July 3, 2019

The Feedback: Bridgette Auger and Itab Azzam's 'We Are Not Princesses'

From Bridgette Auger’s film 'We Are Not Princesses. Courtesy of Bridgette Auger.Since IDA's DocuClub was relaunched in 2016 as a forum for sharing and soliciting feedback about works-in-progress, many DocuClub alums have since premiered their works on the festival circuit and beyond. In an effort to both monitor and celebrate the evolution of these films to premiere-ready status, we reached out to the filmmakers as they were either winding their way through the festival circuit, or gearing up for it.

In this edition of "The Feedback," we spotlight Bridgette Auger and Itab Azzam’s We Are Not Princesses. We caught up with Auger via email while she was touring the film on the summer festival circuit. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Synopsis: In We Are Not Princesses, Antigone, the ancient Greek heroine, ignites the spirits of four Syrian women living in Beirut’s refugee camps. Feminine wisdom, passed through the ages, connects the inner lives of these women and gives them a sense of belonging and rootedness. Through animation and intimate vérité footage, this feature-length documentary illustrates that which is invisible to the eye: the thoughts, memories and dreams of these mothers, sisters and wives as they grapple daily with past traumas and future uncertainty. 

Documentary: You have worked on past projects covering women who are Syrian refugees: Itab, on the 2013 Queens of Syria, where a group of refugee women put on The Trojan Women, the Greek tragedy about the plight of women in war; and Bridgette, with Terrestrial Journeys, a theater program that works with refugee women, and other coverage on the Arab Spring and the refugee crisis as a result of the Syrian war. How have these experiences informed your work on this doc?

Bridgette Auger: Actually, We Are Not Princesses was filmed in 2014, before my work with Terrestrial Journeys. I met actress and writer Dina Mousawi during rehearsals and we decided to do another project based on how successful the Antigone of Syria theater workshop was. I had been a photojournalist and wanted to move away from breaking news to more in-depth creative work. 

D: How was this experience similar or different?

BA: With Terrestrial Journeys the women wrote their own script, whereas they were working with Sophocles’ Antigone in the first workshop. During that workshop, Itab and I knew we wanted to make a film and that we didn’t want it to be an observational doc about the literal putting on of the play. We just started filming and stayed very much on the periphery until we were able to gain the trust of some of the women. They invited us into their lives and their homes.  

D: How did you come to learn about this theater program and the women involved? How did you work with the participants in your documentary to gain their trust and get them to open up about their lives and loss?

BA: I met my directing partner, Itab Azzam, in Damascus, Syria in 2008. We were neighbors and co-workers at the UN Refugee Agency, where Itab was interviewing newly arriving Iraqi refugees, and I was the staff photographer. On Friday mornings Itab would invite me over for pancake breakfasts on her rooftop in Mouhajreen, overlooking Damascus. In 2014, I was living in Beirut, working as a freelance photojournalist. Actually, I was making a living as a real-estate agent for a company renting apartments to the flood of expatriate NGO elites flocking to Beirut. My career as a photographer had all but died, because I couldn’t bring myself to cover the “desperate Syrian refugee” story anymore. Itab approached me to help her film a theater workshop that she was producing called Antigone of Syria. I jumped at the chance to be creative and work on issues I care deeply about. We began filming the movement exercises and the discussions in the rehearsals. It became immediately clear that important work was also going on behind the scenes and outside of the rehearsal space. For example, the day after the women were given the script, they came rushing in exclaiming, "There is no way that this was written 2,500 years ago! This is our story!" It was this moment that inspired our film, We Are Not Princesses.

D: Some of the women had family members that did not allow them to be seen on camera. In order to keep their voices in the doc, you used animation to depict their stories. How did you come to that decision? What was the process of animation like?

BA: Although the bulk of the film is vérité footage, it is intercut with animated vignettes. The style of the animation blends collage with line drawings, mixing imagination and elements of reality. The world of animation is magical and the rules of reality are only loosely applied. The footage of their homes in Beirut and the rehearsal space seems claustrophobic, but the animation world is spacious and airy.  In this world the women can fully express themselves without the approval of society.

