Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and we're going to go next to another humanitarian crisis that is ongoing but all too often overlooked. Since 2011, Syria has been engaged in a devastating civil war. More than 300,000 people have been killed during the conflict. The war has forced more than 6 million people to flee the country. These Syrians in forced exile have had to endure overcrowded refugee camps, treacherous journeys by sea, and painful family separations.
Academy award-winning director Megan Mylan is known for her films Lost Boys of Sudan and Smile Pinki. Her latest documentary follows several families of Syrian refugees. It's entitled Simple As Water.
Megan Mylan: One of our advisors who's a Syrian writer sent me, it's actually part of the title of a collection of Syrian poetry, the full title which is Simple As Water Clear As A Bullet. What the piece 'Simple As Water' felt like is that it had this elemental essential powerful forward force and then a layer of something that is so fundamental to our existence but that we possibly take somewhat for granted until we don't have it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I spoke with Megan to find out more about how she created such a compassionate depiction of people whose stories are frequently sensationalized when they're told at all.
Megan Mylan: My entry point for the film was I was the mother of a three-year-old as I got into this story and was watching the news of the Syrian exodus and specifically the migration from Turkey to Greece back in 2015 really unable to reconcile how we were allowing families who had managed to escape a war zone to need to negotiate with smugglers and climb barbed wire. It was as a mother that I was being pulled into the story.
When I say "the story", it's that parental experience. As I shifted from just reacting as a human being to trying to think as a filmmaker was there to say about it. The experience of war and of displacement is so multi-layered and such a continuum that I struggled to figure out how any one character or one family story. What I landed on was telling multiple family stories in vignetted chapter structure. We follow four families across five different countries and it's really a deep dive moment in time and so the hope was that collectively they give you somewhat of a sense, something that honors the scale of this experience.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering if you could follow for our listeners just at least maybe one part of one family story just so folks will get a sense of what it is they'll learn in the context of this film, or experience in the context of this film?
Megan Mylan: Sure. We start the film off with a mother named Yasmin and she's in a squatter settlement in the port of Athens. Her husband, you learn, has gone ahead and is in Germany and his intention was that he would make sure the passage was safe and then would bring his wife and children along with him. They got caught up in the bureaucracy and in the smuggling, boats having to navigate getting from Turkey to Greece, tried seven different times to get across, and are now just squatting in this big industrial port.
What I experienced because everyone has their own experience of the film, but what drew me and our crew into focusing in on Yasmin and her family was this sense of them being caught in this large limbo bureaucracy coughed as bureaucracy that just they're so close. Any of us could have hopped on an airplane, of your listeners, could have just bought a ticket, and within an hour that family would've been reunited. Instead, it's years of them waiting any day thinking they might get to move forward to Germany where the father is.
For me in particular, what our field producers who first met Yasmin when we were looking to identify families, what they noted in her was just this absolute determination despite all of the grievous loss that they had endured and the fact that they were living in this incredibly chaotic situation that she was very, very focused on her children's forward-looking. There were a lot of the routines of daily life that were uninterrupted. They were different though like she's bathing her children in between 18 wheeler trucks in an industrial port but there's still bath time. The youngest children get their baths first, the big kids get to stay up later.
Their tent was immaculate. There was nap time. There was quiet time. All of these structures of normal home life, this sacred space of family, and this home life she preserved. Then the other really fundamental thing is she was determined for them to have joy. There's just a lot of laughter and play and they go swimming even though they had had a boat that capsized and it would've made me so fearful but we follow her out and she's not only encouraging them to follow in the waves but go farther, be brave.
That was a chance what I know from having spent time with not just with Syrians but other refugees is this intense forward focus and determination to thrive. Our world tests people's resiliency so much more than I wish it did but again and again the refugees that you get to know and I think you feel that through the families in the film are so forward-focused and have endured so much but determined not to be defined or defeated by it.
Every family that we selected had layers to that. We wanted to honor-- they've all lost something vital, something essential, but they're all not defined by that. They're going forward. They are rebuilding.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We have the intimacy of the storytelling but I'm wondering how-- you nonetheless managed to tell this larger story about our international incapacity to manage refugee crises and the issues of family separation.
Megan Mylan: Yes. I'm glad that came through for you. I think what we were, and this is a constellation of people who came together to make this film. I think our common purpose in it was to connect with people and to have them come away emotionally informed at their core. I think the issues of displacement are so fundamental when you see families torn apart or children spending years outside of school or families unnecessarily having to make repeated risks. Those are such basic injustices that it necessitates we can do better.
I do think that the reactions now as we've been releasing the film that people understand we need to approach this with moral urgency. I believe like from talking to people who are policy experts who think there are changes that can happen that prioritize keeping families together or expediting their reunification so children don't spend most of their childhood in bureaucratic limbo waiting to be reunited with a parent, most often with a father who's maybe gone ahead or something. Or children who are in countries of temporary asylum waiting to be granted asylum in a second country out of school for years at a time during those critical years of their childhood, or offering safe passage to people fleeing conflict.
Displacement is our current reality and unless we end conflict and climate change, it's our future, and so I think the question we have is how are we going to respond to this? There are things that can make that family experience of displacement significantly better and so that we don't lose whole generations and additional lives.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Megan Mylan is director of Simple As Water. Thank you for joining us today.
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