria Hero Boy video will only encourage greater use of such tactics. Yet in a war which permits few outside observers on the ground, this is extremely dangerous. Amateur footage has played a crucial role for those attempting to report the realities of this bloody conflict - and has helped in the documentation of grave human rights abuses such as last summer's chemical attack in Ghouta. An increase in fake footage will only make it harder to determine what is actually happening inside Syria, and to call actors to account.
"In darkness, abuse happens," said Fred Abrahams, a special advisor at Human Rights Watch, in the recent Netflix documentary 'E-Team'. Whilst the team behind the Syria Hero Boy has apologised for the damage caused, sadly an apology won't rectify the situation. Rather than casting light on the Syrian arena and the plight of children within, Klevberg's film has simply added to the darkness.