Pizza, Democracy & The Little Prince

Filmmaker Q&A with Directors Alessandro Leonardi and Elena Horn

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

Alessandro: Werner Herzog, Federico Fellini and all the Italian Neorealist films

Elena: Mosen Makhmalbaf’s film “Hello Cinema” was incredibly influential in its ability to demonstrate to us the power of film to act as more of an experiment than a piece of visual art. This in turn allows one to free themselves from the trappings of aesthetic norms, if only for a split second, and uncover a fragment of the human condition which might perhaps not have been revealed.

What motivated you to make this film?

Alessandro: What drove us to make this film was the idea that another storytelling of refugees was possible. All we could see around us were stories that depicts refugees as desperate people at the mercy of events. We wanted to challenge the notion that refugees have nothing in common with people in prosperous western societies. In this short film, the children become the empowered interviewers with the ability to decide when and what to share about themselves. In this sense, they control their own representation in the film. The children featured in the clip had to flee unimaginable horrors, and many of their close family members were brutally murdered. Although this trauma is a part of their story, this short film shows that they are also children like any others, who will bond and connect with fellow children no matter their background. That serves as a reminder that there is so much more that connects us than what divides us. We believed it was very important to counterbalance a narrative which portrays refugees as different, as others. Our goal was to help shape a more understanding, accepting and tolerant future generation.

Elena: Our previous involvement with a local charity, Give a hand, which gives international students a chance to volunteer in refugee communities in Turkey, provided us with the impetus to make our film. Above all we wanted to challenge the ideas of “us” and “them” which are so prevalent in Western media’s treatment of the Syrian refugee crisis and to give the refugees a chance to represent themselves. In “Pizza, Democracy and the Little Prince” we see young Syrian refugees empowered enough to flip the script and take control in a series of interviews with the international students volunteering in Turkey. The children of a local Syrian neighbourhood interview their more privileged counterparts exposing the similarities these children share which transcend cultural and linguistic barriers. Our hope is that by capturing such interactions we can help to create a better understanding of their plight and foster a sense of compassion, logic and fairness in the way we conceive displaced peoples.

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

Alessandro: The whole documentary is shot in one single location: a playroom of a school in Istanbul. The setup was very straightforward. The A-camera was a Canon c300 mk II and it was set wide to have both subjects in frame. Two other cameras, both Canon 5d MK IV, were set on the sides, capturing the close-ups of the children. We made use of the natural light as much as we could, bouncing it on our subjects, but had to place some extra lights (withe balanced with the natural light) to maintain as much control and continuity. For sound, we used radio mics.

Elena: We shot on a Canon C300 as the main camera and two Canon 5Ds as additional cameras for the close ups. We used a minimal amount of camera movements and created all the dynamic in the edit.

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

Alessandro: The interviews that are taking place there are conducted by the Syrian kids, who were instructed to start the conversation first and throw whichever questions popped up in their mind. They were told to treat this setup as their own little TV studio, and to invite their guests in and take a sit on the chair in front of them. This way it was easier for them to feel relaxed and in control. To reinforce this feeling, we placed them at the right hand side of the frame, typically the most powerful side. That way we empowered the Syrian kids also through the composition of the image.

Elena: We decided in the very beginning to limit ourselves exclusively to one room. It was important to us that the Syrian children had full control of what they wanted to share with us and what they wanted to keep for themselves. With this premise in mind, we excluded the idea of filming in the homes of the children or following them into their everyday life. Not being in control of the direction of conversation was the most difficult element to endure during filming but it was also the key to this extraordinary level of authenticity.

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

Alessandro: Elena and me were contacted by the small production company Open Citadel and were proposed to make a short documentary about the millions of Syrian refugees living in Turkey. The local organization Give A Hand gave access to many potential stories that were taking place in the Derbent district (Istanbul) where hundreds of Syrian families found a new home, also thanks to the work of this NGO. By that time, we knew we did not want to conform to the recurring narrative that focuses on the refugees’s traumatic past, having to flee the war, their houses and their belongings, living behind a country in ruins, and losing family members. We wanted to rather look at their future, their aspirations, their dreams. We went for a research trip, and observed the voluntary work of Give A Hand. The volunteers came from all over the world, most of them were attending international boarding schools, they were Polish, Hungarian, American, Chinese…they were there to teach English, Math or simply play with them. The simple idea of having the Syrian kids run interviews with the international volunteers was not so easy to execute. Most of them did not have any language in common. We had multiple interpreters on location, one translating from Arabic into English, and the others from whatever other language the international students were speaking into Arabic. Some could speak Turkish directly with one another, and some Arabic. We had little control on the directions the conversations were going, and only tip the kids on what sort of questions to ask if they did not know where to start. But they knew indeed, and the result was a pure surprise. The edit did the magic and cut off all the work of interpretation. Honestly, we could not fully predict that this Babelic situation would have turned into a coherent film.

Elena: We couldn’t preview what will happen in the process of filming. We only created a potent situation in which we could imagine that some meaningful connections might occur in real time. Luckily our producer trusted us that we were able to create a scene through which we could reach a greater understanding of each child’s everyday reality than following them into their homes. The extent to which these young Syrian refugees opened up about their lives organically in this setting did surprise us however. They spoke about experiencing isolation and solitude generally revealing much of their personal lives to their counterparts.

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

Alessandro: The most rewarding experience was to see some of the kids speaking with the volunteers for the first time and getting to know each other, a bit more in depth. In fact, our setup and the interpreters made it possible for them to have a conversation.

Elena: Facilitating conversations between the contributors was a truly special experience. Due to our numerous translators, all our protagonists were able to speak in their mother tongue and exchange their thoughts. This allowed dialogues to happen which would usually be impossible.

