With his moving new documentary “The Wind Of Al-Amal” following several refugees from Iraq in the US, director Fredric Lean offers a completely different perspective about this monstrous war. Smartly using the textures of b roll and gorgeous animation, Mr. Lean takes us on an “edge-of-your-seat” journey. By the end, you really want to join the freedom fighters of democracy anywhere around the globe!
Emmanuel Itier: This is a very compelling film. You’re French with Italian & Sicilian roots. You’re not Iraqi..and you’re not an American. So why this for your directorial debut?
Fredric Lean: Good question! I am still wondering myself. More seriously, this is not a film about Iraq or the war per se. It is neither a documentary/news report type of film nor a political or intellectual analysis. These films can be found on television. I wanted to tell the story differently. I wanted to do a film from a human perspective, especially from a refugee’s point of view without having a voice-over telling us why or what we are looking at.
The idea for this project came very simply. Back in 2007, I was looking for a story that talks about immigration: the feeling of abandonment and loss, and about exiles who rebound and start a new life from scratch. [This is sometimes] by force or by choice, [but it is] finally about hope for a new beginning. [This is] something that my family went through but it is nothing as dramatic as what Iraqi people have been going through over the last decades.
I had many different ideas about the film. The main one for “The Wind of Al-Amal” became clear back in late 2007 [when] I had a conversation about refugees and immigration with a girl I was dating at the time. She was working for an important Think Tank in Washington D.C and she told me the type of humanitarian crisis she was working on, which was the Iraqi Refugee Crisis. I asked her “What Iraqi refugee crisis?!” I mean I knew there were Iraqis fleeing Iraq mainly because of the sectarian violence but I had not realized, at the time, the nature of this crisis, and that it had become the largest refugee crisis in the world since 1948. There very little media coverage in the West talking about it at the time.
So I decided to investigate more and I read everything I could find on the subject. Very quickly it became apparent that I had to make a film about it. All I had to do after all this research was to find my characters and a way to tell a compelling narrative story which reflected the situation and my vision for the film. One thing I was sure of was that I did not want to do an analytical film about the Iraq war but rather focus on universal human stories from the perspectives of the refugees themselves.
EI: In your film, you have 3 main storylines with a lot of interviews intercut between them. Was difficult to find a balance in the editing room?
FL: One thing you can be sure of when you’re trying to film real people in their daily lives is that you can expect only the unexpected. I don’t see how a documentary filmmaker could plan sequences or scenes while filming real people in their natural environment and still give a feeling of spontaneity and honesty in the interviews. If they can, great. But that is not was I was looking for. I wanted to make a film in a style we call in NY: “Guerrilla Filmmaking”. GF is very challenging but somehow gives a lot of flexibility and freedom. Basically, you film on the spot with whatever means you have at hand, using mostly natural light, one camera (handheld for the most part) with no crew, no budget, etc. I guess you’d call it in French: “à l’arraché” [“the snatch”]. (laughs)
EI: How challenging was it to be a one person crew?
FL: To be a one man-band is very challenging. I shot maybe 70% or 80% of what you see in the film myself – except for the part in Iraq and for one interview. I had to be constantly aware of many aspects at the same time: visuals, sounds, light, timing for the tapes, and, most importantly the interviews. I had to listen very carefully at the answers of the interviewees so I could create a flow like we were having a private conversation. Following people with a camera in their daily activities was easier for me for some reasons. However, the sitting interviews, especially with texperts like Chomsky, Denis Halliday, or the journalist Patrick Cockburn, I was afraid they were going to kick me out if I had shown I was not giving them my full attention since they are so used to the interview exercise.
EI: What was your experience like interviewing the refugees?
FL: One of the most challenging- was the interviews with [the woman] Alaa. Every time I interviewed her, it quickly became very emotional. Many times I wanted to stop to give her some private moments [because] I felt awkward. She was the one who wanted to keep going and was apologetic for breaking down.
EI: How did you find your Iraqi subjects in the US, and was it difficult to convince them to be interviewed?
FL: It was actually very difficult. People have to realize that the Iraqis who fled Iraq [did so] because of the sudden violence as a consequence of the invasion. [These people] went through a lot of trauma. A lot of Iraqis, once they re-settle in another country, just want to turn the page and start anew. But for others, they are afraid to talk because part of their family is still in Iraq and might become a target if they speak out.
Most of the people I had the chance to meet declined to be filmed. They were very nice and happy to answer questions as long as their names and pictures were not shown. I was very fortunate to meet Laith, Alaa, Haider,and the others (Farhan, Ehab, Oded) who generously agreed to participate in the film. I am very grateful to them for doing so.
EI: What about them attracted you in their personal stories?
FL: The first person I met was Laith, who is a terrific and very funny guy. A good writer too. We have a lot in common. When he told me his story, I realized he was not a refugee but rather an exiled countryman by choice like me. His family: his parents and two brothers (who then lived in Baghdad) were forced to leave after receiving deaths threats. This was something which I could relate to because of my family’s history. My parents are Italian and French. My father as well as his brothers and his sisters were born and raised in Tunisia with Italian parents. When violence erupted in North Africa in the late 50s, my grandparents and their children had to leave everything behind: their house, their business, etc…and started from scratch in France.
Going back to Laith, the thing that especially interested me in him was the way he talked about his family and about their connection. He is a very protective son and brother and he loves them dearly. When I started to interview him, I sensed that he not only feared for their safety (even though they were in Jordan or in Lebanon or Syria in a safe area) but also he felt somehow powerless and frustrated he could not be there with them as much as he would have wished. It is not easy to travel in the Middle East with an Iraqi passport.
I could see how this affected him as a young man in Baghdad during the Iran-Iraq war and then during the First Gulf War. But he never really showed [that side] to me. He kept a certain discretion about his past. That’s the side of him I personally related to the most. When he thought he was safe in the US, he had a very unique experience with the World Trade Center and the attack on September 11th. With all he had experienced, I felt there were a theme of “‘getting into a safety zone” that I needed to develop for the film which I could personally relate to.
By Emmanuel Itier