The Art of Moving follows the members of Daya Al-Taesh, a Syrian comedic video-activist group. Due to threats by ISIS, they must leave their beloved homeland for Turkey where they plan to continue to produce their show and broadcast their message. They struggle to find peace and stability in this new place and must make some major decisions about their work, their families, their lives and their activism. The film is directed by German filmmaker Liliana Marinho de Sousa, who stood by Daya Al-Taesh’s side throughout the storm in order to document their incredible work. We had the opportunity to ask Liliana a few questions about her career and her experience making this film.
Arab Film and Media Institute: I understand that The Art of Moving is your first feature film. How did you first get into filmmaking?
Liliana Marinho de Sousa: I studied social work in Germany and was working for a few years as a social worker with minor refugees, deprived youngsters and women. After a while I also started to work as a freelancer in a media educational association where we supported young people in telling their own stories through films. There I was also involved in producing documentary films for a youth audience and started to love the genre of documentary storytelling. In order to develop my skills more deeply and to explore innovative ways of narration and styles in documentary films, I decided again to study cinema. That’s how I came into filmmaking.
AFMI: Could you tell us a little more about what Daya Al-Taesh is and how you first discovered them?
LM: I was volunteering for a documentary film association in Istanbul in 2014 and got in contact with filmmakers and activists from Syria who were exiled in Istanbul. I was impressed by their strength and pragmatism, as they were still engaged in the Syrian revolution from exile on the one hand and on the other hand they were facing lots of problems in their daily lives in Turkey while trying to settle down there.
Although it’s not easy at all in being refugee in Turkey, they kept on being pragmatic, funny and trying to deal with all kind of issues through humour. I was really impressed by their strategies in dealing with all kind of challenges.
I started to notice that there was a vibrant and growing scene of exiled activists in Istanbul and decided to make a film about it. At that time I didn’t know Daya Al-Taseh at all.
But a collegue from the Guardian told me about this group as she once reported about them and put us in contact. At that time Daya Al-Taseh was still based in southeastern Turkey, Gaziantep. So I went there to meet them and instantly fell in love with them and their stories. Daya Al-Taseh was already facing lots of problems in Gaziantep because of daily threats and they were living a very discrete and hidden life. They were shooting their sketches in a hidden farm and were constantly thinking of moving away from Gaziantep. So I was really happy when they accepted to welcome me and we finally met in Gaziantep.
After our first meeting everything went quite quickly. I sent them a small video cam and asked them to record themselves as I wasn’t in Gaziantep anymore to follow them. And a few weeks later they already called me as they were on their way to Istanbul… There the real shooting process started.
AFMI: What in particular drew you to their story? What made you want to document it?
LM: There were a lot of factors drawing me to their story. First of all, despite their work, I was feeling personally attached to my protagonists and the humour they were using on a daily life basis. Furthermore I was attached to their satirical and creative work they were producing although having little resources and being threatened day by day.
I felt their serious risk in producing satirical videos about ISIS very much and asked myself, if I want to take on the risk in doing a film about this group.
But at the same time I felt a big desire to support them in their work. They were totally aware of the risks and dealing with them seriously. So they were facing different obstacles on different levels: being a refugee in Turkey is not easy, being an activist refugee in Turkey is even more difficult, being a Syrian video activist in Turkey producing satirical videos about ISIS will definitively bring you into trouble. So I was impressed by so many things…their personalities, their courage and smartness, their humor, their strength to keep on with their dangerous work and that all in a insecure political environment, in a dramatically changing country like Turkey.
My protagonists were so young and far away from their families and left on their own. They kept on saying that Daya Al-Taseh is their family and were supporting themselves in any way they could. But besides the group “Daya Al-Taseh” I directly felt that their diverse characters and friendship could be also a leading narrative in the film. They were also trying to settle down and make their private lifes stable somehow. So we all were expecting that challenges would keep coming up and continue in Istanbul… but also open new doors for even more creative and artistic work.
AFMI: Comedy is a prominent form of activism worldwide. Why do you think activist and political comedy is important? Does comedy offer any advantages over other forms of activism?
