IDFA ’15: Syrian child refugees tell their stories in “Exile”

Mani Benchelah, director of This is Exile: Diaries of Child Refugees tells realscreen about his approach to working with young Syrian subjects, how he crossed over from photography into film, and his goals for the doc.
November 23, 2015

Mani Y. Benchelah spent a year interviewing Syrian children in refugee camps across Lebanon for his documentary This is Exile: Diaries of Child Refugees. Fresh from winning the International Jury Prize at Scotland’s Document Human Rights Film Festival, the photographer-turned-filmmaker tells realscreen about his approach to working with young subjects and the political goals for the film, which screens at IDFA on November 24, 25, 27 and 29.

French-Algerian director Mani Y. Benchelah started working as a photographer in 2009, covering stories in India, Pakistan and eventually Syria. Three years later, he transitioned exclusively into film, shooting short docs and videos for Channel 4 News.

It was one of these assignments for the UK pubcaster, his doc The Horror in Homs, on the bombing of the Syrian city in 2012, that won him an International Emmy Award for news in 2013. In his hour-long doc This is Exile: Diary of Child Refugees, the filmmaker revisits the Syrian people, though this time Benchelah – who uses ‘Mani’ as a pseudonym for protection in the field – focuses solely on child refugees living in unofficial camps around Lebanon, which hosts more than 1.3 million registered Syrian refugees fleeing civil war.

When asked how he prepared to work closely with young – often traumatized – children, the filmmaker points not to his photography experience, but rather to nine years as a primary school teacher. In This is Exile, Benchelah is more of an observer than teacher, but the skills helped him interact with the handful of children profiled in the film.

This is Exile was filmed in the Shatila camp in South Beirut, the city of Arsal near the Syrian border and in Tripoli between December 2013 and November 2014, over five trips that each averaged two weeks. The doc – sponsored by non-profit organization Save the Children and co-produced by Make Productions – bills itself as a project that lets young refugees tell their own stories, often in lengthy, intimate interviews with Benchelah, who carefully questions his young participants about their experiences away from home.

One boy, Nouredine, survived a siege in Homs but is haunted by the actions of his government and has developed a stutter, while another boy, Mustafa, wants to go to school but has to work to provide for his family. Elsewhere, Fatima – who is disabled – is eventually granted access to Switzerland.

The film’s London-based distributor Boulder Creek International last month sold the film to Participant Media-owned net Pivot. This is Exile has also been picked up by Al Jazeera Arabic, Kunscap Media in Sweden and Polsat Play in Poland.

In an interview with realscreen, Benchelah discusses crossing over to docs from photography, the sensitivity needed to work with young subjects and his political goals for the film.

Why did you decide to cross over into film?

I [heard] what was going on in Homs, where I was reporting from, and I needed to interview people, I needed the sound. I thought it was another means I should not disregard. And from then, I kept on working on it. I thought it was a more powerful tool to record what was going on over there.

When you were working on The Horror in Homs for C4, did you think child refugees might be a group you’d want to examine closely later on?

No, it was much too early. At that time, I had no clue the crisis would go really badly, and that none of the warring parties would give up. I could not have foreseen the extent of the refugee crisis; I had no idea.

How did Save the Children and Make Productions get involved?

Save the Children financed the project. [Make Productions] is my partner in the film. They asked me to film the children and asked me what I thought would be important in a report about children [involved in] the war in Syria. I had the idea of doing a film just focused on the experience of child refugees. They agreed on the idea of doing the film and they said they would sponsor the film, but they’re not involved in the content and have no editorial control of the film.

How did you access the families?

Through local contacts, NGOs, friends working in camps. I worked with them and then it’s just [about] spending the time in the camp.

How did you form these close relationships with the children?

It’s a doc project, so I have time to spend with them. I don’t have to rush in and rush out so there’s a lot of time to just be with them, going somewhere with them, or discussing, or just being a part of their lives as far as possible. I’m not living [in the camp] full-time but I have quite a lot of time to spend with them, so if the connection is good, you can feel that you’re growing some trust with them.

When you were working there, did you notice other filmmakers in the camps as well?

Rarely. Sometimes, when there was a major crisis happening. Other times, there are so many [camps], so you just don’t see it.

What did you find most challenging in working with such young subjects?

To find the right lines. How to conduct the interviews in a way that you make sure it doesn’t impact or affect them. You’re not recreating something they’ve already been through. I tried to avoid that by building some relationship with them, taking the time to be with them.

I also chose children that, even though they had been through a lot, had the emotional support of their families, who would be there when I would interview them and would be present to support them and make sure that the interview wouldn’t be too long so they wouldn’t get too [emotional]. That was the main concern and challenge: to tell their story without having them, in the process, be more affected than they were before.

Did you intend to profile a child who was, ultimately, resettled in Europe?

No, it just happened. I followed suit because that was an important evolution in their lives and that was telling the story of many other lives. Even though they are minorities – [refugees] who can be resettled – it is an indirect way of telling the story of all the refugees who had to go through illegal means to reach Europe and find safety somewhere.

Do you have any goals for this film in terms of political outcomes?

The first goal of the film is to give a voice to these children so viewers can hear them – humanize children and refugees in general. The film shows how the refugee crisis enters Europe. I hope the film can contribute to the understanding of what those people have been through and that they are the kids of war and many of them are entitled to safety and [refugee status] and we should help to give them the things they need, whether in Europe or elsewhere.

  • This is Exile screens at IDFA on November 24, 25, 27 and 29.
  • Check out a trailer for the film below:

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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