Film school comes to Azraq camp

Picture an ordinary home in a Syrian city. A girl peers through the window to look out to her street. It is the aftermath of an attack. The scene is graphic and brutal: bodies, pain, suffering.

An old man walks past the carnage. He’s looking for someone. Against the objections of her family, the girl leaves to help.

Such is the scene painted by a scriptwriter about her vision for a potential film.

Our translator, who is sharing this from Arabic, briefly interjects. The storyteller, an 18-year-old woman, is not just speaking about a character, she occasionally uses the word “I”. This is deeply drawn from her life experience.

This clearly isn’t an ordinary story meeting. We’re sitting in a small building within the CARE community centre at Azraq refugee camp in Jordan.

It’s about an hour and 20 minute drive from the capital Amman in the eastern part of the country. This sprawling refugee camp – 14.7 km2 – sits in the middle of barren desert. Officially, more than 50,000 people are registered at this camp, but about 35,000 are estimated to actually live here.

As far as camps go, it seems well run and neatly organized, with the basic services being met. But it’s still a camp in the middle of the hot desert.

Azraq refugee camp, Jordan

Most of the people here come from Aleppo, Homs and other cities left ravaged by the conflict in Syria. They have seen the horror of war. In conversations, kids vaguely reference incredible tragedy. Some flip past photos of dead relatives while searching for selfies on their phone.

CARE has been working here since Azraq opened in 2014. We operate four community centres that host events and provide information sessions, psychosocial support, day care, recreational activities (such as taekwondo for both boys and girls, and a youth magazine) in addition to educational and vocational trainings such as tailoring, cosmetology and computer maintenance.

The reason we’re gathered here this week is for a special workshop for a group of about 25 young adults and a film team from Hollywood, including Brandt Andersen (Lone Survivor), cinematographer Tobias Schiessler (Beauty and the Beast, 2017) and actors Jason Beghe (Chicago PD) and Shay Mitchell (Pretty Little Liars).

Through CARE’s work in Azraq, our teams have seen teens produce plays in search of ways to express themselves, to tell their stories. Word of this was passed along to Andersen who set about to assemble a crew and our small refugee film school was born.

CARE filmmaking workshop at Azraq refugee camp, Jordan

Even before the workshop begins, it’s clear our participants are excited. In a small meeting to prepare for the workshop, one of the first questions one boy asks associate producers Phillip Noorani and Jared Shores is: “How do you write a fight scene in a script? Like in the movies Thor or Batman?”

The filming starts a few days later.

It’s hot, approaching 45 degrees Celsius. And yet aspiring filmmakers are out in the sun, cameras in hand, developing their scenes.

The teams have divided into four groups, each putting together a small five-minute film written and directed by the refugee participants. With a few small exceptions such as one participant’s little sister who lands a role in two films and Jason Beghe, the actors are all refugees.

The themes are dark. They address violence, loss, but also rejuvenation. Remember, these are the stories from teens who have seen their lives upended by conflict.

“The script was from imagination, but I based it on what I know has happened in Syria,” says Afrah Khalid Kaid, the writer behind the story mentioned in the introduction.

“I tried to add what I actually experienced in Syria personally. There’s both imagination plus personal experience. This is not only part of my story, it’s part of everyone in the camp’s story.”

CARE filmmaking workshop at Azraq refugee camp, Jordan

We’re nearing the end of the film school and it’s time to watch the final product. The participants and some family members gather in the CARE centre on plastic chairs waiting for the show to start.

There’s both excitement and nervousness in the air – amplified further when the extreme heat causes a momentary power blackout.

As is the fashion for any film premier, each director introduces her or his film with a few short words thanking their cast and the workshop team for putting this together.

There will be no spoilers here about the content of the films. You will have to wait until they’re ready for final release. Suffice to say, they’re heavy viewing, particularly under the circumstances, the setting and cast.

Each film ends with rapturous applause as the entire crew is called to the front to take a bow and enjoy the adulation. They’re beaming. Incredible smiles as they soak in this moment.

CARE filmmaking workshop at Azraq refugee camp, Jordan

“I was so scared what people would think about the movie because it was my first time,” said 16-year-old Wael Al Faraj. “When I saw the movie, I was so surprised, ‘We did it. How did we do it?’”

Mohamad Al Mzail, 16, who wrote and directed his film, later said, “I was so happy because this film was the first film I made.”

At the same time, many of us are overcome with the emotion of the content. Of this experience.

Sitting at the back of the room are a group of mothers, tissues in hand, crying. They are happy for their children, but they know these stories all too well. In a way, it is also their story on the screen.

Of course, with movies we must have awards. The participants then vote for a series of categories and mini Oscar statues are handed out as the winners bask in the cheers.

For her compelling piece, Afrah would win the final award for best writer.

“It was a weird moment. I was speechless. I didn’t know what to say,” she says. “I was crying and laughing at the same time. Crying because of the movie, but laughing at the moment. At the same time, most of the hall was crying. It was a moment mixed with emotion.”

At this point there is just such an energy to the room. This isn’t a refugee camp in the middle of the desert. It’s a film festival, a moment of shared accomplishment to celebrate art, drama and the power of the silver screen.

CARE filmmaking workshop at Azraq refugee camp, Jordan

The team from Hollywood leave their gear behind so new movies can be made and the love of filmmaking can blossom. Based on the success of this workshop, CARE’s team is eager to explore new opportunities to help Syrian refugees share their stories.

The situations that underlie this workshop are tragic. Their stories inspired by the brutal reality of a crisis years beyond the point that the word “crisis” does not feel strong enough.

All these teens want is for the war to end. To return to their homes. To restart.

Until that time the least we can do is give them a forum to share, to tell their stories and express themselves. It may feel small, but it seems a way to actively escape. At least for a moment.

Written by Darcy Knoll, communications for CARE International Syria response

Learn more about how CARE is responding to the crisis in Syria and how you can help >>