Megan Mylan on SIMPLE AS WATER – Interview by Mythily Ramachandran

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Academy award winner Megan Mylan’s latest documentary, Simple As Water, was shortlisted for an Oscar but did not make it to the final list of nominees. Mylan received an Oscar for her documentary, Smile Pinki, and the Independent Spirit Award for Lost Boys of Sudan, which was also named as a New York Times Critics’ Pick.

Simple As Water narrates the plight of four families ripped apart by the Syrian war. We first meet Yasmin staying at a refugee camp near the port of Athens with her four children. Her husband Safwan works in Germany. Yasmin hopes to reunite with him someday.

Mylan takes us next to Turkey where Samara, another Syrian refugee is struggling as a single mother with five children. Her husband was arrested by the regime and the war has transformed her twelve year- old son, Fayez into an adult. Stepping into his father’s shoes, he shares his mother’s responsibility in taking care of his siblings.

Diaa’s story from Syria is one of hope and waiting. This mother whose eldest son Mohammad was taken away five years ago by ISIS still believes that he will return home one day. Keeping herself alive in her son’s memories she endures the uncertainty while indulging love in her younger son Yazzouni, a special child.

In Pennsylvania, USA, Syrian refugees Omar and younger brother Abdul have applied for asylum. But Omar is denied asylum after authorities find his involvement in Free Syrian Army activities. Our lost stop is in Germany where Yasmin’s husband Safwan is awaiting the arrival of his family there.

Still from SIMPLE AS WATER

This story of fractured families does not paint a picture of gloom. Neither does Mylan exploit the pain of her characters. Its strength lies in its austerity. This tale of hope and survival has no political agenda nor is it a commentary on the global refugees’ crisis. Mylan gives you a fly-on-the-wall experience making it poignant and real.

Over email, Megan Mylan shared with Mythily Ramachandran the challenges of making Simple As Water.

Mythily Ramachandran: What was the inspiration for this documentary?

Megan Mylan: Parenthood changes your experience of the world and it’s changed my filmmaking. I came to this film as a human being, not as a filmmaker. Back in 2015, I became consumed with images and reporting of migration between Turkey and Greece. I was unable to reconcile how I was living in a world where people could get themselves out of war zones and then still be forced to negotiate with smugglers and climb under barbed wire. At the same time, I was a mother of a three-year-old. In all the reporting it was images and stories of parents having to make these seemingly impossible, no-good-answer choices. One morning I saw the photograph of Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi-a three-year-old boy- his face down in the sand on a Turkish beach. I could not stop looking at his shoes and on the Velcro ties — just like the ones I had helped my son try and fasten that morning. I couldn’t turn away from that photo. Not only because Alan Kurdi was the same age as my Jack. But also because, when I saw that little boy, I thought of his surviving father, and imagined the intensity of his pain. I thought of all the Syrian parents who managed to get their children out of a war zone, and we’re still trying to protect and reassure them in strange new places. How do you say to children-‘Everything will be okay,’ when things are very far from okay? And, the film moved forward from that connection as a mother.

MR: How did you decide on the five stories?

MM: My strategy as a filmmaker has been to focus closely on one person’s life, but telling one family’s story felt like an anemic response to the devastation on this massive scale. I decided to structure the film as a series of short stories and follow multiple Syrian families, each in a different part of the world. To echo the fragmented and fractured feeling of what they were experiencing and to give the film a sense that it was sharing one part of an ongoing story-there was life for each family before and after the period shared in the film. I reached out to a broad network. Most important were conversations with Syrians who had been forced to flee, but also with freelance journalists who’ve been covering the region, and NGO staff immersed in migration and human rights issues many of whom I knew from my film Lost Boys of Sudan. They helped me develop a sense of what the common dynamics are- having to trust smugglers to get across borders, families separated, children taking on adult responsibilities, children unable to attend school, gender norms flipping. To identify families and build relationships with them, we had two Syrian co-producers who worked across storylines. Our research teams scouting in ten countries comprised of many Syrians who had been forced to flee. They looked for families who fit some of the situational pieces but also had the charisma and layering to make interesting film subjects. And, that they wanted to collaborate with us. Each family has survived the unspeakable— losing a vital piece of themselves; a sibling, a parent, a home, a limb. Yet, they manage to find room to be silly and tell their children with conviction-‘It will be ok.’

