BBC Arabic Festival: Director Leen Alfaisal On Diaspora And Her Award-Winning Film ‘The Borrowed Dress’

The Borrowed Dress follows three generations from one family forced to leave their home and become dispersed around the world after fleeing the war in Syria. Despite the painful separation, they remain united by one desire, to be together and to return home.

In her award-winning debut feature documentary, Leen Alfaisal recounts these personal journeys. “It all started when the last person in our big family was going to be relocated to Norway,’ she says. “After that, I would have no family left in Syria. I felt compelled to document that last journey, in addition to the journey of the first returning member of the family to Syria. The heartbreak I felt every time one member of the family was located so far from the rest of us is the main reason I decided to make the film.” With barely any time and budget, Leen Alfaisal relied on help from a couple of universities to lend her equipment, so she could start capturing her story.

The documentary will be screened on 23 March 2019 at 5pm as part of the fifth BBC Arabic Festival (@BBCArabicFest). The festival will take place in the iconic art-deco Radio Theatre at BBC’s Broadcasting House in central London between 22-27 March 2019. Free tickets for the film are available here.

Q: This is your first feature, but I believe you came into it somewhat spontaneously and had to plan along the way. Can you tell us about the moment you decided to make this film?

A: I had been having weekly brainstorming sessions with my producer, Sarah Hassan. I was already searching for a way to tell the story of my family’s struggle, which deeply changed me. But I had no idea I’d have to start working on it this soon.

When the youngest of my aunts and uncles was accepted by the UN to be relocated to Norway, it was impossible not to see that this was my film. My producer and I jumped at the first chance given to us. I remember we were at her place and we knew we didn’t have time for pre-production, so we agreed to plan the first urgent shoot, and go back to the proper planning later.

Q: The film follows three members your  family – Susu (80 years old), Duaa (50) and Saad (16) – as they deal with the displacement caused by the Syrian civil war. Can you talk about the issue of diaspora?

A: The family – my family – featured in The Borrowed Dress documentary did not leave Syria to flee the fighting; they left because their lives were endangered when they peacefully opposed the dictator regime.

Let me define a civil war for you: it is a war between citizens of the same country. What is happening in Syria is a war between people opposing the dictator regime and the state itself. Even though there are Syrian citizens that are pro-Assad, they are not the ones fighting their opposing counterparts; the opposition is being slaughtered by the regime.

Let’s not forget the current war’s beginnings: strictly peaceful demonstrations for regime change and the fall of Bashar al-Assad. Then the regime started a mass killing of innocent civilians demanding freedom, driving some of them to seek arms to defend themselves, and leading today’s eight-year-old war.

However, the tragic human story of millions of families being separated and spread around different parts of the world remains the same. The desperate need for a liveable life has driven almost half of the Syrian population to be scattered and we’ve all seen the tragedy of people dying trying to make their way to other countries.

It does not surprise me to see a dictator killing and displacing his own people. What still shocks me every day though, is how cruel most of the people of other nations are towards these individuals – individuals who have survived the impossible, only to be discriminated against, bullied or simply treated differently than other ordinary citizens of certain countries.

Perhaps not having your family around you wouldn’t be as bad if you had supportive surroundings and didn’t have to put up with or be scared by daily news about “the refugee crisis” or “immigration laws” that could turn your world upside down in a matter of seconds.


Q: How interesting was it for you to have the perspectives of three different generations?

A: The story wouldn’t have been complete without having these three perspectives.

In the film, the older generation represents the struggle of longing for home, the middle generation represents the suppressed activism that lives on to make the hardest decisions while being practical and not emotional, and the younger generation represents the state of denial and not comprehending tough circumstances until the moment of confrontation.

The three generations are a beautiful combination of the feelings of belonging, hope in the unknown future and the need to survive; something that half of Syria’s population went through.

Q: I understand you returned to Damascus for the first time since 2010 while filming ‘The Borrowed Dress’. What was that experience like?

A: In Arabic, we have a proverb: “Heaven without people is impossible to live in.” That was the conclusion I came to after visiting in 2016. Everyone who I knew back home had left, and all our houses had been destroyed. I couldn’t make sense of it.

I could barely hold my tongue from fighting with officers at checkpoints. Their degrading treatment of me was because they saw that I’m from the city that started the revolution, and that I wanted to finish the film and put it out there for people to see.

I’ve always been curious, as a journalist, to see what Syria is like now after everything that has happened. But on a personal level, I wish I hadn’t had to see home looking like this. It left a big hole in my heart.

Q: Were there any other striking or particularly emotional moments for you while making this film?

A: The film revolves around the idea of home that is Syria, but the physical place where the family gathered during the filming was a rented apartment in Beirut, the capital of neighbouring Lebanon. Being the place that witnessed me and my family reuniting and making the best out of what could be our last time together, I got attached to the house itself.

After the departure of all my family members to their respective “new homes,” I had one night alone in that apartment. I remember that night like it was yesterday. I had been holding back my emotions for the longest time to be able to shoot and direct this film in the most efficient way possible, but the moment I was alone, I was crying myself to sleep, waking up to nightmares, then crying myself to sleep again. That night in that rented apartment was a changing point in my life.

The most painful moment was having to hand over the apartment keys to the owner the next morning and walking away from the last glimpse of hope in a “home” forever.

The Borrowed Dress - BBC Arabic Festival - Saad football

Q: How difficult was it for you to keep your distance as a filmmaker when this is such a personal subject for you?

A: Very difficult. I was lucky to have Sarah Hassan, my producer, by my side every step of the way – to give me a wake-up call when I got too drawn into my emotions towards characters, or when, at times, I decided to dig into family events that were irrelevant to the film’s story.

At other times, I had to manage on my own, when huge tragic events concerning my family were taking place right in front of me and I just had to stand like a statue with my camera to document them. I often struggled with deciding to live the moment myself, or make a whole audience live it and feel it with me, through my camera.

Q: Can you tell us about your choice of title for the film? I heard it was inspired by a proverb.

A: The title comes from the Levantine proverb: “A borrowed dress does not warm you.” It is a reference to the different new homes that members of Syrian families are staying in, and how these homes’ beauty and safety aren’t enough, because they will never warm us like our true and original home in Syria.

Q: As we referred to earlier, this first feature was a somewhat spontaneous endeavour with producer Sarah Hassan. How do you reflect on the overall process from a filmmaking point of view?

A: I feel like having my first film be this complicated in terms of planning, and having to produce so much with so little, has prepared me well for future projects. The spontaneity of the production process was a huge lesson.

Of course, the film would have been much better technically had we known about the shooting time earlier, but we had as little as one week to get ourselves together and start shooting, and the fact that we were able to pull an award-winning film from just that makes me proud and honoured of my partnership with Sarah Hassan.

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