Is there a particular documentary film or filmmaker that had a major influence on your career?
What motivated you to make this film?
Imagine a world in which social media and cellphones are a force for good.
The very idea seems ludicrous at a time when social media is under fire for fomenting division and spreading hate around the world. Indeed, for those sitting in large cities, from New York to Mumbai, the negative effects of Facebook’s domination of our collective thumbs is hard to ignore.
In Myanmar, Facebook was used to spread anti-Muslim hate speech, including calls for violence against the minority Rohingya community. Soldiers massacred thousands of Rohingya and forced more than 800,000 people to flee into Bangladesh. In 2018, Facebook even acknowledged its platform was used to “foment division and offline violence” in Myanmar.
That same year, Doha Debates and Fortify Rights teamed up to train a group of young Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in the basics of photography and Instagram. Three of the participants became “media fellows,” and we equipped them with mobile phones. They are now documenting their lives inside the largest refugee settlement in the world, in Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh.
I had the honor of training the group in visual storytelling, and was introduced to Omal Khair, Azimul Hasson, and Dil Kayas. I began filming a documentary about their adventure into the world of photography and Instagram, and continued for more than two years. The result is this short film.
Please tell us what camera(s) you shot with primarily – and any other special equipment that you used and why you used it.
Sony FS7 w/ Canon EF 24-105 Lens
Please tell us about any special styles or techniques that you used during the production of your film to help tell your story.
Over numerous trips to Bangladesh from 2018 to 2020, I filmed the trio as they each set out to document life in the camps using social media and photography.
I used a ‘cinema verite’ approach to filming Omal Khair, Dil Kayas and Azimul Hasson, remaining objective and simply recording events as they unfolded before me. The locations in the camps were revealed to me as we filmed, and I encouraged them to show me an unfiltered version of their reality living in the world’s biggest refugee camp.
How did your story evolve from day one, to the very last day in post? Is your story what you thought it would be?
I discovered that Omal Khair, Azimul Hasson, and Dil Kayas are undeniably talented photographers. People from around the world, including famous photographers and journalists, often view and comment on their pictures. They skillfully document their surroundings with a mixture of gravitas and playfulness, giving us an intimate and unprecedented view of life as a Rohingya refugee.
I did not expect them to become so comfortable on the platform, so quickly. It was a great, unexpected evolution of the story, and one that was a pleasure to document.
Please describe the most rewarding experience you had while making this film.
The most rewarding experience making this film was seeing how much hope and positivity Omal Khair, Azimul Hasson and Dil Kayas displayed, despite the incredible hardship they had endured in their lives.
All three were driven from their homes in Rakhine State, Myanmar, during the genocidal attacks of August 2017. Back in Rakhine State, Omal Khair, 19, dreamed of becoming a professional photographer – a forbidden occupation. Azimul Hasson, 18, used to study and play football back at home, and he still dreams of pursuing higher education there. Dil Kayas, 26, is a mother of two. Like Omal, she harbored a passion for photography but was denied that right by the Myanmar Government.
To see these refugees live out their dreams as photographers, and seeing people around the world follow and encourage them on social media, was a very rewarding experience.
What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?
My advice would be to keep the safety and mental health of your subjects as a top priority, and communicate as honestly as possible with them. Particularly when dealing with young people in areas of conflict, it is of prime importance that they are comfortable with you entering their world. Talk to their family members. Eat with them. Treat them as humans – not just subjects in your film.
What’s your favorite part about the filmmaking process and why?
I love documentary production, particularly when you get invited into someone else’s reality over a long period of time. I enjoy the physical nature of the craft, like walking through rain storms in a refugee camp to get to a school where your character is studying. The aim of the documentary filmmaking process, in my opinion, is to translate lived experience into the language of motion pictures – so that people get to empathize with complex situations, beyond news headlines and short video packages, which often simplify and make caricatures out of people going through tremendous hardship.
What’s the one item you always take with you when working out in the field and why?
Please share a personal story about your experience making this film.
My second son was born during the production of this documentary – and Omal Khair, Dil Kayas and Azimul Hasson all regularly ask me about him and my family. It is really kind of them. They like to keep up with my personal life, and I like to check in with them too. We send messages to each other on social media, and it has been great to see this friendship progress over 3 years.
Can you describe any obstacles you encountered in making your film and/or in your distribution/exhibition efforts?
It has been hard to find a platform and/or event that would screen this film for maximum impact. COVID has also complicated distribution/exhibition efforts, as we would have liked to take the film on roadshows, but unfortunately, this is still not possible.
What do you want audiences to take away from your film?
Over the course of these visits to the refugee camps of Bangladesh, it became clear to me that cellphones and social media have become invaluable tools for migrating refugees around the world. Most Rohingya refugees don’t have cellphones – they’re simply too expensive. But for those who do have phones, the devices help them connect with family members and loved ones, and can be their life-line to life-saving information, particularly in the age of COVID-19. Access to phones and social media may be “humanity’s greatest threat” for some, but for refugees, being disconnected can be deadly.
In an age marked by extreme opinions, I hope this documentary film about three young Rohingya photographers can serve as a useful reminder that technology can also create deep understanding and harmony. It can inspire dreams. Perhaps social media, in of itself, is not the problem, but rather how it disproportionately amplifies the worst of humanity.
Please list key points that should be covered in a post-screening discussion:
– What role can social media play to improve life for refugee communities around the world?
– How have the Rohingya been dispossessed of their identity?
– Can social media change and/or improve life for Rohingya currently living in refugee camps?
– How can the art of photography influence global decision makers?
– What is the mainstream media narrative around the Rohingya refugee crisis?
– How does the imagery of death and destruction affect the media narrative around the Rohingya refugee crisis?
– Can refugees ever truly be in control of their own narrative?
Please provide information on any recent developments regarding the issue or subjects of the film. How have things changed or not changed?
Omal Khair, Azimul Hasson and Dil Kayas are all still living in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh. They still dream of returning home.
What opportunities are available for those interested in getting further involved?
You can follow their work and lives on their Instagram accounts here:
Please provide any additional resources (websites, links to additional videos, forms, articles, etc.):
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