An elegant and insightful blend of childlike art, music and observation helps elevate Vida Dena’s documentary My Paper Life (Ma vie en papier) to something rather special, and helps deliver a thoughtful and warm look into the thoughts, memories and present-day realities for a Syrian family who have escaped the war and are now living in Belgium.
Iranian filmmaker Dena is also an immigrant in Brussels and was part of an audiovisual multicultural collective, made up of immigrants from Iran, Italy, Portugal and Ecuador. In 2016, they organised a storytelling workshop for newcomers and there she met Naseem (then aged 35) a Syrian refugee who had recently escaped war together with his family.
As she says:” At the workshop, each person was asked to tell their story. As not everyone had learned French at that point, I decided that we should draw instead. Naseem, who was there alone, drew images of the war. One was of a tank, and on the tank he had drawn the flag of Iran, my country. When he showed me the drawing I felt embarrassed and I apologised. That was the start of our friendship. The next day he invited me to his house and I met his family. “
She spent time in the family small flat – a place with pink walls where there were issues with humidity and heating and yet which they tried to keep tidy and make a warm and welcoming space – and after meeting Naseem’s children and his wife, they decided that we would make a film together. “Naseem wanted it to be a message to the world, to see the consequences of escaping from war, and the struggle of integrating in a new context,” she said.
Dena filmed over a three year period from 2018 to 2020, with the children growing and the family chatting and cooking together, always with a television on in the background offering news about Syria. There is special focus on teenage sisters Hala and Rima as they sit, draw and colour their drawings. Sprawled on the carpet, the girls also talk about their memories of life back home, of the war and how they escaped, and also smilingly discuss their dreams for a new life.
The colourful, almost childlike, drawings – of tanks, homes, people, bodies and eventual escape – are also charmingly animated to help give additional resonance to the family’s story, and given extra emotional heft thanks to lovely music from Noma Omran, the exiled Syrian singer and composer. The drawings also help the family recall pre-war smells and family moments as well as visual memories.
At one point early on Hala says: ”When they start talking about Syria I feel like I’ll always be the foreigner, that I’ll never have a country or a life, a country of my own, with origins. You know because I feel like I’ll always stay a foreigner.”
The sisters talk about plans for the future – Hala wants to go to Oxford University and be a doctor, a singer…or a flight attendant, while more pragmatic Rima mentions being a cook or a hairdresser – and as the film develops the two also talk about getting engaged and married. While planning a wedding dance they watch a video on a mobile phone of a beautiful bride dancing to Ed Sheeran’s Perfect.
Their toddler brother is initially seen playing amidst the coloured pens, but as he grows he graduates to standing and drawing on freshly painted walls…his contribution to the family’s artistic vision of their life, though his images carry no memory of Syria.
Through shared food preparation and communal drawing sessions this warm, tender and supportive family offers a gentle but also insightful illustration of refugee life. Their memories may well include warfare and death, but their family life is nurturing and loving despite the conditions they have to live in, with Vida Dena’s film allowing a unique way of looking back to moments suspended in time in these coloured paper images.
Belgium-France-Iran, 2022, 80mins
Dir: Vida Dena
Production: Clin d'oeil films, Les Films du Bilboquet
International sales: CAT&Docs
Producers: Hanne Phlypo, Eugénie Michel-Villette
Cinematography: Vida Dena
Editor: Lenka Fillnerova, Frédéric Fichefet, Sophie Vercruysse
Music: Noma Omran
With: Rima Alabdallah, Hala Alabdallah, Naseem Alabdallah, Thurayya Alabdallah, Khadafi Alabdallah, Hamoudi Alabdallah, Omar Alabdallah
(First published in Business Doc Europe)