INTERVIEW: The Art of Moving, BBC festival award-winning film on Syrian video activists

Lina El Wardani from London , Monday 3 Apr 2017

Ahram Online meets Liliana Marinho de Sousa, whose film won the Best Feature Documentary award at the 3rd BBC Arabic Film festival in London

Filmmaker Liliana Marinho De Sousa
Filmmaker Liliana Marinho De Sousa (Photo: Lina El-Wardani)

The Art of Moving is a feature length documentary by German filmmaker Liliana Marinho de Sousa.

The film won the Best Feature Documentary award at the 3rd BBC Arabic Festival, which ran between 24 and 30 March.

The Art of Moving tells a touching story of Daya El-Taesh, which is an anti-Islamic State satirical web series created by a group of Syrian video activists. They produce the episodes from their base in Gaziantep, Turkey. The film shows how they had to keep changing houses to avoid being discovered.

The film uses the video diaries of the four protagonists while moving from one place to the other, we see their daily lives and conversations in Istanbul and non-typical interviews with the protagonists reflecting on their lives, futures and the Syrian revolution.

On a rare sunny day, Ahram Online met with the filmmaker in London’s Regents Park to talk about the film and its production process.

Ahram Online (AO): You are basically a social worker and you do not have a background in filmmaking. This is your first feature documentary. What triggered your interest in the film's topic?

Liliana Marinho de Sousa (LS): I have been working as a social worker for many years with several NGOs in Germany, teaching teenagers and school students how to make mobile videos and short documentaries to tell their own stories and report on their societies. Then I decided to study film, and this was my graduation project from the Film Institute in Germany. 

AO: But why Syria? You live in Europe and work with European teenagers.

LS: I went to Istanbul to volunteer at a documentary film festival, and this is where I got to know filmmakers from Syria living in exile in Turkey.

It was fascinating to me how they still insist on supporting the revolution by making films about Syria. It was inspiring how they are trying to sort out their personal lives in a new country, yet they are still working for the Syrian revolution.

I decided to make a film about this, and I met a lot of people and visited lots of cultural institutes searching for a story, until one day I met a German journalist working for The Guardian in Istanbul who told me she wrote an article about Daya El-Taesh.

I read the article and decided to meet them. She put us in contact, I took my camera and they came to meet me at a bus stop in Gaziantep; a town in south eastern Turkey, 60km from Syria. 

They were very cautious. They did not give me their address. They met me first at the bus station, and when they trusted me they took me to the place where they worked. I did some pre-shooting and went back to Istanbul to get the German film fund's approval, and by the time I got it they were already threatened and had to move to Istanbul.

I sent them a video camera by mail and asked them to do a video diary documenting the car ride from Gaziantep to Istanbul. 

AO: The film portrays a very sad reality, a real story of a group of satirical video makers who are threatened by Daesh and the Syrian regime, yet the film is funny and the audience couldn't stop laughing during many scenes. Did you do that on purpose?

LS: It was very important for me not to make it too heavy. They are funny and they keep making jokes even in the darkest situations. I was lucky, they gave me a good movie.

At many times I was feeling bad as the more they fell in trouble the more I was shooting. On the one hand, I wanted to be there for them and help them out. On the other hand, I wanted to document their lives and the irony that they make people laugh, yet their lives are so difficult. I was having a guilty conscience, but in the end when the film was finished I was glad I was able to document their journey.

AO: You do not speak Arabic, yet your protagonists do. How did you deal with the language barrier?

LS: I was talking to them in English and they were answering in Arabic. I tried to get a Syrian translator but this did not happen without difficulties. Two translators left in the middle of production as they were waiting in Istanbul in transit heading to Europe. In fact, the same happened with two sound technicians who left me for the same reasons. 

There was also the trust issue. My protagonists were hiding and were always threatened, so they had to run a background check on anyone I bring to their place. In the end I decided not to bring any more translators, and I worked with the DOP, who is Turkish.

AO: In your film, you do not have traditional interviews, and sometimes it looks very natural with the camera following them as they go about with their lives… Did you have a script? Did you plan the scenes?  

LS: No, I never told them what to do. I sometimes asked them questions in English that I cut out at the editing. I had very few interviews. I was asking them free-form, non-structured questions.

AO: How did you decide on the format of the film?

LS: I wanted to follow their daily lives. We didn't have a fixed schedule, like shooting every Monday or Tuesday. I was always calling them and asking them what they are doing, and sometimes I decide I would shoot the next day.

I started by shooting their dairies until the police and the previous tenant broke their studio. Because of the language barrier, it was very tense. We needed time to get close and have this relationship that allows us to film their difficult lives full of uncertainties and constant moving.

For six months I was calling them and visiting them, sometimes they told me they are under too much pressure with the TV series they were shooting and the threats from the Turkish authorities, as they were residing and shooting illegally.

Sometimes they were under so much pressure that they would cancel the shooting on the same day after I had booked everything. Sometimes it was very difficult and there were moments I when wasn't sure the project would ever see the light of day.

AO: Did you ever feel that your personal safety was at stake during the production?

LS: No, I didn't feel threatened at all. My protagonists were threatened; their house was destroyed, the Turkish police was after them. They were threatened by both the Syrian regime and ISIS.

They were living with no electricity or water. I found myself worried about them and their safety. Maen, the main protagonist, took the bus to Izmir, and then a boat to Greece, then crossed to Europe by foot, to Hungary then Macedonia, it was very scary, and borders were getting more difficult to cross.

I had daily challenges like how to shoot with no electricity or how to follow my protagonists who are constantly moving, but I never felt unsafe.

AO: Did you find it difficult pitching the film to festivals?

LS: Yes, some festivals were not interested as there were so many films coming from Syria or about refugees, and sometimes they didn't even want to see my film as the market is saturated. But the film is going to the Istanbul Film Festival in April, and this is very special to me because the film was shot there. Mohamed and Youssef, my two protagonists, live there and the production company is there.

There has been one screening and there will be another in Germany. The film was nominated for Best Production at the 46th Potsdam Student Film Festival.

AO: You are German, and you lived and worked there most of your life. Why were you interested in making this film?

LS: The thing I love most about this film is that it is an intercultural production, with Germans, Turks and Syrians.

The language barriers were not easy to handle, it was very painful yet very fruitful, and I enjoyed every minute of it.  

We live in one world, and there are so many refugees in Europe and the threat of Daesh is not only in the Middle East, it's everywhere. We need to understand that we are living together.

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