Lost in Lebanon, directed by the Scott Sisters and produced by Jane Wells for 3 Generations, is screening at New York City’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival this June.
To celebrate this occasion, our intern Mimi Mayo-Smith interviewed sisters Georgia Scott and Sophia Scott on their documentary and perspectives on the Syrian War and the refugee diaspora in Lebanon. We are delighted to share with you an edited transcript of their conversation.
Lost in Lebanon will screen at the IFC on June 15th and at the Lincoln Center on June 17th. Tickets are still available for purchase here: Tickets for HRWFF
Mimi: You have a multi-layered and intimate knowledge of what’s going on with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The common viewer usually only has the perspective of the mainstream media. What do you think viewers of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival should keep in mind when watching Lost in Lebanon?
Sophia: I think it’s very much that the human story is lost in all the news reports. What we hope to achieve in Lost in Lebanon is to give back some kind of dignity and human story to the vast numbers of fleeing refugees.
Georgia: I also think it as a reminder that the war is continuing inside Syria and that there are millions of Syrian people that cannot go back home. So I think this film is a reminder that their struggles continue.
Mimi: Do you think the way current media depicts Syrian refugees hinders the documentary through hyper-normalization or helps contextualize your film?
Sophia: I think the news medium is very important to get the developing stories out. It’s crucial. But I think what we’re offering can assist people who want to understand a bit more deeply and go more underneath the surface of what it actually means to be a refugee or what it means to be at home when there is war raging in your country. Even if you are no longer living underneath the bombs, the trauma still continues. And how you need to have access to legal status to be able to send your children to school. All those things that you don’t understand just from reading news reports, which tend to be slightly sensational and talk about the death and destruction. There is a lot more human trauma that follows.
Mimi: Do you think your film seeks to criticize the slow violence of bureaucracy and international institutions – the violence of the documentation process just because of the time it takes to assist refugees? Or is your film more of an expression of this reality?
Sophia: I think it’s quite subtle. It’s done through the voices of these four people. But it is questioning why is it that only five thousand Syrian people have been resettled legally in one year. Only 5 thousand out of a country that is hosting more than 1.8 million refugees. So I think it is. It is questioning. It is asking why is this happening? And looking at the consequences of not being resettled.
Georgia: This is very important for us just to state: we are not attacking or especially criticizing anybody or any organization. We are shining a light on an area of the world where people don’t always see the true story. So we’re trying to shine light on the Syrians that have fled and are living in neighboring countries like Lebanon. But I wouldn’t want to go as far as saying that we are being critical – because who are we to be critical? We are only observers on the ground.
Mimi: Is your film trying to increase activism in ordinary citizens?
Sophia: Absolutely. We are also trying to make people view the Syrian people who are fleeing the conflict as humans rather than just numbers, a fleeing refugee or some extremist Islamist person. We want people to identify more with, for example, Sheikh Abdo [LIL character]: a community leader, a teacher, a father. He could be your brother or your husband. We are trying to humanize a group of people that are often just portrayed as a number or an extremist. It’s not the case.
Mimi: Distributing the film in cities such as New York City and London – it seems that the audiences in these places are pretty progressive regarding the image of a refugee: a refugee as someone that is not a terrorist, not just a number.
Sophia: I think sometimes our concern is that these film festivals are fantastic but that we are slightly preaching to the converted so we are also very aware that we need to make sure our film is seen by the wider public. Which is why it’s so important for the results of the film festival to be that TV broadcasters pick it up, that we do all this outreach screenings at universities and high school classrooms so that the general public has access to this film as well.
Mimi: And you also do screenings at political conferences. Which ones have been you been to?
Sophia: We just started our outreach screenings last month. And we kickstarted that with a big screening at Chatham house, which is a large think tank in Europe. We’ve had one screening with them so far, last month, and we’re just in the process of organizing many more with the European Parliament, the German Parliament, the French Parliament, and the House of Lords here in the UK. And then, we have screenings across Lebanon that we are busy organizing now and with Middle Eastern institutions here in London, one of which is the center for Lebanese studies. We will have a screening there on the 4th of July.
Mimi: Do you think the way forward – in order to improve the lives of these millions of Syrians – is to focus on their opportunities elsewhere rather than solving the conflict in Syria?
