Are we listening? A conversation
In March, One Day’s Wages hosted a film screening and moderated conversation with our founder, Eugene Cho, and Wondercamp filmmakers Tim Kressin and Davis Goslin. The dialogue after the film reflected on what it was like to be in the Middle East, listening to and filming stories of Syrian refugees, as well as some thoughts on how to carry these stories forward now that they’re back in the US. Below are some excerpts from this dialogue.
Margaret: What was the interviewing process like as you were filming these stories?
Tim: It’s very hectic. You come back and you’re like, “That was crazy, I don’t know what I just experienced,” and then you get it all translated. You read the interviews in English and it feels like you’re really listening to it for the first time. And that process was really emotional for me.
Part of the intention with the film was to keep it slow and allow time to sit in the words that the refugees were saying. And the stories are crazy. Particularly for Ali, he’s the little boy, it’s crazy that he’s waking up at four in the morning, and if he doesn’t he gets hit. That’s nuts.
Davis: I think that one of the weird things about tackling a story like this is just still feeling extremely inadequate in how to do it. It’s easy to go to an African country and talk about one well in one village–the transformation story of how they didn’t have water and now they do.
But to go in to a filming project hoping to come away with a compelling story about the refugee crisis and feeling like we came away with this little sliver of insight, nothing compared to the whole story, was really challenging. That’s reflected in the film. It doesn’t answer a lot of questions. In fact the film presents more questions than it ends up answering, which has been an interesting process. There’s a desire to tie a bow on something–say this is what you can do to make a difference, and it’s going to be great. Not every story or experience is going to be that easy.
Margaret: What are some of the questions you’re still left with?
Davis: All of them. The “What I can do about it?” question, that’s still a really big question for me. I think that “how can you affect one life?” is difficult when the lives impacted by this crisis are far away.
Eugene: I’m always left with questions about the why and the how. It’s really complex, and I know that’s kind of a cop-out answer, but it’s a really complex thing. In the line of work that I do as an NGO worker and as a pastor, I’m often at the thirty thousand foot level talking about policies or engaging politicians, and sometimes you forget that there are actual, real human beings who have similar questions and wrestlings, like parents who say, “All I want is education for my children,” which really humanizes them. That was really important and I think we have to make sure that as we engage this crisis in whatever capacity, we don’t lose that humanity of each person.
Going back to your other question, I just wanted to add this question: what’s the ethicality of us asking people to share traumatic stories? You have to really wrestle with that and make sure you have good translators asking the storytellers if they are okay to share, because they’re revisiting trauma. And then we’re actually taking their vulnerable, traumatic stories and–if I can be very clinical–we’re commodifying it in some ways, as a video, as a story, as fundraising. So I still struggle with that. Generally my rule is not to share stories too quickly after you come back, instead just process them a little bit. There were a couple occasions where all of us on the trip were looking at each other, without talking, to see if the others heard what we heard because it was so crazy, so out of our imagination.
Tim: Abdul was really concerned about sharing his story. He feared that his family would see and that he is struggling, and he didn’t want to share that. He wanted his family, wherever they were, to see that he was having a good life in Jordan, and that leaving Syria was good, that he’s safe, that he’s doing well now. But he chose to tell us the honest story of how hard it was for him, how much pain he was in with his arm, how hard it is to be with his family in Jordan and not in Syria. There’s so much weight with that, and it is such a privilege to listen to that story.
Margaret: Given that weight, and some of the dangers you were talking about, Eugene, in terms of how we can commodify these stories, how would you encourage us to carry these stories out with us?
Eugene: Yeah, that’s a great question. In the same way that the filmmakers didn’t feel compelled to put a nice ribbon tied on it, I think there’s something about letting these stories disrupt us in some way as well.
I’ve actually met people who believe that the war is over. And I’m not talking about a handful of people, I’m talking about numerous people who believe that the war is over and therefore this is no longer our responsibility for the larger world. I think that’s a weight we have to shoulder in some way. We that have been informed when opportunities arise to be able to continue sharing stories.
Davis: That’s also what most everyone we interviewed asked of us as well. They would just say, “We want you to go tell people about where we are and what’s going on.” That was a heartfelt ask from them.
Eugene: I would say there was one very common, nearly universal conversation. It was in some form or another, “Please don’t forget us”. I think it’s that fear that “The world has forgotten us”.”
Tim: Almost in contrast of what I said about the privilege of hearing their story and taking the weight of that, there’s also this eagerness to share their stories, to not let them be forgotten. We can amplify the voice saying “We’re still here. We’re still suffering. We need somebody to change something. we don’t have control over it, but we need somebody to know that something needs to change.”
Margaret: How did this process challenge your own perception or rhetoric around what’s happening with refugees worldwide or even specifically in Syria?
Eugene: Before I left for our trip to the Middle East, my dad was really resistant for me to go. As I asked him more about why, my dad shared with me for the first time that he lived for a while in a refugee camp. When I asked him why it took so long for him to tell me this, he told me, “Some things are just too painful to share.” That stuck with me throughout the whole trip. It encouraged me to be more tender and sensitive to people’s stories. It’s made me that much more passionate about the importance and necessity of speaking up.
In our country right now, the currency that we operate in our culture is the currency of fear. The fear of these dangerous refugees and these immigrants. I sense that there’s this currency of fear-mongering going on. In the midst of this rhetoric I feel that much more passionate to speak to and acknowledge the humanity of every single person that we meet.
Tim: One of the biggest changes or shifts for me–using something Eugene said–is that politics affect policies which affect people, and I think that was the most clear that’s ever been for me. I’d read the news a million times and seen the different changes people have made. Seeing first hand a person who is waiting on a policy, and if that policy doesn’t change, how will they continue to live? Life is dependent on these policies.
For the first time, it was clear how advocacy works and how I can make a difference. When I read the news now, I can recognize how a policy at person, I can see that person waiting for that change or hoping that policy doesn’t go through. It really became personal for me. Are we actually listening to the voices of the people that the policy will affect, are we actually doing what they want? That’s why we titled the film, “Are We Listening?”
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