Today marks the first day of Refugee Week (14-20 June 2021), a week to celebrate the contributions, creativity and resilience of refugees and people seeking sanctuary. To mark the occasion, we caught up with Yasmin Fedda, for her thoughts on this year’s theme, We Cannot Walk Alone, her reflections on her time in Rome and an update on her current projects.
Yasmin is an award-winning filmmaker and artist based in London, and was The Creative Scotland document24 Fellow in 2012–13.
Refugee Week 2021 (14-20 June) looks to explore the theme: We Cannot Walk Alone. What does this statement mean to you, in light of recent events and as you reflect on your films that explore the refugee experience?
Refugee Week this year invites you ‘to extend your hand to someone new. Someone who is outside your current circle, has had an experience you haven’t, or is fighting for a cause you aren’t yet involved in.’ After over a year of having to isolate from others, not being able to socialize much, where serendipity was having a pause, and crucially a year where inequality and suffering were brought to the fore, this call is a beautiful gesture to re/connect with people. Let’s bring it on, and build on our networks and communities! I recently went on a Palestine demo in London walking with thousands of people, some friends, most strangers, and there was a strong emotion of solidarity.
One reason I have been drawn to representing and working with refugee experiences is that displacement is a topic I am very familiar with, firstly through family history – my family is Palestinian and also has Syrian connections, and secondly through the experiences of friends from many parts. Experiences of displacement, whether you are classified as, or move between, different legal labels such as ‘refugee’, ‘asylum seeker’, ‘migrant’, or other, are unfortunately not unique. Many individuals and communities all over the world have experienced being displaced. Yet while these experiences are collective, they are also personal. And for me, making films is one way in which I can extend my hand to someone, to carve out the time to listen and share. Films give me the opportunity to be in someone’s world for a while, to learn about their experiences and to find a way to share it with others. Films can capture us as an audience, transport us to different worlds, and allow us to live momentarily with someone we don’t know.
My films that have touched explicitly on refugee or displaced experiences, including Queens of Syria (2014), about a group of Syrian women displaced to Jordan re-enacting the ancient Greek play The Trojan Women, and A Tale of Two Syrias (2012), which in part focuses on the life of Salem, an Iraqi fashion designer and refugee in Syria as he struggles to survive and eventually gains resettlement to a third country, both gave me the chance to engage in a deeply personal way.
A key focus of your work has been to shed light on the stories of those affected by the war in Syria. As we mark the tenth year of the war, what perspectives can you share and how can we raise awareness for the ongoing plight of the Syrian people?
Firstly I think it is important to mark and remember that what has happened in Syria is not only a war or conflict but also a social and political struggle against an authoritarian and brutal regime that continues till today. This struggle requires our continued international support and solidarity to work towards transitional justice and accountability.
I admittedly didn’t set out with the aim to shed light on these stories on purpose. Rather, it was an organic reaction to a context I am emotionally very close to. I had to make these films. I had to follow these stories, because of my personal entanglements with Syria. I didn’t always know the people I filmed before hand, but the drive was always personal. Even if it sometimes feels futile, making films is a sort of empowering process in the face of huge brutality, a small attempt to say ‘this happened’, ‘these people’s experiences matter’, to say that we will create the archives of the future where these stories will be heard and remembered, to fight the narrative of a regime that attempts to silence them.
My personal and filmmaking relationship to Syria goes back further than 2011 and having known it for a long time I believe it is important to understand the context in Syria through it’s recent history and not only in relation to the last 10 years. The conflict did not happen in a void and it is important to recognise the historical context in which it began, alongside gaining awareness of the contemporary situation.
There are many ways to share perspectives and raise awareness particularly though engaging with the work of artists and writers from Syria, from readings books by Samar Yezbick, Yassin Al Haj Saleh, Madouh Azzam, or Dima Wannous, or the poetry of Golan Haji, to listening to music from Tanjaret Daghet, looking at the art of Tamman Azzam or Sulafa Hijazi, to supporting organisations such as The Syria Campaign, Families for Freedom, or Bassma & Zeitouneh.
As a filmmaker I have also tracked the amazing output of films from or about Syria since 2011. Before then there was a much smaller film output from the country, due to restrictive laws around the production of films, both fiction and documentary. Some of these films were very good, such as Flood in Ba’ath Country (Omar Amiralry, 2005), Sunduq al Dunya (Ossama Mohammed, 2002), or I am the one that brings flowers to her grave (2006, Hala Abdalla), but there were not many of them. The large output of films produced since 2011 have together painted segments of a complex picture of experiences, such as Dawwar Al Shams (Anonymous), For Sama (Waed Al Kateab Edward Watts), Last Men of Aleppo (Firas Fayyad & others), The Day I Lost my Shadow (Soudade Kaddan), La Dolce Siria (Ammar al Beik), and so many more.
Your recent film Ayouni was met with great acclaim: what are your reflections on the project now that the film has been shared internationally?