We use animation to tell the myth of Antigone in an ancient theater, inspired by the Bosra theater in Syria, overrun by the city of Beirut after centuries of neglect.  We also use it to tell the stories of two women whose husbands would not allow them to be filmed. Zayna, 19, with two children, tells how, after many arguments with her husband about not being allowed to leave the house without the face-veil, he finally gives her permission. Wafa’a, who was married off at 14, is unhappily married to a man almost twice her age, and she is in love with an imaginary man. She identifies with Haemon, Antigone’s fiancée, because they were both forbidden from loving as they wish. Wafa’a dreams of how a man who truly loved her would speak to her. She writes a letter from Haemon to Antigone – her tender dreams in the mouth of a 2,500-year-old Greek hero.  

Animation is also used to access memory. Mona tells her delicate story of the night her son died. She bravely faces sniper fire to get her son, who is dying of leukemia, to the hospital. She still feels this lack of closure, and is wracked with guilt at abandoning her son’s body at the gravesite. The other women in the workshop appear in the sky overhead to show the collective grieving that the women share. 

Isra’a performs a rap of her painful memories of fleeing Yarmouk camp in her high heels. Animation shows the sea of thousands of Palestinians fleeing this suburb of Damascus at once. Then the animation stays with the walking theme and references the refugee migration across Europe with silhouette graffiti figures based on Syrian artist, and Itab’s brother, Tammam Azzam’s work. 

Just as the theater space provides a place of refuge and healing, the animation world provides a space where these women can fully express themselves. Wafa’a is allowed to love who she wishes; Isra’a can rap about the pain of losing her home; Mona can openly grieve for her son. To complete these animation sequences we partnered with Danish animation studio Nørlum. Nørlum is a talented and experienced studio that was behind the Oscar-nominated animated feature Song of the Sea.

D: You asked the women featured in the doc about their takeaways from the project. What were your takeaways and what do you hope other people take away from the stories of these women?

BA: It is not enough to provide traumatized people food, water and shelter. They need community and a way to process their trauma. Current coverage of these issues presents Syrians as desperate people devoid of identity and culture. Films like this can reclaim the stories of these refugees from the political agendas that have co-opted and maligned them. They can allow audiences to see beyond the headlines, to see their own desire for community and family reflected back to them as they witness,  for example, the simple pleasure of women going out to coffee with their girlfriends, as well as the pain experienced in the loss of a loved one. These smart, articulate women are not looking for charity, but a community and a life worth living. Here we do not alienate an audience with gratuitous violence, but bring them closer together through a sense of shared experience and humanity.

D: All of the women acting in Antigone identified with different characters in the play. Who do you most identify with?

BA: Antigone is about a woman caught in a civil conflict, forced to choose between obeying the authority of the king, Creon, and the right to bury her brother’s body, rotting where he fell. The central question is: Within systems of abusive and overbearing authority, what separates those who, like Antigone’s cautious sister, Ismene, keep their head down and turn their power over to authority, and those who, like Antigone, resist power’s heavy hand? And, when the heat of imminent danger and loss subsides, what does healing look like? I recently became a mother. Prior to this, I would have said I identified with Antigone, full stop. But now, when there is a child to consider, Mona’s words really hit home for me: "Had Antigone been the mother of children, would she have done the same? Wouldn’t she be afraid and think of her children?"

D: How do you think theater, literature and film help people connect through shared hardships?

