Now on Netflix: CMC graduates’ documentary shows human toll of Syrian refugee crisis
Chris Temple ’12 and Zach Ingrasci ’12 didn’t waste time following their passion after graduating from CMC. That passion was making a film that conveyed an important message, and the two CMCers have succeeded brilliantly with a deeply empathetic documentary that sheds light on one of the world’s most pressing humanitarian crises – the plight of thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled their war-torn country and crossed the border into Jordan.
Their movie Salam Neighbor (“Hello Neighbor”) documents the filmmakers' month-long stay in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp, which is home to 85,000 Syrians displaced by the four-year war. The camp lies seven miles from the Syrian border, and Temple and Ingrasci were the first outsiders allowed by the United Nations to set up a tent inside a refugee camp.
The movie was released globally on Netflix on June 20, which also happened to be “World Refugee Day.” According to the filmmakers, Salam Neighbor is just one component of a three-part project focused on the Syrian refugee crisis, which, along with the documentary, includes a virtual reality film and a social impact campaign.
Temple and Ingrasci say that the world is facing a critical moment, with more refugees today than have existed at any time in the last 100 years. More than 4.8 million people alone have fled Syria to escape the violence and the country is at risk of losing an entire generation of youth to the war, further destabilizing the region and perpetuating the cycle of violence and poverty.
We caught up with Temple and Ingrasci, who both majored in international relations, to talk about their film.
CMC: What inspired you to direct and produce this movie against what seemed to be great odds of even getting into the Za’atari camp?
Zach: This has been a three-year journey making this film. We were first inspired in 2013 when Chris and I were living in a 1978 school bus with our fellow Living on One founders Hannah Gregg (CMC ’12) and Sean Kusanagi. We were traveling the U.S. with our first feature documentary Living on One Dollar and met our soon-to-be fellow producer Salam Darwaza, the daughter of Palestinian refugees, in Manhattan Beach. Her story, as the daughter of Palestinian refugees, inspired us to try and show a different side of the Syrian refugee crisis from what we were seeing in the news. We ended up joining up with her and Mohab Khattab from 1001 Media to create a team that was equal parts Arab and American. Together we felt more prepared to approach such a complicated issue.
CMC: Did you have a documentary film model in mind when you did this?
Zach: We were excited about making a film that showed a dialogue, not just single-sided monologues, between Americans and Syrians. If three Americans were OK living in an 85,000-person Syrian refugee camp, hopefully we could counteract some of the fear we were seeing on the news. Beyond that basic principle, we had very little idea of what this piece would look like in the end. Originally, it was supposed to be a short film, but once we looked at the footage, we knew there was a powerful feature-length story to be told. Our work is influenced by so many artists on our team and outside it. The documentary world is an exciting place right now. Some of our favorite filmmakers like Alma Har’el (Bombay Beach), Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land) and Michael Moore (so many!) inspire us and are really pushing the boundaries.
CMC: What particular camp story affected you the most?
Zach: Every single person living in this camp had a story that would break your heart but also fill it with hope. Ismail’s story really hit home with me because I could so easily see myself in him. He was in college, had serious career goals, and he even looks a lot like my dad! The major difference was that he had no choice but to flee his home and his country.
CMC: What are your thoughts about this film being released so close on the heels of the tragedy in Orlando?
Chris: It’s in these moments, when we’re especially vulnerable to fear and to hatred, that we need to make sure we’re not misdirecting our blame; to make sure we remember that Syrian families are fleeing these same types of horrors, daily. The actions of single individuals do not define a race, gender or religion, and if we begin to think that they do, we give up on the principles that make us American.
CMC: Have you kept in touch with Raouf, Um Ali, Ghoussoon and the others since coming back to the U.S.?
Chris: Amazingly, we’ve been able to keep in close contact with everyone from the camp using WhatsApp and Facebook. Syria was a predominantly middle-class society that was incredibly well-connected. Given the personal nature of the film, thankfully, our friends have been a big part of shaping their own stories. We also traveled back to the camp in 2015 to show everyone the film before we shared it more broadly on TV and on Netflix. It’s heartbreaking to see how little has changed since we left. On average, refugees are stuck in camps or displaced for 17 years, often with little access to work or freedom of movement. The best update from the trip though, was getting to see that our 12-year-old friend Raouf was back in school after three years without education.
