The filmmaker talks about her documentary Tiny Souls, which centres on the life of three Syrian children in a refugee camp
'Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts,' the film critic Robert Ebert famously said as he received his Walk of Fame star. 'When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else's life for a while. I can walk in somebody else's shoes.' Film has always been political and pushed for social change, whether that's a conscious or unconscious effort by the filmmaker.
The Edinburgh-based charity Take One Action programmes a festival of films which are conscious of their message and impact, whether that's advocating for a fairer world, a more sustainable future or a more compassionate society. One of this year's films touches on all three of these themes. Dina Naser's documentary Tiny Souls was filmed for over four years at a refugee camp in Jordan, centring on three Syrian children: Marwa, Aya and Mahmoud.
Naser arrived at Zaatari Refugee Camp in 2012 with no intentions of making a film. 'I wanted to gain a better understanding of the situation in Syria and the refugees' condition,' she explains. 'I thought I would do so by talking to adults. Instead, I was drawn to the children's spontaneous, unscripted tales of war, then particularly to 9-year-old Marwa, who effortlessly grabbed my attention with her witty talk, innocent smile, and most importantly, her willing openness. The harsh conditions never suppressed Marwa's willpower. This vibrant child was determined to build her own path, dictated by her own resolution, not by war and nor by external circumstances. I saw then an inspiring message of resilience, survival and hope, and so Tiny Souls was born.'
Naser's own memories as a child growing up post-Kuwait war was one of the reasons behind why she wanted to make the film. 'It stems from my personal memories, as well as my father's recollections as a Palestinian child refugee in 1948,' she says. 'I feel that we can all identify with immigrant emotions of misplacement, despite our varying contexts and geographies. The feeling of belonging elsewhere is a universal sensitivity which we can all relate to. In a conflict dominated by adult decisions, these children have been left out of the conversation, but they have a great deal to say.'
Naser sees Marwa, Aya and Mahmoud as collaborators as much as the documentary's subjects. When she would leave the camp at intervals, Naser left behind a camera for the children to document themselves. 'I wanted to see life unfolding in front of my eyes [but] I also interacted with them as I got close to the family. Marwa, Aya and Mahmoud were collaborators as they truly directed the story towards their lives. My presence was strong in the story so I became part of the film too.
"What is their narrative of the situation" is the question I've asked myself,' continues Naser. 'It is a film about being in their shoes and being in my shoes. Making this documentary has shown me the measure of how much we have to learn from their survival, and their ability to rebuild life from ground zero. More than anything, I hope this film can encourage us all to reflect on the world we live in today.'
Naser describes the making of Tiny Souls as 'life-changing' – both the process of being and filming at the camp and editing the film after four years spent with the children. 'It was very tough to witness such a reality that is happening over and over again,' she says. 'To see innocent people paying the price of the war gave me a whole new perspective to what this life is all about. Knowing that the future of many people lies between the hands of politics and fight over power inspired me to give voice for those people to tell their stories away from all the labels and judgements.'
Take One Action Film Festival, various venues in Edinburgh and Glasgow, Wed 18–Sun 29 Sep, takeoneaction.org.uk
A film festival with a political slant, founded on the belief that 'cinematic experiences can inspire lasting change' and offering a series of talks and programmes showing how films can be used to empower communities on an international stage.