Megan Mylan on Reflecting the Implications of Displacement in “Simple as Water”

"Simple as Water"
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Early on in “Simple as Water,” there’s a scene where a 12-year-old boy named Fayaz is walked around a dormitory in Reyhanli, Turkey with his mother Samra. He politely nods as a guide tries to excite him about potentially living there, asking if he likes soccer and more to the point, is he a fan of Lionel Messi, knowing that few in the world aren’t, but seemingly possessed by a wisdom beyond his years, he politely engages with her while gazing over at the wall that surrounds the perimeter to see all the tents like the one that he and his mother currently share, respectfully finishing out the tour before concluding “I lost my father. I don’t want to lose my mother too.”

Only Fayaz would be able to stay at the shelter for boys, while Samra, who has four other children to attend to, attempts to reconnect with the family’s patriarch, whose business transactions made him a target for the Syrian government once civil war began and Megan Mylan’s heartrending doc is rife with these impossible choices where people are constantly being asked whether a roof above their head will mean the ground continuing to shift beneath their feet. When the unrest has pulled uprooted entire communities and torn apart families, the filmmaker, who previously co-directed “The Lost Boys of Sudan” with Jon Shenk, savvily finds an appropriate way to demonstrate the ongoing impact of war on the displaced, well after they’ve been forced to leave their home, fanning out across the world to tell four stories of Syrians trying to rebuild their lives, even when that seems particularly futile when at least a piece of their family has been separated from them.

“I liked the puzzle of that, how do we weave that together like a whole,” Mylan told me recently about locating the connections she could in the stories, after “Simple as Water” was shortlisted for Best Documentary at the Oscars. With both an investment of time and a talented team of collaborators, the director sheds light on one situation through another as the film follows Yasmin, who attempts to pull her family out of bureaucratic limbo in Greece, Omar, who has resettled in Pennsylvania with his younger brother Abed, who was badly injured back home, and Diaa, a Syrian who has remained but is consumed with finding her son who has disappeared. Mylan doesn’t only elucidate the often invisible barriers that are thrown up by large government entities to prevent reconnection, but the wrenching emotions it stirs within what remains of the families, all having different feelings about what’s happening to them and not necessarily on the same page about how best to proceed. Still, there is grease to be found under pressure and the film finds plenty of it as the displaced Syrians fight to create a space for themselves in the world and try to ensure a more stable life for their young than what they had to endure. With the film now streaming on HBOMax, Mylan spoke about how she was able to was able to tell such a complicated story with such insight and how with a limited number of shoot days she constantly managed to be in the right place at the right time.

How did you figure out the structure for this?

Yeah, I came into the film just as a human being overwhelmed and unable to reconcile that we were watching what was happening between Turkey and Greece back in 2015, like how are we allowing families that managed to get out of a war zone to have to negotiate with smugglers and climb under barbed wire? It wasn’t really as a film at first, but if you’re waking up every morning consumed with something and you make documentaries for a living, I started thinking about what I could contribute. I was a mom of a three-year-old, so I was experiencing the world through his eyes in all its beauty and joy, but also its injustice and that was what was connecting me into this — if I was those parents on the coastline, having to make that decision with those options, that information, would I rise to the occasion? Would I tell my kid everything’s going to be okay, even though I wasn’t sure if it was?

My point of entry was the choices that parents have to make during war and after displacement, which] felt valid [for] someone who hadn’t experienced firsthand and wasn’t from Syria because it was where I was connecting emotionally. Then I started thinking about trying to identify one family and do a journey story, but it felt like the wrong fit for a couple reasons. It felt too anemic for the devastation of this scale and also for the layers that displacement does, it’s not a monolithic experience – it’s so multifaceted, and I love to work in observational verite, so it seemed really unlikely that I would be able to engage with a family at the right moment, to get enough of that trajectory to have it feel like a whole. I was trying to figure out how do I be faithful to the scale of what’s going on while doing the kind of filmmaking that feels organic to me.