Sophia: Solving the conflict in Syria is paramount and I’m outraged that it’s going into its sixth year now. But I’m not fooling myself believing that this film can stop war inside Syria. I do hope that we can at least try and help the people that are either trying to flee currently from Syria or have already fled and are trying to survive in neighboring countries.
Mimi: One of the grand challenges of this conflict is educating the next generation. Do you think it’s important to hear from and share the perspectives of children directly?
Sophia: Yes. I mean every child that we met in Lebanon had experienced some form of terrible trauma from when they still lived under the bombings in Syria, where they’ve lost loved ones. But we also didn’t want to exploit young children, which is why our four main characters are all above the age of 18. We do have scenes where the younger children who Nemr or Sheikh Abdo [Lost in Lebanon characters] teach, and their voices are represented to an extent.
We also wanted to show the positive side and the importance of access to education, which is why some scenes of the film show the children learning, that they’ve been taught. We also wanted to show their eagerness to keep building a society that can help rebuild Syria in the future – which is through education.
Mimi: Should we then prioritize education when investing in the future of Syrian refugees?
Sophia: Yes – education is vital. But there needs to be an emphasis on access to legal status – because if a child or a family doesn’t have legal status in a country like Lebanon, then it makes it very difficult for that child to travel to school because they risk arrest and potential deportation. So it kind of comes hand in hand. The legal status is equally as important. It needs to come before access to education to be honest.
Mimi: The power to change the lives of Syrian refugees, then, lies primarily in the hands of foreign governments.
Sophia: Absolutely. It also lies in the hands of the international community. This film, Lost in Lebanon, is not criticizing the Lebanese government as such. It is shining a light on the fact that they are inundated with Syrian people, and Palestinian people before that, and so there needs to be some help given: advice and funding to ensure that the Lebanese government can in turn support the Syrian refugees that are currently residing in the country.
Mimi: What do you think is the root of the issue?
Sophia: I think the world has lost a lot of its compassion and I think we’ve become very fearful. I think the media and the government sometimes feed that fury of the human condition of hating the other and being fearful of the other. And I think that will only lead to future wars and make for very ugly societies. So Georgia and I are all about peace building and joining hands between different religious and ethnic groups. I think it’s so important to see each other as shared human beings living on this planet that belongs to us all. I think that lies at the heart of what we try to achieve with our films.
Mimi: Regarding your filming experience, was it difficult to live one and a half years in Lebanon?
Sophia: It was very challenging, first of all because we kind of give our whole self to the making of this film. We got very emotionally engaged with the characters and financially it was very difficult. We are always fundraising each step of the way. And we spent a lot of time in Lebanon – we got very involved with each character’s life. We kind of felt and still feel very responsible for them because they opened up to us. We have a good film at the end but their lives are still in disarray. It’s not quick fixes and the situation kind of continues. It was difficult and in some instances in the North of Lebanon it wasn’t very safe. There’s a risk of kidnapping so we had to deal with those factors but we felt the film we were making was worth it.
Mimi: How can individuals engage and contribute to this issue?
Sophia: It starts in your own community. So raise awareness about the plight of refugees and try to make people understand that people are not wanting to leave their homes. They are being forced out of their homes. They don’t want to come to Europe or to America. It’s out of necessity. It’s out of the need to live safely somewhere. So that’s the number one thing that every individual in this world can do is try to spread the understanding that actually it’s the last resort to flee to Europe, or to the US, or to leave their home country. And secondly, also to be engaged and look at organizations that operate on the ground in a funding way. So you can support organizations like 3 Generations, or IFC, or Refugees International – all these different kinds of organizations that work on the ground. The least is to be aware, to acknowledge.
Mimi: Your film seems very hopeful. It portrays the Syrian refugees gracefully, yet it also doesn’t romanticize their suffering. Was there still joy in the daily life of refugees?
Sophia: Absolutely. We’ve witnessed everything within the course of a year and a half. We’ve watched their friends dying, we’ve watch the birth of babies. We’ve attended weddings, birthday parties, new year’s eve, so we’ve witnessed everything and something that gave us a huge kind of hope was the continuous approach of life where they think “we’re lucky, we’re the lucky ones”. And the fact that they wanted to help themselves and each other to survive and be an asset rather than a burden. So yes, they are very hopeful people in the face of continuing war in their own country. We found a lot of resilience.