Oscar-nominated documentary short film director Daphne Matziaraki knows how prescient her film about Syrian refugees is — now that President Donald Trump has signed a travel ban.
“These people do not want to leave their homes,” she said of her time filming “4.1 Miles.” “They do not want to go to Europe. They do not want to go to America. They have no other option because they are on this fine line between life and death, and these are the people who are not allowed to come into this country,” she told TheWrap’s Steve Pond at our Screening Series event in which the filmmakers behind this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Documentary Short spoke.
Their films cover topics like education, healthcare, and the Middle East; issues that have become hot button topics thanks to the new Republican-controlled government in Washington. As part of TheWrap’s Screening Series, all five nominated filmmakers discussed how the rise of Donald Trump and the GOP has quickly given the stories they tell new context.
For one movie, Trump has had a direct impact on the people responsible for making it. “The White Helmets,” a Netflix doc directed by Orlando von Einsiedel, embeds itself with a team of volunteer rescue workers from the Syrian Civil Defense, who are tasked with rescuing civilians from collapsed buildings in Aleppo after Russian bombings. Due to the potential danger, Einsiedel and his team only filmed interviews and the Helmets’ training exercises near the border. The footage of the team in action in Aleppo was actually filmed by the Helmets themselves. After learning of their Oscar nomination, Einsiedel had hoped to bring the rescuers featured in the film to America to tell their story. Trump’s travel ban brought an end to that.
“Within 36 hours, this new executive order came into place, so of course that was incredibly disappointing for them,” Einsiedel said. “I talk about it because it was an incredibly lost opportunity for America… The voices of people from other parts of the world, especially places like Syria, is so important at the moment to bridge misunderstanding. The message of compassion and dignity which the White Helmets embody is such an important message, and it’s such a shame that they won’t be able to share it with everybody.”
Einsiedel was joined on the panel by fellow directors Matziaraki (“4.1 Miles”), Marcel Mettelsiefen (“Watani: My Homeland”), Dan Krauss (“Extremis”), and Kahane Cooperman, along with producer Raphaela Neihausen (“Joe’s Violin”).
“The White Helmets” is just one of three films on the nominee list that approaches the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis. “4.1 Miles” tells the story of a Greek coast guard captain who patrols the Aegean Sea to save those fleeing Syria on the dangerous trek into Europe. “Watani: My Homeland” shows the struggle of the refugees who do make it into Europe by following three children who start a new life in Germany after their father, Syrian rebel commander Abu Ali, was captured by ISIS.
Mettelsiefen said that a major reason why he made “Watani” was to show a story about Muslims that could counter the violent images from the Middle East that dominate the news cycle.
“The only story that is coming out right now is bearded men chopping off heads,” he said. “This is dictating an entire narrative for an entire religion…Xenophobia and social divide and hate and fear is what’s happening all around the world and it’s exactly these people — children, families, women — who have been leaving and escaping this very danger from the Islamic State…and they are now denied entry into several parts of the world because they are identified with the monster that has been created.”
Joining these films on the nominee list are “Extremis,” Dan Krauss’ observational look into the tough decisions surrounding end-of-life care in an intensive care unit, and “Joe’s Violin,” an uplifting tale of a violin that changes hands from Polish Holocaust survivor Joe Feingold to 12-year-old Brianna Perez, who is learning how to play violin at the Bronx Learning Institute for Girls in New York.
Though “Joe’s Violin” is the most cheery of the five contenders, Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen said that even they felt that their work has been given new context by Trump’s presidency. Neihausen said that both she and Cooperman are first generation immigrants, as are the subjects of their film.
“Making this film just really affirms…what is this country about? What are our shared values?” Neihausen said. “It became so imperative [to show] what an arts education gives to a young person in this country. It’s astounding how these lives are changed by learning music. A simple thing changes lives.”
Cooperman noted the final scene in her film, when Joe and Brianna say their goodbyes. She noted that the scene shows Joe, a Polish immigrant, climbing into an Uber car with an American flag on it. Cooperman explained that a large percentage of the Uber drivers in New York are also immigrants.
“At the time, it was such a typical sight I didn’t think anything of it,” she said. “But as soon as the election happened, I was watching it at a screening and thought, ‘Wow, an immigrant is driving another immigrant away from a school where he just had a bond with this Dominican girl.'”
Krauss agreed that following Trump’s election, “all films have been reframed” and encouraged the audience to read Dan Schoenbrun’s essay for Filmmaker Magazine titled “All Movies are Political Movies.”
“It made the point that every movie from the most benign animation to the most overt political film…everything we contribute to our cultural fabric matters,” he said. “And I think that as filmmakers we feel that responsibility more than ever before. I think that one of our primary responsibilities as storytellers is to imbue that dialogue with empathy and respect in a way that we’re not experiencing right now.”
All the Oscar nominated short films in the live action, animated, and documentary categories are arriving in theaters for a limited time starting this Friday. Click here to find a screening near you.