MR: Despite being a story of war victims, your film is punctuated with happy moments. How did you manage that?

MM: That was both natural and intentional. Life does give you that mix and I felt that during my time with the families. I’m, of course, making all sorts of decisions about where the camera focuses, what comes through in the editing room, but I try and hold myself to not over-representing things. It’s the people in the film’s life experience, as I experienced it. As a mother, I know I have to keep my child safe physically, but after that, I see joy as my next biggest responsibility. I think during the pandemic, a lot of parents have struggled with that when there is so much upheaval and uncertainty and children’s resilience is being tested so much. I saw that in these families. It’s not just about escaping bombs and not drowning. It’s about protecting their children’s spirit, their sense of play, and possibility.

MR: You have sparingly used graphic scenes of war in your documentary. Why?

MM: Beyond the bombs dropping, what do you do to move forward? What are those scars? While some of them are physical, they are internalized too. I think of it as a family love story with war as the backdrop. My focus is on what war does to families- what it has done for generations and sadly will likely continue to do. And, to show the universal desire to protect your family. When everything falls apart you grab what matters most-your family.

MR: Can you share a story that could not be included in the film?

MM: One that lingers in my heart is of the parents of three young children who crossed the Aegean. Their boat capsized. The children were wearing life jackets the parents had purchased, but they ended up being fake. All three drowned, only the parents survived. I had a photo the parents took of their children in orange life jackets on my desk throughout the years of making the film.

MR: How did you decide on the music score?

MM: Early in the offline editing, we used some temporary track music from the film The Tree of Life. As I dug into that soundtrack I discovered Hanan Townshend who had done some work on that film when he was still a graduate student. Listening to his work I felt connected and reached out to him. Hanan won me over in our first call. After watching a rough cut without any music in it, he told me he wasn’t sure we needed any. Collaborating with him was wonderful. We worked to create a minimal, but an emotional score that always let the scenes in the film lead the emotion rather than the music.

MR: The title belies the complex story within. What led to this title?

MM: The title comes from a collection of Syrian poetry by Riyad al-Saleh, Simple as Water, Clear as a Bullet. One of our Syrian advisors suggested it to me. When I heard it, it just felt right. It had a sense of being elemental, powerful, and inevitable, like the primal bonds of parent and child-the instinct to protect, to make life good for your child, to move forward. I didn’t want the title to be too specific, to tell the audience too much about the film so that you come to it as much as possible without specific expectations.

MR: Some portions were shot by people whose identity remains anonymous. Can you talk about them?

MM: Our story in Syria was produced and shot by two amazing women from Damascus. They remain anonymous and are credited with pseudonyms. We looked at my getting into an opposition-held area in Syria, but it would have been risky not just for me, but for the crew and most of all for any family we focused on—they were living under a dictatorship. It was an unnecessary risk. When the team traveled from Damascus to shoot, as a cover, they hid their camera gear in a bag with diapers and toys. We transported encrypted footage out of the country. I spent time workshopping with them in Beirut and worked over Skype and WhatsApp. It was a challenge to direct remotely, and the first time I’ve done that. I thought it was an essential story to include. Half the population has fled, but half is still there. I felt the excruciating experience of not knowing if your child is alive or not—was fundamental to include.

MR: Filming in five countries must have been tough, what kept you going?

MM: A whole constellation of people came together to make this film with a crew from all over the world. It was funded entirely through grants from funders who believed in what we were trying to do, and most importantly by families who welcomed us into their lives at very difficult moments. Everyone working on the film dug deep into themselves and into their skills to honor that.

MR: What’s the update on the families portrayed in the film?

MM: They are doing well. In Germany, Yasmin’s children are enrolled in school and fluent in German. Abdullah, the roommate of Safwan- whose wife and sons were behind in Syria- was granted asylum and was able to bring his family to Germany. In Turkey, Samra and her children are together. The boys are in school and working part-time. Omar and Abed are doing well in the U.S. Abed graduated high school and has been given asylum. Though Omar is still waiting on asylum, he can stay and work legally. He is married and a father of two girls.

mithilyMythily Ramachandran is an independent journalist from Chennai, India with over two decades of reporting experience in leading Indian and international publications, including Gulf News, (UAE), South Morning China Post, Lifestyle Asia and Another Gaze (UK). When this crazy film buff is not watching films, she is snooping around for those little-known stories of human interest, which eventually find a place in well known publications.

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