BA: Whether wearily eyeing newly resettled refugees, hostilely opposing immigrants or actively welcoming them, communities across the US are affected by issues of immigration. Our film cuts through the misinformation and fear-mongering to remind each other of our basic humanity and our basic goodness. Change takes place on an individual level. We are committed to being a part of this change in dialogue and We Are Not Princesses is a catalyst for discussion. We are planning a multi-faceted public outreach strategy that reaches refugees and welcomes non-refugee audiences into dialogue that aims to expand narrow conceptions of refugee identity and experience as painted in mainstream media. We intend to take the film on screening tours around Europe and the US, while also screening the film in squats, collectives, camps and other communities that house refugees in order to empower refugees and inspire further solidarity initiatives. After screenings, we want to bring local refugees/immigrants from any country, as well as local people from the region, up on stage to discuss their reaction to the film. Their unprepared remarks will offer honest insight into both sides of the debate and create a space for open discussion. We know that active hostility can transform into compassion through dialogue. A moving performance or film can create a pause and a space for this exchange, but it doesn’t do the work. As evidenced by President Trump’s election, our communities are stuck in their own bubbles of fear and clearly are not talking to each other. We are aware that the task is daunting and there is a lot of work to do, but we’ve seen these strategies work and are strongly committed to creating opportunities for this badly needed dialogue.    

D: How did you see the women in your documentary change through the process of making this documentary?

BA: Not only has Syria been physically destroyed, social fabric and patriarchal patterns have also been upended. Because displaced families were desperate for cash to support themselves, women had to get out of the house into the workforce, or advocate to the NGOs to make sure their needs were met. As working actors, we paid the women a daily wage and this empowered them to stand up to the men in their lives and reclaim some control over the household. Near the end of the workshop, one woman told us how once, when she walked in the door after returning from a rehearsal, her husband asked what was for dinner.  She told him, "You can cook your own dinner!" and went to rest after an exhausting day.

This same upheaval of power dynamics played out in the women’s relationship to the camera. At first they viewed the camera as an extension of the Syrian regime, a tool that could hurt them for saying the wrong thing or stepping out of line. However, over time, they began to see the film as an opportunity to proudly share their personal stories, opinions and dreams.

D: With regard to your screening at DocuClub, what were your expectations going into that screening?

BA: We were worried that the film was too slow and too boring! I wondered if the audience could connect to the animated characters, could understand the Antigone story and if they would rebel when it turned out that you don’t see the play at all! 

D: Was DocuClub your first public screening?

BA: Yes, this was the first time we showed our rough cut in public.  

D: What were the central challenges in your film that you felt could benefit the most from the DocuClub screening? 

BA: I wondered if the film was too confusing since there isn’t a linear narrative story arc and there are multiple characters. Did they need more context of time and place?

D: What audience observations did you find most surprising and unexpected?

BA: Much to our surprise, people suggested that we make it longer. We ended up adding 20min! This has never happened before in Sara [Maamouri]’s many years of being an editor! 

D: When you went back to the edit room, what were the key changes you made? 

BA: We added 20 minutes of footage. We added more short scenes of the women at home and some more scenes of the rehearsals. The audience wanted to know more about the characters personal lives and see them at home.  

D: What were the key factors that determined that your film was ready for your festival premiere? 

BA: I made the mistake of submitting the film to festivals before it was finished.  When we finally hit picture lock and finished the music, color and sound and submitted it to festivals, we began to receive acceptances. A good lesson to learn! 

D: What were the most valuable takeaways from the screening?

BA: I wondered if people could connect with the animated characters. I worried that this was one step too far to ask of the audience. We were reassured that the animation was indeed captivating. We were reassured that the film was compelling. Yes, it still needed work, but this screening gave us the confidence to trust ourselves and finish making the film we wanted to create.  

Following the film’s DocuClub screening in 2017, We Are Not Princesses had its world premiere at DOCNYC last November. It has since played at the Boston Independent Film Festival, the International Rescue Committee's Festival in San Diego, as well as festivals in Sweden and in the UK. It won the Audience Award at the SF Doc Fest, the Diversity Award at the Ramsgate International Film & TV Festival, and the Excellence Award at the Depth of Field International Film Festival. We Are Not Princesses will continue to show at festivals this summer.

Lauren Giella is an editorial intern at the IDA. She is a senior journalism major at The University of Southern California. 

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