This is a guest post by Julia Meltzer, filmmaker of Dalya’s Other Country (POV 2017) and Mustafa Rony Zeno, co-producer and film subject.
March 15th, 2018 will mark the 7th anniversary of the war in Syria. Those 3 words: “war in Syria” conjure a slideshow of images: shells of concrete buildings, men pulling dusty, mangled bodies out of piles of concrete, and bloody children looking shell-shocked. Seeing these images is both horrifying and numbing. Often when Mustafa tells someone he is from Aleppo, a look of horror crosses their face, and they say, “Is there even an Aleppo left?” When he explains there is still is a lot of Aleppo left, and his mother has visited twice during the war, and people still live, work—even go to restaurants and have weddings —they’re mind-blown. We can’t blame them. We do not see these images.
Most of the documentaries that have come out of Syria and have been seen widely— both the journalistic news reportage and the independent documentaries—are filled with images of destruction and people who have fled, not of the ones who carry on with their daily living. As it often happens, most war stories are about men because they are the ones who fight and wage war. After viewing many of these films, one might ask, “Where are the women?”
Women are in Syria and outside of it, and not just in war-torn towns or refugee camps. They are keeping children safe, managing the household, taking care of the wounded and dying, working, studying, living their lives, and doing so much to undo the war and keep things together in the midst of it all. Where is their story and why is it so hard to tell?
It is harder to tell women’s stories because in Syrian culture, family life and women are more private. You have to work harder to get to the women, and because mostly male directors and camerapeople gravitate towards war reporting, they often are not able to spend time with the women in order to get them to open up. A woman needs to do this work.
However, the problem is not so easily solved by having a woman cameraperson or director. There is another hurdle to get beyond. Because the dominant images we see of Syria are filled with men, rubble, death and destruction, we no longer think there are other stories to tell about Syria. We are led to believe this is THE story of Syrians and the war.
More significantly, programmers and news editors also look for the expected images and stories of conflict to fulfill limited expectations. Many are drawn into the trap of needing to provide the “on-the-ground story”—as if this view contains all the answers and will help people understand what is happening.
The truth is that there are many ways Syrians live through the war, both inside and outside of Syria. These are “on-the-ground war stories” too. Some of the response that we have received to our film “Dalya’s Other Country” is that the Zeno family appears to be wealthy—that they don’t seem to be suffering because they have an apartment that has furniture, rather than live in a refugee tent. We have been asked in Q&As, “Is this really the refugee or immigrant story that is worth telling? There are many other stories where people are truly suffering, why not tell that story?” These questions have made us think hard about what images people expect to see in a film about Syria. Have our imaginations of what Syrians are become so limited that we think all Syrians only live in the midst of a war zone?
We answer these questions by explaining that Syrian society before the war was made up of a thriving merchant class. People worked as businessmen, doctors, lawyers and teachers. In Aleppo, the largest and richest city in Syria, these people had homes and lived regular lives much like our own, even with a dictator in charge. Many Syrians have family members who lived in other countries before the war and were able to move to these places to start their lives again. The people who have been lucky to immigrate are war refugees, too. Their story is also challenging and difficult.
So, during this week of the anniversary of a terrible war, when we will see and read the inevitable stories about seven years of war, maybe the question that we should ask is: What stories haven’t we seen or heard about Syria? There is a space for seeing the bigger picture where women and children are included in a landscape that is not only filled with death and destruction.