CMC: What do you hope happens to viewers who see this movie … what do you want them to leave with?
Chris: Our primary goal is to change minds by redefining how the world looks at refugees. The film offers an intimate look into the lives of Syrians to build empathy and recognize that refugees are just like you and me. They can be productive assets to society if just given the opportunity. They are also the ones who will rebuild Syria one day, so not only is it morally right to help now, but it will be cheaper to the international community in the long term if we invest in their potential now.
CMC: What you are doing with your organization Livingonone.org?
Chris: Our production company, Living on One, combines immersive storytelling with tangible social action campaigns. Our first feature film, Living on One Dollar, demonstrated the success of this approach, amassing millions of views and also raising over $500,000 directly for the community and for microfinance loans. To implement these programs, we partnered with two organizations to ensure that any and all donations go directly to the needs on the ground, not to us as the filmmakers. We’ve now replicated that model with Salam Neighbor, and are raising money to help support the work of the IRC, Save the Children, and the UN Refugee Agency. In both feature films so far, we’ve built incredible friendships with the communities in which we film, and as such, continue to film and follow their stories. We’ve released a short film, Rosa: These Storms, which follows the story of the main character of Living on One Dollar over a five-year period.
We will continue to share updates and stories on our website and across social media. Moving forward, we have a number of projects and ideas in the works to continue creating impact-driven films and series to challenge misconceptions and change minds. Luckily we have an incredible group of advisors who help us navigate this space, including a number of CMC alumni: David Doss '75, Mike Lang '87, Jeff Klein '75, and Harry McMahon '75.
CMC: What are your future plans with the movie?
Chris: The film launches on Netflix on June 20, World Refugee Day, in 21 languages around the world. This is the most important moment in the film’s life cycle and an opportunity to create tangible change. In addition to seeing the film, we ask people to fund-raise, volunteer or sign petitions to show their support of refugees. To date, we’ve collected over 250,000 petitions from individuals who want to ensure that education is funded in humanitarian emergencies. In May, these petitions were presented at the World Humanitarian Summit to global leaders, and $90 million was pledged to the Education Cannot Wait Fund.
You can see more in our impact report and in this blog. We will continue to share the film to drive action around this crisis until tangible change has been made. It is currently the world’s worst humanitarian disaster and will take a comprehensive and long-term approach to saving and rebuilding lives. On the education side, we are also using the film to build out a national curriculum based on Common Core standards that will be releasing in combination with the Connecticut Association of Schools beginning in the fall of 2016.
CMC: What was the hardest hurdle to overcome when making the movie – financing, getting permission to visit the camp, or overcoming prejudices that some of the refugees might have harbored when you were there?
Zach: Although it was a concern before going to the camp, we never felt much prejudice or anger towards us as American citizens. There was frustration with our government and with the West. People often mentioned President Obama’s “Red Line,” and asked why the world won’t stop the tragedies in Syria, but the people there were able to separate us as individuals from the actions of our government. In many ways this was probably a result of how disenfranchised they felt from their own government. Never once in the camp did we feel threatened or at risk. In many ways, the hardest moment of the trip was leaving after a month and knowing that on average our refugee neighbors will spend 17 years displaced and living inside of camps – living with their lives on pause, looking for any outlet to find purpose again. There was an immense guilt that we both felt when we came back to the U.S. But the best cure for guilt is action, and thankfully we had the film as an outlet into which to channel our frustration.
With over 250 hours of footage, it took us over a year of working full time to edit and create the film. It was seemingly endless, with over 50 rough cuts before we locked picture. Again, thankfully we had the support of our incredible team; producers, editors, composers, sound designers, colorists, and advisors to make the film come to life. It really takes a family and we couldn’t be more thankful for the community that CMC gave us. Our close friends from the class of 2012 still continue to support us and challenge us every day.