DOC NYC 2023 Interview: Tamara Kotevska on Leaving an Impression with “The Walk”

In her debut “Honeyland” co-directed with Ljubomir Stefanov, Tamara Kotevska made the world feel a lot smaller when her time spent with a beekeeper living on the edge of the world in her native Macedonia, struggling to sustain her fragile existence when a family moves onto the remote land not only to cohabitate but potentially co-opt the business she’s built over decades, resonated around the globe, eventually earning an Oscar nomination. For her follow-up “The Walk,” Kotevska would end up making connections across the countries again, only it would start as soon as she believed there would be a compelling story in the journey of a 12-foot puppet named Amal, recreating a real young Syrian refugee’s journey to Europe.

“It was completely the opposite from “Honeyland,” Kotevska laughs now, having to hit the ground running when she was brought into talks to direct after “Virunga” director Orlando von Einseidel’s production company Grain Media and the South African puppeteering troupe the Handspring Puppet Company initiated conversations about chronicling the trek. “[‘Honeyland’] was four years spent in an abandoned village with three people and a four-person crew, and this time it was 14 countries in three months with a crew of 60 that was constantly changing every two weeks, but I’m beyond happy that I had this kind of experience, especially after ‘Honeyland.’ I quite like the idea of working in such diverse projects.”

In fact, Kotevska brings both her keen observational eye and big imagination to “The Walk,” which sees Little Amal stand out in the streets of Turkey, Greece, Italy and France where she is celebrated and occasionally draws protests in reflecting the plight of refugees forced from home because of war. The film needn’t look any further than the puppeteers holding her up to understand how heavy each footstep is, with Fidaa and Mouaid, from Palestine and Syria respectively, having no homes of their own to return to, but “The Walk” also connects the puppet’s march to a nine-year-old girl named Asil, who remains in a camp in Turkey and watches on with wonder as Amal’s journey draws media attention wherever she goes and gives hope that one day the orphaned child might be able to transcend the same borders that Amal has.

When Amal becomes a vessel for people’s dreams of what the world could be, Kotevska similarly invests soul in a story that is difficult to put an individual face on when so many millions have been affected and continue to be, allowing both the resistance to taking in refugees and their determination to find a place to set down roots to come across and while reflecting the complexities of the current moment, the film shows the direct power of perseverance that is part of the human spirit and makes us all equals. On the eve of the film’s world premiere at DOC NYC, Kotevska spoke about how she went about making her much-anticipated sophomore feature, working with an international crew and how a narrative took shape from Amal’s travels.

How did this come about?

This happened close after COVID had finished, and it was quite a positive surprise after that year of depression. I was approached by Grain, and they put me in contact with Amir Nizar Zuabi, the art director of “The Walk” and he really impressed me when he told me how he came up with a concept of “The Walk” for the theater and I was amazed to hear that it started out of an independent theater in the refugee camp to bring talent out of [those there], and how this idea changed and how many formats [it was adapted for] throughout the years. That’s how they found the [real] Amal and they brought her story to the Piccadilly and it became really popular. From there came the idea of putting this story in movement and to reenact her story from the Syrian border to England because it was quite fascinating how this little girl got there.

It couldn’t be performed by the girl herself because she didn’t have the documents at the time, so the idea to have a giant puppet made two statements — one is that refugees are not puppets, even though they are treated as such they’re dependent on the governmental control to move, and the second is that they are not invisible. That’s why [the puppet is] 12’ tall so everybody can notice her and raise awareness for this. So that hooked me immediately for the project. From that moment on, the closest feeling] I could describe it to was a “Wizard of Oz” kind of journey. It took us like a tornado. Literally one morning, we booked tickets and we were starting this documentary and the next morning I woke up with this mesmerizing view of Arabic neighborhood in Gaziantep where the breed of pigeons were flying all over. This was my first view ever from this place, and this became a leitmotif of the film.

Unfortunately, many, many bad things happened in these two years. The majority of the places where we were no longer exist because one horrible earthquake [in Turkey] destroyed the majority of Gaziantep and Hatay, and the Jenin refugee camp in Palestine doesn’t exist anymore, so it’s quite disturbing to be a witness of this and to be actively engaged into trying to save your protagonist even after the [production] is over really because we did try to get the Syrian refugee girl [that Amal is based on] out of Hatay and to bring her to safety with her sisters to Istanbul.

As you allude to, it must be an interesting narrative to get a handle on when it’s partly observational as Amal is interacting with people along the way, but at the same time, you’re partially inventing this story for her to go on this journey. Was that tricky to figure out?