What advice can you give to other impact filmmakers?

Alessandro: I don’t have a recipe but I have noticed how creating empathy can be very impactful. If you are treating a delicate topic that causes a lot of suffering to the people you choose as protagonists in your film, always ask yourself whether you work is dignifying them, or only turning them into vulnerable and passive victims. Make their life, their words, their feelings relatable to your audience and avoid the ‘us’ and ‘them’ narrative, distancing your protagonists and your story from your viewer and confining them into a dimension of despair that is too far away from what your audience (supposedly in a more privileged position) can experience and sympathise with.

Elena: Sometimes it can be very effective to put strict limits to your own film: for example, stay in one room for the entire film. It serves as a magnifying glass and you can distill the message of your story – above all for films that you want to be socially impactful, this is a great technique.

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

Alessandro: When I am shooting a documentary, the most difficult aspect for me is to let go of all the expectations, the planning, the script (if there is one), and be open for everything to go tits-up and change multiple times in a day. When that happens, I try to embrace it. The most magical moments can result out of spontaneous situations. It is closer to what life is anyways.

Elena: The unpredictability of the filmmaking process in this particular film was immense. We had some knowledge of the children’s backstories but they wouldn’t talk about their lives in the way that a vita is written but speak about very specific details. One boy complains about the hilly nature of Istanbul and declares his intention of returning to Aleppo as quickly as possible because it’s impossible to find a plain in order to play football in Istanbul. This conjures up  such a precise and powerful image of his longing for home. Each time that a child shared these precious moments of insight in a completely voluntary manner, it made the filmmaking process magical.

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

Alessandro: A snack. You never know when you are going to eat next.

Elena: Dates, when either your contributors or your camera (wo)man become hungry these could save your shooting day.

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

Alessandro: The Give A Hand Organization organizes four two-week summer programs each year for high school students in Istanbul and Gaziantep. In these program, high school students participate and implement projects to help aid the educational needs of Syrian refugee children. The Give A Hand programs aspire to create leaders that will be catalysts of social innovation. By providing educational, recreational and personal growth opportunities to refugee children, volunteers learn to stand up for what they believe in, step up and become leaders. At the end of the programs, volunteers grasp the extent of the power they hold to create change, raise awareness, and impact someone’s life. As one volunteer put it, “even though we can’t speak the same language on the streets, we managed to help these children find the hope they lost when they left their country behind.”

Elena: The Give a Hand Organization (GAH) offers a volunteer program for students from all around the world with a focus on social impact. The aim of the programs is to help displaced children get the educational opportunities they deserve and raise awareness about the unjust treatment of refugee children. The GAH gives international high school students from diverse backgrounds the chance to volunteer and create new social impact projects based on their varied interests and passions.

What have you learned about the value and impact of the project?

Elena: There has been a lot of interest in the film from various educational establishments. We have been asked to participate in private screening events in a number of universities in the UK and the US from societies that seek to raise awareness about the Humanitarian crisis. In addition we were approached with a possibility to build an educational platform based on our video, with social media elements that would help teachers around the world address the Refugee crisis in a relatable and identifiable way.

Please share a personal story about your experience making this film.

Alessandro: When I was still unsure what the story was going to be about, I was strolling a lot around the neighborhood in Derbent in search of inspiration. I was attacked by a pack of street dogs by night, while I was setting up the camera to film the sunrise. I had to jump over the fence into somebody’s garden until people came out of their houses, recognized me, and let me in for breakfast.

Elena: The magic moment of this production for me was the first day. Alessandro and I arrived in the school without speaking any Arabic or Turkish. But within moments the children included us into their games, platted my hair and fouled Alessandro in soccer. It felt like an inauguration ceremony. I was impressed with how wisely they acted and how welcoming they were.

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

Alessandro: It would be a success if people felt a bit closer to those in need of help, because they flee their land or for other reasons. And if this proximity sparks more empathy. And if more empathy provokes the thought that our life too can be turned upside down one day. And we could be the refugees in the future. In short, it would be a success if we watch this film thinking that we are like them and they are like us.

Elena: We want the audience to build similar feelings towards them as they had towards us. We want them to remember Yahya, who told us that he loves studying mathematics because that’s what his father taught him before he died and remember this and foster a sense of care and empathy. We want to make the ease with which children of completely different backgrounds can connect within the course of a few words a reminder that xenophobia and racism is learned and not an intuitive part of the human condition.

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

  • “the film is not the trauma” – accepting the painful reality of reliving the darkest periods of your protagonist’s life
  • how you can pitch a concept film with an uncertain outcome and still have it produced
  • how to stir things up with story on a topic that is already extensively covered by the news and give it a new angle
  • the numbness problem – how to reach people’s hearts and minds
  • how to portray war stories and tell the sufferings of others
  • how to divert from the mainstream narrative
  • how to look at the same story from a new angle

Please provide information on any recent developments regarding the issue or subjects of the film. How have things changed or not changed?

Elena: As an immediate result of our film, there has been a lot of interest from people wanting to somehow give their support to this refugee community. For instance, a couple of donors raised funds to buy school uniforms for the Syrian children and school supplies, this really helped them integrate better in the school and not to feel different anymore.

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

Alessandro: If interested in getting in touch write Open Citadel’s producer Alevtina : [email protected]

Elena: For those who would like to get involved in the work of the Give A Hand Organisation, please check the website here:

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

Pizza, Democracy and the Little Prince full interview SIFF 2019

Elena: We filmed another short film about the twins Reyhan and Beyhan who try to educate their neighbourhood:

PW: lush



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