72. Berlinale 2022
Born in Damascus
After ten years apart, a Scottish filmmaker tries to reconnect with her closest cousin. Once so similar, their paths were separated by war. As they piece together memories of Syria, they begin to wonder - 'What happened to our family?'
Hi Laura thank you for talking to The New Current, how have you been holding up during these very strange times?
I have been holding up quite well! So far I’ve dodged catching Covid and I am just keeping myself busy with work.
Has this time offered you any new creative inspiration or opportunities?
I started developing Born In Damascus during the first lockdown in 2020 when restrictions meant we couldn’t see friends or family. It was a really difficult time and I realised that this was not the first time my family have been in this situation. When the war in Syria began, my extended family became fractured and displaced around the world. I decided to use the time I gained in lockdown to develop a film about this distance, focusing on my relationship with my cousin, Lujain.
You studied for your MA in Directing Documentary at the National Film and Television School, how did this experience help you on your filmmaking journey and would his be a course you would recommend to any aspiring documentary filmmaker?
I would absolutely recommend the MA in Directing Documentary at the National Film and Television School to an aspiring documentary maker. It is such a comprehensive course and I learned so much in the two years I was there. Peter Dale is an incredible course leader and all of our guest tutors made such an impact on me and the way I work. Throughout my time there I had the opportunity to work with editors, sound designers and composers - I am very grateful that my long-term collaborators Ruth Knight (sound designer) and Harry Brokensha (composer) who I met and worked with at the NFTS, also worked on Born In Damascus.
Born in Damascus made its World Premiere at the 2021 Edinburgh International Film Festival and you're going to make your International Premiere in the Generation 14Plus section at Berlinale 2022, how does it feel to be part of such an amazing line-up of films?
It feels incredible to be part of such a great line-up of films, I am really proud of this film and my team. We are all so honoured that Born In Damascus is being recognised by great festivals like Edinburgh and Berlinale.
Can you tell me a little bit about how Born in Damascus came about, did you have any apprehensions about making such a personal film?
As I mentioned before, I started making this film during the pandemic. As restrictions meant that people were unable to see their loved ones, I realised that this has been the reality for my family for a very long time. Since the war in Syria began, my family has been involuntarily separated by war and displaced around the world. I wanted to make a film which captures this and explores how distance has affected my relationship with my closest cousin, Lujain, as we reconnect online. I grew up in Scotland but spent many holidays in Syria – these are treasured memories, and I was very close with my family there, especially my cousin, Lujain.
I did have some apprehensions about making such a personal film - I have made personal films before about my family but I’ve never put so much of myself into them. It initially felt very daunting but as time went on, I began to enjoy the process and realised that it gave me a new freedom to explore different themes and nuances.
"I would love to see my grandmother who is still living in Damascus and I wish my dad was able to see his family, most of them he hasn’t seen in over ten years."
Since you are both filmmaker and subject on this documentary was it challenging to remain objective or were you able to find a good balance?
It was a bit of a struggle to remain objective at first, I found it difficult to view myself as a subject while directing and especially editing. However, I found a good balance through the collaborations I had with my team. When I started working with Maya Hawke, my editing consultant, I was able to take a step back and view the film through her eyes. Working with her was a really invaluable experience and I learned so much from her about making brave creative choices. There is an art to editing a personal film and I appreciate the time she spent guiding me on this journey. I am also grateful to have worked with Charlotte Hailstone (Hailstone Films) who produced the film. From the beginning she encouraged me to put myself in the film and not shy away from sharing my voice.
Would you say you were able to gain some answers and possible resolution to some of the questions you had for making Born in Damascus?
In some ways yes, I do think I gained the resolution I was looking for but in another sense I feel like making the film has brought up new questions for me. Reconnecting with Lujain and talking about our memories together in Syria, made me realise that there is so much about the situation I hadn’t considered. I have always been trying to understand if the repercussions of war are the reason for the lack of communication between members of my family, but now I think there’s more to it that I would like to explore. I would love to see my grandmother who is still living in Damascus and I wish my dad was able to see his family, most of them he hasn’t seen in over ten years. It was hard to make this film and come to the realisation that all of us may never be in the same room again.
Do you think filmmakers should continue to push the boundaries of the films/stories they want to tell?
Yes, of course. The most memorable films for me are the ones that have been daring and brave, not just in terms of the story they are telling but how much the filmmaker has thrown themselves into it. For me, that’s why I especially enjoy watching personal films. There is nothing more interesting to me than watching a film about someone else’s family and I can only hope that people feel the same when they watch this film about my family.
Have you always had a passion for documentary filmmaking?
When I was a young teenager, I originally wanted to make fiction films and did not see the appeal of making or watching documentaries. It seems strange to say that now as an avid lover of documentaries but It wasn’t until I made my first short documentary that I realised how powerful and all consuming they were. When I was about 17 years old, I decided to make a film about my Scottish grandfather who served in the Korean War. Through the process of making Saved by Shrapnel, I really got to know my grandfather in a different way. I learned that he had suffered with PTSD for most of his life and we bonded over the experience of making the film. My continued journey into documentary filmmaking came from a conversation I had with him - he said; “You should use your filmmaking to help people”. That really stuck with me and is still one of the main things that motivates me. He said I should try to make a film about my cousins in Syria, but I didn’t think it was possible because I couldn’t go there. I started recording phone calls and Skype interviews with my family and looking out all our old home video archive. The process of making my second film Flight began there and ultimately led to me making Born In Damascus ten years later.
Is there any advice you would offer someone wanting to get into filmmaking?
I think my advice for anyone who wants to start making films is to start close to home, make a film about someone you know or would like to know better. I would also say don’t worry about everything being perfect or right - I have learned so much through the process of creating and learning from my mistakes. I think you should be comfortable with making mistakes and not getting it completely right the first time. I also think it’s good to know why you are making the film you’re making. I’ve felt the most lost when I’ve gone into a film without fully understanding the reasons behind making it—if you can’t articulate it before you pick up a camera you need to develop it more. But mostly, trust your instincts!
And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from Born in Damascus?
There have been so many films made about the situation in Syria and a lot of media coverage. One of the main things I hope an audience will get from my film is a personal perspective – an insight into how my family have been affected. I hope that when people watch the film they feel immersed and leave with a better understanding of how war continues to disrupt the lives of people impacted, families separated and involuntarily estranged from their loved ones. People often talk about the immediate displacement that comes with war and not how long-lasting the trauma is that comes with it.