The idea of how to mix the real world with the fantasy world of Amal started developing as we were progressing on the journey. It actually came a bit later. It didn’t start from the beginning. When I saw the first interaction of Amal the puppet with the refugee children and how they reacted and projected themselves onto Amal, and how they cried and laughed, it really left an impression on their lives, and it was like witnessing “Slumdog Millionaire” in real life, so this actually gave me the idea to go in this direction and show the entire story from the perspective of this little refugee girl.

And we have a real refugee girl Azil, [someone] who was one of the many who met Amal, [because] when I asked myself who is the primary audience for this film, [I thought] is this a film about people who don’t know much about refugees and need to learn? Yes, that’s true, but primarily it’s about refugees, and to be more precise, refugee kids who need hope, so it’s not a journey of desperation. It’s a journey of celebration, and [I decided] to take the perspective of the POV of Azil, who is trapped in a refugee institution, and she sees Amal on TV and this is her only way out of these walls. This leaves such a big impression on her to hear about this walking theater that she starts living every single day with this idea that she’s Amal and she can travel where Amal can, learning the consequences of this travel, facing the bureaucracy of all these European countries on the way and the journey is also a journey of growing up.

Amal’s puppeteers end up having deeply personal reasons for wanting to be involved in this project. Did you know that their stories would be such a big part of this as well?

The idea of the puppeteers being involved in the documentary came when Nizar was telling me about the project, because I live in Macedonia and had never seen a puppet theater of this scale before, so it was quite fascinating to understand how this [puppet] was working — how could three people breathe and walk as one single organism? It immediately just raised curiosity and [Nizar] told me a little bit about everybody who was a part of the project. The majority of these people were refugees, which is quite fascinating because they really brought their own hearts into Amal and their own life stories and naturally, Fidaa and Mouaid stood out in this process of casting.

Although the path must’ve been somewhat predetermined by Amal’s own travels, were there certain locations that were important for you to film in?

The locations were important as we were moving along the journey and there were plenty. Amal visited maybe 80 countries, and we could only visit 14, so it was quite difficult to select which places exactly we will use, but my final selection was [dependent on] what the place was offering. I tried to make a collage of the positive and the negative experiences that Amal faced [because] obviously there were protests against her, but there were also parades for her. There were some hypocritical meetings with higher institutions and there were some wonderful war meetings with refugees, so it [was a variety of] all kinds of experiences that really shape a refugee journey.

One scene that was particularly affecting was when you’re inside a seaside house in Greece where the place is empty, but you fill it with the sound of deliberations about whether to cross the water when it’s so dangerous. What was that like to put together?

Honestly, this was my most difficult scene as a director because this place is truly haunted. The majority of the crew that went to visit this place really spent the entire day in the room and they just couldn’t get out because [of the] heavy, heavy energy [there]. Many refugees were found to have drowned there and refugee children were left on the shore, and because of this, nobody enters these shores to swim. It’s like an abandoned summer resort, so the idea [for the scene] came by visiting this place and [we had] a local fixer understanding what happened there and [how] these walls were covered with messages that the government keep putting the paint over, but the messages just never stopped because refugees never stopped moving from there, so it felt literally like ghosts were constantly present, putting the words again on the walls [after they had been painted over]. Through the many conversations [we had] with the refugees from the camp, we recorded their testimonies and how they came to some shores and how they managed to transfer one shore to the other, so that’s how we put the collage of voices in this place that are echoes of real people’s experiences.

Something else I found quite important was how you made time away from the puppet’s journey to show the ripple effects of the refugee crisis, such as in France where you visit a homeless camp. Was that a difficult part of the story to approach?

On the entire journey, it was quite, quite difficult to approach these kinds of refugees because as you can imagine, a majority of them no documents, so it’s quite difficult get interviews, and in order to do this, we found a person [from a] European non-governmental organization helping refugees in a couple of countries and with their help, we found these communities [where] he knew exactly [who to] contact because they’re bringing them food and [supplies]. We had to spend a couple of nights while we were in France just to understand who these people are because they are from many different places and to gain their trust in order to be able to record what’s going on. Without these kind of fixers, it would be quite impossible to enter these communities.

What’s it like getting to this point with it where you’re about to send it out into the world?

I’m shaking, really, because this film is coming out at a very, very important moment of history, and I don’t know still how it’s going to be accepted. It’s a very controversial topic — probably the most controversial topic in the world, political refugees, and as an author, I just hope that it’s a film that will give something to refugee communities because my main intention as an author is to give something to people with my art. In this case, it is the hope that people can connect their personal journeys with the journey of Amal and rather than taking a political side or speaking about political controversy, I think it’s more important to actually give something to the people.

“The Walk” will screen at DOC NYC at the Village East on November 9th at 7 pm and November 10th at 3 pm. It will also be available to stream on DOC NYC’s streaming platform from November 10th-26th.

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