For director Megan Mylan’s Simple as Water, which follows far-flung Syrian refugees as they strive to maintain their familial bonds in the aftermath of war, the filmmaker said she relied on an exhaustive casting process that involved building trust with her subjects.
“We spent lots and lots of time identifying which families would want to participate, because that’s key for this observational style,” Mylan said during the HBO movie’s panel at Deadline’s Contenders Film: Documentary, where she was joined by producer Robin Hessman and co-producer Hazem Obid. “They have to welcome us in, and they choose how many layers they reveal, so those relationships were really fundamental.”
“When we set out to figure out the casting, what would be the family’s vignettes and what were the layers of this experience that we wanted to include, it was an extensive pre-production of many, many conversations,” Mylan said. “The first round of those conversations were with Syrians who had gone through this themselves. Half of Syria was forced to flee, and the advantage for our film in that horror is that there were Syrians in all of the countries that we were filming in, many of whom were stuck there themselves…or had gone as refugees and we’re working on citizenship.”
Mylan’s crew combined a “wonderful constellation” of Syrian and American filmmakers and journalists to explore as many nuances of the families’ experiences as possible.
“We had two Syrian co-producers who worked across stories, and then field producers in each of the countries who I often would pair with a freelance journalist,” the filmmaker explained. “They would just go out and meet families with our having given the…not exactly character sketches, but what are the through-lines of children taking on adult responsibility or flipping gender norms, parents and children separated, and start building relationships and building trust – that’s the only way you can make intimate documentaries like this.”
As for the documentary’s title, Mylan revealed that it came from a collection of Syrian poetry titled Simple as Water, Clear as a Bullet. “One of our Syrian advisors had shared that with me, and what resonated for me in it was sort of the elemental and primal nature and power of water that, to me, echoes parental love – the sort of instincts I feel towards my own child,” she said. “It’s so elemental and so organic, so that felt like it fit.”
Check out the panel video above.
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