Ayouni follows Noura and Machi they as search for answers about their loved ones – Bassel Safadi and Paolo Dall’Oglio, who are among the over 100,000 forcibly disappeared in Syria. Faced with the limbo of an overwhelming absence of information, hope is the only thing they have to hold on to. ‘Ayouni’ is a deeply resonant Arabic term of endearment – meaning ‘my eyes’ and understood as ‘my love’. Filmed over 6 years and across multiple countries in search of answers, Ayouni is an attempt to give numbers faces, to give silence a voice, and to make the invisible undeniably visible.
Ayouni was released in 2020 during the pandemic, so it is still early days. We took part in screenings and advocacy events, with The Syria Campaign, and others, to highlight detention and forcible disappearance in Syria as these are key issues. Yet Ayouni is also about love, between a couple and between siblings. Forced disappearance is the opposite of love. It’s a tactic that aims to break families apart, to silence the disappeared and those close to them, to erase narratives that don’t fit with the dominant power structure. As a filmmaker, and with the release of the film, I found out that film does have a role. Film can fight the oblivion that forced disappearance aims for by keeping people visible and in our sights.
Has this film provoked responses and conversations with individuals or groups for whom it has a personal resonance?
Film is made up of emotions, and at our one in person festival screening in 2020 in Florence, Machi, Paolo’s sister, told me something I hadn’t expected her to say. She said, ‘Our hearts need to keep feeling the pain and anger. And people new to these stories need to feel the pain of others,’ she said, because “as time moves on, this pain subsides and there is a danger when that happens that we begin to forget.” There is a danger that these stories might go into an oblivion. The emotional re/connection was key, even for her, as someone who had directly lived it, to keep the pain alive and present as a fuel for the struggle for answers. Film can bring Paolo and Bassel back to us momentarily, we can hear them, be with them for a while, feel their energy and passions, see their lives and the consequences of their decisions, but through the film we also feel their trace and absence.
Noura shared with me very intimate and special moments of her life, whether it was through the archive she had of herself and Bassel, a young couple in love, to allowing me to be with her through a difficult moment in her life as she faced the reality of Bassel’s disappearance and as she campaigns on the issues of detention and forced disappearance in Syria. For her the film also feels like a personal memory document, weaving together material of her and Bassel together.
I have shared the film at talks and screenings and some of the conversations have been really touching, whether someone shared their memories of visiting Mar Musa and meeting Paolo, to Bassel’s friends around the world, to sharing the film with Syrians whose loved ones have been disappeared and who are fighting for answers.
How important are personal connections or stories for our understanding of major global events?
Major global events are made up of individual experiences, individuals come together for collective actions, so these things are an intrinsic part of each other. We need to hear the personal stories to understand major global events, and at the same time we need to understand the context about major global events to understand their effects on the personal.
Could you speak about your time in Italy as part of your research process for this film?
I was not yet working on Ayouni while I was at the BSR but the seeds for the film were sown while I was there. Paolo Dall’Oglio is originally from Rome, his family live there and some of his community and networks are there so I connected with that. It was while I was at the BSR that I decided to reach out to Paolo to make a new film together, though at that point the idea was to make a film about a priest in the Syrian revolution, not about forcible disappearance.
While I was at the BSR I was particularly interested in squats which were being turned into community centres, arts centres, theatres, gyms and more. I made a short on a squatted boxing gym titled Siamo Tornati (2013). There was a lack of services that many people needed access to or wanted to protest from being closed down, from affordable sports centres, to childcare, to so much more. The DIY ethos was inspiring and it was great to see how people were finding community based solutions.
Do you think there is value in working in an inter-disciplinary context (like the BSR) for the creative process?
I think it is difficult, if not impossible, to work in only one discipline or with only one approach. As I research and develop a project I explore and am inspired by multiple disciplines or approaches. Becoming too focussed in one area may limit our understandings or lines of enquiry. Working across disciplines makes so much sense. I recently heard a talk by Dr Omar Dewachi (see below) who was once a physician, now a medical anthropologist, and is also a musician, whose interests cross between history, biology, medicine, arts, and the social and political, who inspiringly said he is ‘anti- discipline’. Rather than work in silos we should cross-pollinate, share and learn from other perspectives. Not to take away from the importance of expertise in an area, but with that we must always talk to each other to get unexpected insight or questions for our work. The BSR is a great place for these crossovers!
Do you have plans in progress for your next project, or do ideas form organically based on your interactions with others?
I am in the very early days of two new projects and looking for support to get these off the ground, so any readers with suggestions, please let me know! Both are film/ art based projects – one exploring the legacy of British empire in Palestine through the story of my great-grandfather and the British pensions system; the other is exploring the work of medical anthropologist Omar Dewachi and a dangerous pathogen of war that thrives in the particular environments of conflict areas – which are the consequences of sanctions, invasions, artillery and more, such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Gaza, and which has far reaching consequences to ask the question – can we end all wars to save our health?
Thank you to Yasmin Fedda for taking part in this feature. Interview by Zoe Firth and Bryony Smith.
You can watch Ayouni here @ayounifilm.
A collection of Yasmin’s films titled Yasmin Fedda: An Ethnographic Eye has several of her films on it: Ayouni, Queens of Syria, Breadmakers, A Tale of Two Syrias, and some other shorts are available to view here for UK audiences: https://www.truestory.film/yasmin-fedda