KINGDOM OF SILENCE – Jakob Weingartner – WDR/DLF/ORF – Germany

subtitled video | 53 min


Saydnaya military prison, in the Damascus mountains, is known as a death factory.
It’s there that tens of thousands of Syrians are systematically tortured, abused and killed.
The prisoners are able to see only very little, so their most important memories are sounds and noises.

Detainees are blindfolded or are made to face the walls of their cells.
They listen to locate danger, learn to recognise guards by the shoes they wear and know instruments of torture from their sounds alone.
“Saydnaya is a machine that cuts, burns and melts.
It doesn’t only destroy flesh… but also people’s souls,” says one ex-inmate.
The record- ings for this feature take place in a windowless cell in a former Stasi prison in Berlin’s Hohenschönhausen.
Survivors recall their experiences in Saydnaya by reconstructing the sounds of their confinement, noise for noise, bringing back anguishing ordeals diffi- cult to put into words.
The author, Jakob Weingartner, has spent a period of two years documenting the statements from interviewees.

The conclusion: these harrowing nightmares are part of a system which the Bashar al- Assad regime uses to turn Syria into a “Kingdom of Silence” through fear.
Those who are freed are usually left traumatised and are either politically paralysed or religiously radicalised.
Some, after what they have suffered, are themselves prepared to further fuel the vicious cycle of violence, which Assad exploits to present himself as a “lesser evil”.

For years, Amnesty International has been calling for a global investigation into the Syrian trauma machine.
Creating public attention is the survivors’ last hope.
Despite the fact, or perhaps because, there is much to suggest that the Assad regime could one day regain its power over all of Syria.

Video teaser [2 min]

Produced by

Jakob Weingartner


10 thoughts on “KINGDOM OF SILENCE – Jakob Weingartner – WDR/DLF/ORF – Germany


    The piece “Kingdom of silence” lets prisoners from the horrible Sydnaya military prison in Syria tell their story.
    This is a documentary about a system and human evil that I definetely will remember for a long time.
    It is informative, but is also very close to the former prisoners feelings.
    The idea of doing the recordings in a former Stasi prison, now a museum, is very interesting, and brings back memories to the former prisoners, and let the listener take part in the scary sounds, the monotony and the small changes that can be a matter of life or death.
    Along with the music it creates a space of hopelessness – a place it is impossible to escape.
    Excerpts from the book “The Shell” gives the documentary structure and pace, since the documentary has no narrator, besides the prisoners and the excerpts.
    There are also some scenes that give us the feeling of being present when the recordings happen.
    I wish for more of those.
    In the piece there is also a part where people disappear in their own imagination.
    Maybe it had been possible to play a little with this, to create a soundscape that shows uf where they flee to?
    How far can we push people we want to tell their traumatic life stories?
    I think the journalist manages to make the former prisoners tell in an honest way, which shows patience and empathy with the people he interviews.

  2. Thanks for this peace. I was “in” all the time. I agree with Line: “In the piece there is also a part where people disappear in their own imagination.
    Maybe it had been possible to play a little with this, to create a soundscape that shows uf where they flee to?”

  3. Thank you so much for this piece, I think it is really powerful and sometimes breathtaking! I really liked the use of the sound.The most powerful scene for me is actually when he is describing the screams of the prisoners – you cannot hear them in the feature but in your head and it is really disturbing.

  4. Thank you for remarks, Line, Claudia and Katarzyna, it means a lot.
    Ad escapist imagination: together with the whispering, I reckoned that these are the only possibilities of escape for the prisoners, of defending a fragile space of personal memories and solidarity with other prisoners in a brutal environment that wants to break your social human spirit. Line and Katarzyna, I actually thought about opening up the space and creating a bit of escapist beauty, but in the end decided against it. It felt wrong and would have sounded kitschy. There is a sound that represents this: a single songbird we hear when Shapal asks it to bring a message to his family.
    Ad screams: I am happy (and sorry) you felt that way, Claudia, this was what we aimed for. The basic idea for this doc was simple: “Kingdom” was not going to be a thrilling ghost train ride along the abyss of humanity, projecting to know what pain, torture and loneliness feels like, but should rather keep a certain forensic and respectful distance.

  5. Hello Jakob!

    What a shocking sequence of horror! As to the evidences, were there any that you decided not to include in this programme because they were too brutal or too difficult to prove? Is there a chance that this programme could help to make an international inspection of this prison happen?

    1. Hello Vladmir, nice to meet you and thank you for your question. Yes, absolutely, there were testimonials of torture even more horrific that we couldn’t include. We had to compromise with the person responsible for youth protection at the broadcasting station, so that we could broadcast befor 22hs. I think an international inspection in Saydnaya (and the huge mass-graves sourrounding it is fictional in the current political situation, but it will have to happen at some point or there can’t be peace. Maybe “Kingdom” and its testimonials can at some point support such a process, sure.

  6. Hey Jakob! Thanks for your explanation in “meet the makers” on how the programme was recorded and how much care you took NOT to retraumatize the former prisoners. As a listener, I would have liked for that information to be included in the feature.

    Because at first, I was very confused where the sounds which I was hearing were coming from… And when I understood a little about the former Stasi-prison and the foley artist, I thought: How can they take victims of torture back to a prison and expose them to these hellish soundscapes again? It would have helped me as a listener to know that you were coached in how far you could go with them and that it can actually be beneficial for victims of torture to talk about their experiences. That would have soothed my worrying mind. But having said that, it sure is a very impressive feature that leaves a lasting impression on every person who listens to it.

    1. Hello Till, thank you for your interest and your concern. So there is one scene in the feature where I ask Amjad if he wants to listen to more sounds and he declines. I left this scene (and others) in so that the listeners understand that nobody is pushed beyond their limit, so to speak the “making of” is included in the doc. Including a disclaimer à la “no survivors were harmed during the taping of this program” would have felt paternalistic. Also, maybe on a more abstract level: shouldn’t we be able to trust the producers at public radio stations (öffentlich rechtlicher Rundfunk) that they avoid harming their protagonists? I try to follow strict ethical guidelines in this sense and do hope my work reflects this and listeners feel that I deeply care about the participants. And lastly, as mentioned in the Q&A: one of the guys told me that when someone has tried to break your spirit and erase your soul, it’s a freeing experience to tell hundreds of thousands of listeners that you still exist and they have failed, in this sense revisiting your story and sharing it can have a healing effect.

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