I landed on this idea that if it was multiple stories, multiple families, but also wanting to not try and be the complete telling of their experience, [instead] just trying to catch them at these moments in time and do very deep dive intimate vignettes. That the structure would be emblematic of this fractured [experience they have where] you don’t quite know where the beginning and the end is, and things don’t resolve exactly. That was very intentional. When I settled on that mix of the point of entry of parenthood and that structure, that’s when it felt like, “Okay, I can go in with this,” and I hope that it feels like you get this sense of life mid-stride – that we catch up with them for a moment and there was a lot of story before and there’s going to be a lot of story afterwards, but that was there enough in a satisfying way that you feel like you’ve connected.

From what I understood, these shoots weren’t particularly long and yet you captured very complex dynamics in such a short period of time. How did you go about getting those shoots together?

I don’t think the focus was on let’s just shoot for a few days, and if you include the preproduction as part of the shoot time, it was massive. But the actual filming was a very complicated number of days, so as soon as I figured out I wanted to do this multiple family storyline, then it was just this deep dive research about what are those common family experiences that we want to be looking for and what are some of the choice decision points [for the families]. To do that, I leaned on some connections I had from having made a film called “The Lost Boys of Sudan” about Sudanese refugees decades ago to get some introductions going and to connect me to as many Syrians as possible who had been through this. Every conversation leads to two more and you grab little kernels, so a lot of it was talking about Syrians who had been through it, but also refugee advocates and freelance journalists.

I started building this ecosystem of a team, so I had two Syrian co-producers who worked across storylines, but then we scouted for families in eight countries. We ended up focusing on five, but I had small teams that were often a Syrian with a film or journalistic background, connected with a freelance journalist, so it was often a two-person team out looking for families that would have these layers of what is true to the experience of displacement, but also most importantly were open to collaborating with us and wanted to be part of the film. It was so absolutely critical to have Syrians deeply involved in this, many of whom were refugees themselves and [were] stuck themselves in the countries we were scouting who could approach this with deep intellectual and emotional knowledge about what folks were going through. It wasn’t the kind of film where I could say, “If only the world knew what you were going through, things might change” because by the time I came to this story, the world did know, so it was really about feeling like there was something profound in the shared experience of family that connects us.

Really, it was just a trust and this relationship building that got us the access [because] it’s one thing for them to say, ”Yes, you can come into our home or this dorm room,” but every moment you’re still having to re-earn that trust because no matter how close somebody lets you put a camera, at every moment they’re choosing what moments they’re revealing to you. I think the film has the intimacy it has because the team and the time that we took to build relationships, so there was just a lot of time spent together before we ever started filming and a real clear understanding of who’s in charge and this is a sacred space. I was so committed to learning enough that we were going to know we were going to get the right issues and thematics and dynamics on screen, but also we were going to get them in the right way.

I was doing this all through grants, so I raised a little bit of money and built that ecosystem of the international research crew and then hired our film crew, so having the luxury of time, funding this all with grants without having a broadcast and a deadline gave us the time to build those relationships gently, slowly and respectfully. Then even though we didn’t go back and shoot repeatedly, what was wonderful was because our field producers were living in those countries themselves and in some cases stuck there, those relationships could continue even after we were finished filming, which was important. When you’re just a human being first and a filmmaker second, it helps the filmmaking too.

This may have happened simultaneously, but would filming one situation influence what you might be more focused on in the next?

Yeah, a couple of those throughlines were fathers going ahead to make sure there was safe passage. You would hear from the stories again and again and the children taking on adult responsibilities, families separated for years at a time just wading through bureaucracy with borders opening and closing, so we knew from the beginning, those were things we were looking for and we identified Turkey and Greece storylines because I knew I wanted to do something in Greece and then I also knew I wanted a neighboring country because most often when masses of people are displaced, they don’t travel far. We were looking in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and when we landed on Fayaz and that dynamic of whether the children would be safest if she left him at this boarding school/orphanage, living without her or whether the priority was to keep the family intact, I didn’t know that that storyline would be so much about Fayaz until a field producer had talked about how there had been this mother who had come by [in those scenes] and that there might be this family that might be of interest. The son is really opposed to [the family being separated] and that felt like an extra layer.

