“Three” is a short film that provides a glimpse into the lives, desires, and struggles of three Syrian refugees. In sharing the stories of a mother, an artist, and a soldier, all three of whom are refugees residing in Jordan, “Three” demonstrates the immense humanitarian consequences of the Syrian conflict.
We interviewed Elizabeth Woller, co-producer and director of the film “Three”, in order to learn a little bit more about her experience creating the film. Elizabeth is an award-winning documentary film producer. She is Head of Production and Media at 3 Generations, a 501(c)3 not for profit organization dedicated to documenting human rights abuses through film. She has worked at 3 Generations since moving to New York from Beirut in late 2012.
Even for a veteran of the Middle East, capturing the incalculable human collateral damage of the Syrian conflict is a daunting task. Elizabeth tells us what it was like to track down Syrian refugees in Jordan and record their stories.
Claire Fraisl: Was this your first visit to the Middle East? Were there any unique challenges you faced in creating this film?
Elizabeth Woller: This was actually not my first visit to the Middle East. I've previously lived in Jordan and did my Masters at American University of Beirut, where I lived for a few years prior to coming to New York.
Claire: How did you find people willing to tell their stories? Could doing so could jeopardize themselves and their families?
Elizabeth: I was lucky to find a wonderful "fixer", Maha Al Asil who knew refugees willing to share their stories. She is originally Iraqi and has dedicated her life to the Syrian refugees in Jordan. Speaking out put these people in a dangerous position, but they have immense trust in Maha, and were willing to also put that trust in me. Yasmine, the young widow in the film, did hide her face, and we changed her name because she was fearful for her family's safety. Nasser and Sultan were much more willing to be exposed. I don't think either of them has any delusions of returning to Syria, and perhaps felt safer because their immediate family was in Jordan.
Claire: What do you think motivated them to be part of the film?
Elizabeth: I do find that, in general, people want to tell their stories and they are glad that someone is listening. This is especially true in the case of the Syrians, who couldn't get the world's attention for anything, despite representing the 21st century's greatest humanitarian disaster. Yasmine lost her husband in the Ghouta Massacre, which crossed Obama's "Red Line" against chemical warfare, yet the world didn't want to get involved until a rogue group of Islamists showed aptitude at Twitter.
Claire: How did you decide which stories to tell? Did you notice any biases?
Elizabeth: Not surprisingly, none of the participants wanted to show allegiances or bias. Of course, each interviewee incriminates the regime in the course of their story, but all in all, these are not deeply political people. Before the war, Nasser was working hard to become an actor, and still dreams of returning to that. He's incredibly apolitical for a former FSA fighter, but perhaps he's just exhausted by war. During our interview, Yasmine was in a place of grief, not anger, and showed only a deep personal strength and concern for her children. Sultan was the interviewee with the biggest political consciousness and sense of moral disdain for the regime. He did speak about the atrocities that he witnessed that forced him to defect and join the rebel army.
We spoke to six individuals, but only used three of their stories. The stories we eventually used in the film were all from young people, in their 20s and early 30s, while the ages of the people we actually interviewed ranged from 4-65. These three interviews just turned out to be the most compelling. I'm hoping people of my generation will connect to Sultan, Yasmine, and Nasser, and get a picture of the conflict from the individual level. All of the refugees we spoke to were living in urban areas, outside of the refugee camps. In Jordan, only 20% of the Syrian refugee population lives in camps, but the Western media have mostly only focused on the camps like Zaatari. Of course, in the camps it's easier to portray the enormity of the problem, but urban refugees are truly a forgotten demographic. They rely heavily on private aid, don't have work permits, and are largely isolated. It's very difficult to make a living as an urban refugee in Jordan. However, one of the more touching stories that didn't quite make the film, was when Nasser told us about how his neighborhood in Amman made a community effort to welcome him when he arrived from Syria, bringing him food, visiting with him, and helping him get around since he couldn't walk. He, for one, was very grateful for the Jordanians.
Claire: Did you pick up any Arabic while shooting the film?
Elizabeth: I do speak Arabic, but it had gotten rusty, so I was grateful for the practice! I also learned a bit more Syrian dialect, but was glad I had an interpreter with me.
Claire: Are you still in touch with the individuals from the film? Where are they now?
Elizabeth: Sultan was in love with a woman in Jordan, but her parents refused his marriage proposal. Apparently distraught, he wanted to return to Syria, but she convinced him not to. He says he will wait for her, and if she marries, he will give up and get married. He says he can now walk on his leg, but not run, and it's at 95% of its function. Yasmine and Nasser are harder to get in touch with, and I have not heard from them in awhile, but I hope they are doing well. Yasmine's eldest was supposed to start kindergarten this year, and I'm hoping she was able to find a school for him.
Claire: Is there anything you learned that surprised you in making this film?
Elizabeth: What surprised me most was when I learned how many urban refugees there are in Jordan who are struggling to get services. I had gone to Jordan hoping to enter Zaatari, the major camp, but we decided to focus on the underserved urban refugees, which was equally as important.
Claire: What do you hope viewers will take away from your film?
Elizabeth: An understanding of the human cost of this refugee crisis. Syrians, like Nasser says in the film, pride themselves on their friendly and generous nature. I haven't been to Syria when I didn't experience overwhelming hospitality and graciousness, and it's heartbreaking for Syrians when they cannot provide you food and tea when you enter their home. That's a very basic example, but many of these Syrians feel that they've lost some aspect of their humanity by having to depend on aid, and it's all they can do to keep fighting for their dignity.
To screen the film for your university or organization, or purchase a copy, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit their site for more on 3 Generations and “Three”: http://www.3generations.org/film/three/.
To learn more about Elizabeth’s filmmaking career, follow this link to her professional website: http://www.elizabethwoller.com/.