LM: The protagonists and me used to talk a lot about borders of comedy dealing with serious topics and why it’s important to keep on doing comedy. Also Maen, my protagonist, talks openly about it in the film. He suffers so much under the horrible developments in Syria and the Middle East and seriously asks himself how he can keep on encountering tragedies with comedy. But ISIS uses strategies of fear and threats to oppress people and try to impose a form of Islam which most of the Muslims and non-Muslims in this world don’t believe in! So one way to defeat them is to make fun about them and to highlight the contradictions between ISIS ideology and their methods, to reveal how absurd their ideologies are. It’s an attempt to reduce the online influence of terror groups like ISIS and to offer some kind of counter-terrorism program which is entertaining and funny at the same time. We were also sure that social influencers like Daya Al-Taseh, who are from the targeted regions themselves and with Muslim background, were exactly the right ones to create videos and to counter the narrative of these extremist groups. They are definitively much better suited to reach semi-undecided ISIS supporters who are on the edge to decide whether to join ISIS or not. Daya Al-Taseh already had a big audience at that time and reached thousands of people online through their funny videos, much more than other educational or international governmental programs did at that time. So they were very successful in reaching a wide audience and were constantly developing on a professional level. They kept on saying that they are Muslims and that they cannot accept the picture of Islam that ISIS is trying to impose. They kept on saying that Islam is peaceful and that they see themselves as having a duty to promote this. But nevertheless, they were constantly desperate on a personal level but anyway found a way to keep on being active and to continue with their satirical work.
AFMI: Did you ever run into any major issues during the production of this film, especially considering the sensitive nature of what you were following?
LM: There were lots of major issues during the production of this film. The crew consisted of Syrian and Turkish filmmakers, involving translators, location scouts, DOPs, sound technicians and so on. But all the Syrian team members were themselves trying to leave Turkey and to head to Europe. So after a few weeks, most of the Syrian team members were gone. So we had to shoot without translators and sound technicians after a while, which made the production process quite complicated. Furthermore it wasn’t easy finding a balance between shooting Daya Al-Taseh for the film and supporting them on a personal basis. After a while we became friends and I was feeling so sorry for them when things turned out more and more difficult.
But on the other hand I had to keep on shooting with them in order to tell their stories. So in the darkest times I tried to be there with them and to shoot. I think it was very hard for them sometimes as they weren’t feeling in a good mood and feeling disturbed by the camera. But I guess when they started to trust me more and more, they just thought of letting go and ignored the camera.
Actually the protagonists were always doubting that this film would be an interesting documentary film. They were always saying, “we are not the only ones suffering and they are many more suffering more than us and our lives are very boring, so why are you shooting us!?” I kept on explaining that I am sure that their stories will definitively be thrilling for a wider audience and that the audience will be happy to follow them in the film.
AFMI: What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
LM: My main aim was to target prejudices about refugees and especially Arab refugees. I was annoyed by the daily media coverage and usual prejudice, including populist and right-wing movements in Germany and everywhere. The media report about refugees a lot by using statistics and numbers and draw a picture of passive, faceless victims without personal voices. It’s just too abstract and people who are not connected to the issue will probably not feel personally involved at all.
But if you can tell stories about young people in a global world who face injustice and trouble in complex situations, you might reach the audience on another level. They might feel more connected to the protagonists and their stories on a personal basis and stop differentiating between “us and them”. They might feel that the protagonists connect to them on a humanistic and universal way, despite any regional and cultural differences. That’s actually one of the aspects I love the most by doing documentary films, it’s a wonderful chance of using documentary storytelling.
AFMI: Are there any updates from Daya Al-Taesh and/or other people in the film? [spoiler alert!]
LM: Daya Al-Taseh members are still separated form each other but keep on with their common work. Aya and Maen are now based in Europe and settled down there. They started to work on different activist media platforms but also keep active in their work for Daya Al-Taseh from abroad and support Youssef, who is still based in Istanbul.
Also Mohammad reentered Daya Al-Taseh after leaving it for a few months. So Youssef and him and some other new members in Istanbul keep on shooting sketches and series in different formats, with a special focus on online and social media distribution. All of them are doing well so far and feel much more stable and settled right now. This was quite important in order to continue with their media work. We keep in touch and also met for several screenings at different film festivals in Turkey and Europe. I hope they can keep on with their work as they wish to grow the team, to establish a bigger production and to reach a wider audience. So all kind of support is still welcome!