Is there a particular documentary film or filmmaker that had a major influence on your career?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s “Blackfish” (2013)
What motivated you to make your impact video?
I had written Fledgling in London as a short piece of prose fiction in 2013, two years into the Syrian Civil War. I decided to turn it into an animated film in late 2016, when bombings on rebel-held eastern Aleppo were escalating and trapped Syrian families shared harrowing letters, tweets and Facebook posts all making the same distressed cry to the world: Where is the international community?
I was especially affected by Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O’Brien’s General Assembly briefing on Syria in December 2016, in which he urges for political action alongside humanitarian aid. He states, “Let me be clear that humanitarian action cannot be a substitute for political action: only a negotiated political settlement will and can resolve this crisis. […] We must not fail the people of Syria any longer.” The emerging European refugee crisis unfolded under our eyes with real life challenges at our door steps in my home country in France and in London while Europeans closed their hearts. I heard the arguments of safety, terrorism and costs. Then I realized that the entire refugee population in Europe that created all this fuss was less than 1% of the European population. But what triggered my outrage was when I realized that the refugees that many called terrorists and extremists were mostly children.
I would think of my son, born in 2016, the same generation as the children of Syria, who wakes up every day in safety and peace, while these children know only war. As a young parent I know that there is no more agonizing feeling than to be unable to protect our children. Syria’s children—and the rest of the world’s 50 million displaced children—are caught in a world of brutality and their most basic human needs cannot be met without our help. I created Fledgling with my son in mind, hoping to embody that vulnerability, and with it, to call the world to action.
Please tell us what camera(s) you shot with primarily – and any other special equipment that you used and why you used it.
Fledgling is an animated film, so there was no camera involved. Green screen visual effects were made entirely digitally as well. The animation was hand-drawn using TVPaint, a premier 2D digital animation tool which mimics the experience of traditional pencil-on-paper animation. I wanted the animation to be stylistically simple, almost like children’s drawings.
Please tell us about any special styles or techniques that you used during the production of your film to help tell your story.
All post-production work was done in Adobe Premiere and After Effects, professional editing and FX software which allowed me to infuse touches
of realism into the images. My goal was to ground my story in the 21st Century through the combination of visual effects—windswept dust, sunlight or rippling water—vivid sound design and a contemporary, cross-cultural musical score.
How did your story evolve from day one, to the very last day in post? Is your story what you thought it would be?
Most of the story has remained relatively the same; in fact almost exactly like that of the original short prose version, apart from the addition of the scene with the man and the garbage bag. The ending, however, is very different from my original idea particularly because of the challenges that arose in switching to a visual medium with no narration. It was much easier to trick the audience into believing in the child’s bird when they couldn’t see it. Rendering the story visually without ruining the final reveal was a huge challenge. I reduced the number of adult characters and focused on creating an inconsistency between the child’s dialogue and the visual reality around him. In the final scene, unlike in the written version, he throws the bird into the air and it flies off into the distance, because I wanted to include the line, “Don’t forget me” as a direct call for help to the audience.
Please describe the most rewarding experience you had while making this film.
The most rewarding moment was when I first added sound and dialogue to my film. To look at my animation, still colorless and roughly drawn, suddenly given a full new dimension and life through the sounds of the camp, of objects picked up or dropped, of water ripping and wind howling, along with the voices of my characters, was magical. It really brought to life the world I’d wanted to create and changed the way I related to it as I discussed the final musical score with my composer.
What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?
As impact filmmakers, do your research, listen to those your story speaks for and be conscious of your privileged speaking position, but don’t shy away from telling fictional stories. Every story we tell, however close to true events or our own experiences, is ultimately a piece of fiction. It is a re-telling, a way to re-experience, always a construction. Stories and their representations are always of something, by someone and to someone. As impact filmmakers, it’s the latter one that matters most. Keep in mind your creative goal. Who is your “to” and how do you hit home?
What’s your favorite part about the filmmaking process and why?
My favorite part of the process was bringing together a cast and crew from around the world, including Syria, and working together to shape the final film into something I could never have achieved alone. My composer Karim Younis is Swiss-Palestinian, and used his international cultural background to create a score that would emotionally resonate with Western audiences (more than Middle Eastern audiences) while keeping a touch of traditional instruments and Syrian vocals, along with modern Middle Eastern percussions to ground the film in its contemporary context. My Syrian and Palestinian script editors Yusuf Tayara and Dina Alhaj Abed transformed my English script into colloquial Syrian Arabic, staying true, in their word choice, to a 4-year-old child’s speech and understanding of the world. It was exhilarating and enriching to see Fledgling go from being “my” story to the story of an international team of passionate people.
What’s the one item you always take with you when working out in the field and why?
Well, as Fledgling is an animation, I was only ever out to film reference videos to animate from, but while researching, drawing or thinking about the plot line, dialogue and even background and color scheme design, I always had my 2-year-old playing close by to take inspiration from. He was also my constant motivation.
Please provide a brief description of the work or organization featured in your video:
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is a United Nations program with the mandate to protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people, and assist in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country. Along with providing critical emergency assistance to displaced people, they run many refugee camps around the world including the largest Syrian refugee camp, Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.
What have you learned about the value and impact of the project?
