Lives on Hold in Lebanon

Filmmaker Q&A with Director Negin Allamehzadeh

Is there a particular documentary film or filmmaker that had a major influence on your career?

Early cinema verite works, like the films of Jean Rouch, as well as An American Family, the first documentary series on TV, were among the major influences for my career shift from anthropology to documentary filmmaking.


What motivated you to make this film?

I filmed Lives on Hold in Lebanon in VR with the hope of placing viewers—who will likely never find themselves in a refugee camp—smack in the middle of a place words do little to describe. I wanted viewers to be overwhelmed by the chaos, crowding, colors, and noise of the bustling street life, contrasted with the isolation and gloom evoked by the dimly lit, narrow alleys that connect the crumbling shelters where families try to build a new life for themselves. We worked to capture the experience of walking the streets where children play, dodging motorbikes and garbage piles, visiting tiny stores and barbershops that line garbage-strewn alleys. I also wanted to give viewers a rare view into the more private aspects of life in Shatila, where people work or study, and where mothers give birth or seek mental health care for the children they lost in the war.
I wanted this VR experience to be both personal and visceral, to help viewers connect to the experiences of the displaced families in this film who want nothing more than a safe home and a hopeful future.


Please tell us what camera(s) you shot with primarily – and any other special equipment that you used and why you used it.

6 GoPro camera rig, and a prototype Sennheiser ambisonic microphone (and other standard equipment, like lavs and booms.


Please tell us about any special styles or techniques that you used during the production of your film to help tell your story. 

One thing we wanted to recreate for viewers was the unique experience of walking through the narrow, cramped alleys under canopies of wires and pipes that run throughout the camp. We experimented with a method of capture and masking that allowed us to completely eliminate the cameraman and rig from the walking shots, allowing the viewer to feel even more immersed in the virtual environment, like they’re traveling on their own two feet.


How did your story evolve from day one, to the very last day in post? Is your story what you thought it would be?

Lives on Hold evolved constantly throughout filming and post-production. The circumstances of pre-production made it so that I couldn’t identify potential subjects prior to filming. This made it virtually impossible to go into production with a planned focus for the narrative of the film. Instead, I went in with an open mind and the goal of capturing as much as possible what was happening in the moment, using the camera to document daily life as it is lived by the people of Shatila. Nothing seen or said is staged. We let things unfold naturally before the lens, and established relationships with individuals and families, who generously let us into their homes and shared their thoughts and personal stories with us. I often went “off script” from my shot and interview lists based on what we learned in the moment about the places and issues that were most important for people in the community. Although this resulted in the challenge of weaving together the film’s narrative in post, ultimately I believe that our open and reactive production process was a major benefit, allowing us to capture more candidly the story of Shatila camp and the families in the film.


Please describe the most rewarding experience you had while making this film.

The most rewarding part of creating this film was the excitement of the individuals and families we filmed at the opportunity to tell their stories to an international audience. In a place that can sometimes feel forgotten by the world, many people were eager to have their experiences and points of view captured for the public to see and hear.


What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?

Don’t be afraid of the ways in which VR will force you to get out of your comfort zone and try radically new ways of interviewing and filming. Opening yourself up to experimentation, and the potential that lies in unscripted or unplanned moments, can fundamentally transform the way you approach filmmaking.


What’s your favorite part about the filmmaking process and why?

My favorite part of creating documentaries is the production process, when I get to spend time getting to know the individuals and families in the documentary both off- and on- camera. I find that the best way to build trust is through genuine friendship, hewn through shared meals and intimate conversations over time. How can you tell someone’s personal story through film unless you understand and appreciate who they are and what’s important to them?


What’s the one item you always take with you when working out in the field and why?

If I’m making a VR documentary, I always try to take a VR headset with me to the field so that the people I film with have an opportunity to experience the technology themselves. To me, it feels like an important part of the consent process if you’re filming in VR with someone who doesn’t have access to watch VR in their home community. But it also results in some really fun moments off-camera, especially with children, who are usually amazed and entertained by this tool that allows them to visit places in the world they’ve never been before.


Please provide a brief description of the work or organization featured in your video:

Lives on Hold in Lebanon is presented by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), an international medical humanitarian organization operating in more than 65 countries around the world. MSF provides free, emergency medical care to people based solely on need – irrespective of race, religion, gender, or political affiliation.


What do you want audiences to take away from your film?

I would like audiences to feel a sense of connection to the experiences of the families in this film, who want nothing more than a home and a hopeful future. The concept of being displaced, or of being a “refugee”, can feel far removed for many people. I hope that viewers are able to relate to the families in Lives on Hold, and see the way in which circumstances can take away agency and control from people displaced by war. I also hope it highlights the importance of helping vulnerable people find safety and stability. In many ways, Lives on Hold in Lebanon is a cautionary story, more important now than ever, about what happens when the international community turns its back on refugees.


Please list key points that should be covered in a post-screening discussion:

-Refugee crisis & exclusionary policies
-Nostalgia, and hopes for the future
-Living conditions
-VR and empathy/connection


What opportunities are available for those interested in getting further involved?

Lives on Hold in Lebanon and several other VR films in our series about displaced people all over the world are available to be viewed at


Please provide any additional resources (websites, links to additional videos, forms, articles, etc.):

To see a very short, 360 documentary about Syrian refugees living in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, see

For more information about the medical care Doctors Without Borders is providing in Shatila camp, visit



© SIMA Academy