Once we filmed with him, we hadn’t really identified our U.S. story and Omar and Abed [Sabha] at first blush didn’t fit, because it’s two brothers, but I felt like there could be a hand-off there [because] you see Fayaz taking on those adult responsibilities and then he hands off to Omar [in the film], so a little bit of it in that casting period they influenced each other. It’s the bonds of family that you lean on in different ways at different moments, like what they say with a choir. You have to give timing for someone to take a breath, somebody else fills in. We saw that a lot and going into it, I was much more focused on that really primal instinct as the parent to protect physically and to provide both the basics and the joy, like I was feeling that in a very core way as a parent of a young child and then as we were making the film, I started seeing what a collaboration keeping families healthy and intact were. We knew that in a couple of the chapters children would have that responsibility, but you see that handoff back and forth really fluidly in what we witnessed.

This is also a difficult story to convey cinematically when neither bureaucracy or being stuck in limbo are usually all that cinematic. Was it difficult making it compelling?

Yeah, I felt really confident that we had done all of that preparation to be in folks’ lives at the moment that we’re going to reveal what we’re looking for and these were the conversations with the crew – this is not a film driven by plot or big moments. It’s the flow of emotion and it’s little moments, so if we miss a moment, it’s all these little eye contact interactions, touch, the way Yasmine gestures as she leaves an NGO worker who gave her such an overwhelming amount of information, I just had faith that we were going to get what we needed and that we didn’t have to push anything. Actually, being too desperate for a certain moment would sabotage the essence of what I was trying to collect with the families and then editing becomes so important.

I end up with this ratio all the time without being intentional about it, but we have an hour of footage for every minute of the film, [which is] a pretty low ratio for observational filmmaking, but it was just keeping a really close focus on what we could do and what we couldn’t achieve. I couldn’t get you all of the banner moments of when people landed and what do they do with frequency – and that was what our field producers building relationships ahead of time [could tell us], knowing people’s schedules ahead, so I knew [for instance] in that first chapter Yasmin really kept the routines of childhood and of domesticity – that was a very neat tent and that there was always bath time and the little kids went to bed first and that the kids sometimes got to stay up. She also had a friend that lived in another section of the port that sometime she would hang out with, [so I thought] “Okay, she’s going to catch her friend up and hopefully we can accompany that” and you just have faith that things as they are are going to give you what you need.

What’s it like getting this out into the world?

We’re thrilled to have had HBO embrace it and give the film a big platform and I love what people see in it. With this style of filmmaking, my intention and my hope is that it gives them the space to bring their own life experience to the story, so I just love nothing more than when people say, “When I’m watching her bathe her son in the port, I was taken back to my single mom who would come home late at night and always prioritize bath time with me and that was our time together.” Their own life is woven in [to what we documented] and that primacy of those family bonds was what I was hoping to be able to invite an audience in and make it really acceptable, but then have it be so intimate that people felt like they had a lot of dimensionality and layers to them at the same time that you come away emotionally informed from the film.

We were really lucky at Tribeca, it was a moment in the pandemic where people were able to gather even though we did it outside, [which] was really fabulous, and now we’re retreating with everybody else for a while, but I’m really excited about the vibrant life ahead because it seems to have a lot of hooks that people can have conversations on. We haven’t been able to bring most of the families are outside of the U.S. except for Omar and Abed and then most of our crew is outside of the U.S. too, so it’s been only the U.S. folks who have been [to what screenings we have had] in person, but the audience interaction has been really, really rich so far.