I have been very positively surprised by the responses to my film at screenings and among my friends, and the way a simple 3-minute animated film could help open new perspectives on a contentious topic. People have come up to me with questions on how they can get involved, and many friends have shared with me their emotional responses. But most tellingly, many wondered how I had managed to get a Syrian Arabic script and voice actors for my student film, forgetting how interconnected, and close-by, we all are. Syrians are already our neighbors, Facebook friends, and friends of friends. The “us” and “them” divide is the illusion of newspapers and political speeches.
It was also especially rewarding to see the responses of friends and acquaintances with mixed feelings about refugees. All of them made constructive and open-minded comments after watching my film, and it sparked interesting discussions. It was also wonderful to see the impact on children, who often know little about the conflict in Syria. Films about refugees can be too intense for children, but they were to me a strong audience to target—in ten, fifteen years this would be their issue to inherit. I was happy to see them sensibilized to and more aware of the plight of refugee children through my animation.
Please share a personal story about your experience making this impact video.
When I started animating my main character, I wanted him to act ‘babyish’ in his movements, to give him more vulnerability and to make sure he did not look older than four. So I decided to use my then one-year-old son as reference for the animation of Sydu, filming him doing the actions I wanted with one of his stuffed animals substituted for Sydu’s bird, with the plan of using these films as blueprints for the animation of my character. The problem was, most of the time my son wouldn’t do what I wanted him to. I was at first discouraged by this, never managing to get the action I thought I needed. I soon gave up, and tried working from the videos that my baby had basically directed himself. It turned out that letting him be and working from the messy, spontaneous content of those videos made Sydu’s character and his relation to the bird much more organic and real—and much more like a child with a stuffed animal!
What do you want audiences to take away from this video?
I want my film to remind audiences that refugees are mostly children in need of shelter, hope and basic human rights. Sydu escapes into his imagination because he has nowhere else to go for help and healing. And I want audiences to realize how critical this crisis is and how simple it can be for each of us to have an impact on these children’s lives.
Please list key points that should be covered in a post-screening discussion:
-How to take action personally
-Latest developments in the Syrian civil war
-Latest interventions from the UN and the international community
-Weaknesses of the current international political climate
-Strengths and weaknesses of today’s global, interconnected world
Please provide information on any recent developments regarding the issue or subjects of the video. How have things changed or not changed?
Alongside the refugee challenge we continue to see in daily news, and the terrible journey to Europe that many men and women with children are experiencing, conveyed so well by Wei Wei in his recent film, “Flow,” civil war is still raging in Syria, and the number of inhabitants in refugee camps continues to rise. Zaatari camp in Northern Jordan now houses 80,000 Syrian refugees and is becoming Jordan’s fourth largest ‘city.’ Meanwhile, 5.8 million children inside Syria are relying on sparse humanitarian aid after six years of war and 2.3 million more have fled the country as refugees.
The problems of Syrian refugees in Europe is actually the problem of the wealthiest Syrian refugees able to pay for international smugglers. Jordan and Lebanon host the poorest Syrian refugees, who are now in the direst conditions. Psychological damage from the horrors of the war along with lack of opportunities and barriers to education raise strong fears for the future of Syrian refugee children. Mental health and psychosocial support programs are showing success, but the risk of a broken generation, lost to trauma, toxic stress and the normalcy of violence and hatred, has never been greater.
What opportunities are available for those interested in getting further involved?
It seems to me that the most important role individuals can play is political. Volunteering on the ground in refugee camps or donating to charities is the most urgent action individuals can take, but the problem is so vast and acute that it requires international political action. The behavior of European countries at the heart of the crisis and the recent position of the US administration on political asylum and refugees are prime examples that we are inept at handling a crisis of this magnitude. From the Calais “Jungle” to Trump’s tweets, fears have built up in our interconnected world about refugees. We forget that 3/4 of them are women with children who need help from each of us, and our political leaders are timid in tackling the situation.
So the most important action, in my opinion, is for each of us to open our doors to refugees, if we can, and to contact our local representatives to bring their attention to our expectation that they help our neighbors and fix the refugee problem, because we can afford it.
As for donations and volunteering on the ground, there are many local and international associations such as UNHCR, Doctors without Borders, UNICEF, USAID and The International Rescue Committee. https://gifts.rescue.org/ gives the option of making symbolic holiday gifts to oneself or loved ones, which go out to refugees. This is an affordable and meaningful way to help people in immediate need. To find and navigate the focus of different charities in depth, visit https://www.charitynavigator.org/.
Please provide any additional resources (websites, links to additional videos, forms, articles, etc.) relevant to the context of the issue discussed in your video:
Save the Children, http://www.savethechildren.org/:
An international non-governmental organization that promotes children’s rights across the globe.
Rise for Syria, https://riseforsyria.world/: Global action campaign coordinating a large-scale humanitarian response aimed at uplifting the people of Syria and providing the victims of war with valuable, tangible support.
The UN Refugee Agency, is a United Nations program with a mandate to protect and assist refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people.
The United Nations Children’s Fund is a United Nations program that provides humanitarian and developmental assistance to children and mothers in developing countries.
Zaatari 360 by Martin Edström, http://zaatari360.martinedstrom.com/:
Visit a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan through a new type of immersive journalism – the 360-reportage. Walk around the camp, interact with refugees and experience their story.
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