The Syrian refugee crisis was 2013’s favorite humanitarian headliner: 6.5 million displaced, the Middle East’s coldest winter in 100 years, dozens of underfed and unequipped camps. As death tallies and displaced persons estimates sky rocket, however, numbers have begun to lose meaning. What does a country look like when nearly one third of its population has been displaced? What does it feel like to be without a home?
Coverage of the Syrian conflict has been extensive but as the media endeavors to provide comprehensive coverage of the issue, suffering becomes quantified and we lose sense of what the conflict means to the people most affected by it. In essence, we forget to see Syrians as humans. Last week, our colleague, Elizabeth Woller, traveled to Jordan to film the stories of Syrian refugees now living in Jordan. When she returns, we will piece these stories into a short film that will aim to depict humanity, joy and community in the lives of five refugees. Take a look at her daily notes to see how things are going-
We finally got some internet access and I’m now prepping for tomorrow morning. We’re leaving around 9 to go up to a town in the north call Mafraq where we will interview an injured FSA (Free Syrian Army) fighter in the desert. He has to get a pass to leave the hospital and we only have 2 hours with him, so we’ll see what we can get!
We met the camera operator today. He knows what we are looking for and seems creative. Anyways, gotta go!
Day 2- First Interview
We had a great shoot today. We picked up Sultan, a Free Syrian Army fighter from a hospital about an hour outside of Amman. He was shot in the leg three times and is now in a hospital near the Syrian border where he was taken after spending time in a field hospital. He badly needs surgery; he has external plates on his leg and part of the wound is wide open and stuffed with gauze. He was able to secure a two hour pass and we took him out into the desert, where our sound engineer (Mo) knew an old abandoned stable where someone once kept their goats. It was a lot of broken down concrete buildings with an open roof. He sat on some stairs in front of a door frame, so we could see the sky and the white walls.
Sultan was super charismatic, detailed and emotional while he told his story. We didn’t have to ask too many question because he answered them all in a beautiful way with little prompting. A total natural. He’s also very good looking with light, light green eyes that we contrasted against the sky. I think we could make a full film just from him. We bought him a carton of cigarettes to thank him and it was a lot of work to get him to accept them. He truly has a unique and generous personality. He used the word “karama” a lot, which means dignity. A lot of people use that word to talk about Syrians here, because they have lost of much of their dignity. They’re living in squalid conditions and are completely dependent on the government, organizations, and the good will of others for their most basic needs.
Tomorrow we’ll shoot in the apartment of a family of refugees. We will interview a grandmother who serves as the matriarch, a daughter who has lost her husband and her four-year old who has lost his father. She also has a 1-year old baby. The four-year old is traumatized by his father’s death, telling his mom he wants to be buried and he wants to kill her so they can be with his father. I don’t know what we will get from him, but our local fixer and translator Maha knows him very well so I’m hoping he will talk to us.
Day 2- Second Interview
Today was very hard. We interviewed Um Ali, a 48 year old mother of a 6 year old, as well as the grandmother of a 4 year old and a 1 year old. They are the children of her 22 year old daughter, whose husband was killed fighting in the revolution. The 4 year old has major trauma and is asking to be killed and buried to be with his father. The 6 year old tortures him by asking where his father is, and through his mother, Um Ali, has become obsessed with watching videos on YouTube showing torture and killing in Syria.
Um Ali veiled her face for the interview because one of her sons was arrested 1.5 years ago and has been missing since. She fears he could be killed if she is seen speaking out. Her son was in the prison that was in the news last week for having killed 11,000 detainees during the course of the conflict. Human Rights Watch called the family today and said his name will be on the list that they present at Geneva, as they seek confirmation of detainments and deaths.
Um Ali started the interview with an almost inaudible voice, but grew increasingly emotional and upset throughout. Although we could only see her eyes, it was very moving. She then interviewed her six-year old son about what he misses about Syria, what he thinks is happening, what he things is going to happen, etc. He told some remarkable stories and made some very strong and touching statements.
The rest of the family declined to be on camera out of fear of retribution for their brother. Tomorrow we will talk with Nasir; a 22 year old aspiring actor who was paralyzed by a sniper.
Day 3- Third interview
Today we started late because Nasir doesn’t wake up until 11 or so. He’s staying with two friends in Amman in a small apartment, and most days doesn’t leave his twin bed in the room he shares with two others. He was paralyzed by a sniper’s bullet in his hometown of Dara’a last year. Before the Syrian civil conflict, he was an aspiring actor who started acting with a folkloric group and unexpectedly won a major role in a local play.
The house is cloudy with cigarette smoke when we arrive. Nasir is in the bedroom with three friends, two who were fellow former Free Syria Army fighters, and one who ahd been a nurse in a field hospital. We have to ask him to move into the living room onto a couch. After a year he has recovered enough that he can use crutches instead of a wheelchair, but he still struggles to get from place to place. His legs are visibly atrophied, and I’m told he is no longer able to afford physical therapy. His depression is obvious as soon as he settles onto the couch. He self-consciously hides the catheter bag that is plainly a source of embarrassment. In spite of his physical and mental pain, he smiles confidently and turns out to be a natural on camera. He has clear skin and sleek features that make him almost more beautiful on the monitor than he is in life.
We start out with general questions, asking about his country, the people, the revolution. Slowly I move into more personal questions. His responses sound rehearsed and I can see him catching himself as he answers. Our sound guy turns to me and whispers, “He’s not being honest.” I make him go through three takes just talking about his acting. He’s finally on a roll, getting more open and emotional and we turn the subject to the painful history we’re dancing around. He drops his professional voice. He goes in depth about his injury, how it affects how people treat him, what it’s like to be dependent on others for your care. I don’t understand everything he’s saying but the bits I catch are heartbreaking. He says that when he arrived in Jordan, he expected to be ignored by his Jordanian neighbors who don’t want Syrians in their neighborhoods. Instead he was greeted with open arms, food, care, offers of assistance. I ask if he’s happy. He says there is still happiness inside of him, but melancholy overcomes his face as soon as I ask the question. We wrap the interview, with everyone in a quiet mood. We do our “video portrait” shots and take b-roll. His friends sing and make coffee in the kitchen, joking loudly that he does nothing to help them. It’s clear they care for each other a great deal.