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I am so pumped to be attending the online version of the Annecy International Online Film Festival this year, because I really enjoyed it last year. I had the honor of getting in contact with the distributor of one of the films in competition, Lamya’s Poem, and with the director of the film Alex Kronemer to talk about it! I hope you all enjoy the interview as much as I had fun interviewing the director and reviewing the film.
Q: First off, congrats on getting into the main competition side of Annecy! I remember seeing the Work in Progress video last year, and was very intrigued about the story and how the final product would unfold. How does it feel to be selected in the main competition side of the festival? If you can, can you tell us the process you and your team went through to submit it? Did you submit to both the main category and the Contrechamp category, or were you only able to choose one or the other?
The submission process was handled by our international sales agent, WestEnd Films. The film was submitted as a feature, and it was the festival who chose to invite it to be part of the competition – which of course we were delighted about.
Q: What attracted you to this project?
Several years ago, during one of the worst periods of fighting in Syria when over 12 million Syrians lost their homes and half became refugees, a story came to our attention about a group of Syrian refugees in a park in Athens who were reading Rumi’s poetry to each other. This caught our attention. Rumi’s poetry is often associated with themes of love, which seem very remote from the experiences of these refugees. But upon deeper examination, we learned that it wasn’t as strange as it might appear at first glance.
Rumi’s poetry is rooted in parts of his life story that are much deeper—and earlier—than is often understood. As a boy, Rumi was himself what we could call a refugee, as his family was forced to flee the Mongol Invasion that swept across Central Asia and over much of the Arab Middle East. During this period, he is known to have been haunted by frightening dreams of people calling for his help, which his father interpreted for him as people in times and places he could hardly imagine needing his words. Literature is a way of overcoming trauma – reading it, but also writing it. Those Syrian refugees in that Athens park needed Rumi. And through the connections he had to such people—even people living 800 years later–he needed them to have a reason to write and through that rescue his own soul. He needed those refugees as much as they needed him.
Around this time I met a family of Syrian refugees living in Cairo during a trip I took there. One of them was a young girl who shared some of her experiences of trying to be a normal young teenager in the midst of war and displacement. Her name was Lamya.
After that encounter the script almost wrote itself.
Q: At any point in the early side of production, was it always meant to be an animated film, or did you consider at one point a live-action approach? Personally, I find there are no limits in telling stories in animated form.
The film was imagined from the start as animation. Even though I never did an animated project before, the magical element of the story made Lamya and young Rumi animated characters in my mind.
Q: When crafting this story, when you and your team started out, what were the most important aspects that you wanted to nail down? Like, what were the elements of the story and the animation that were top priority?
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” This is one of Rumi’s most quoted lines and is the main theme of the film. I wanted the story to not only shed light on the plight of Syrian Refugees, but also speak more universally to the human condition. We all experience hardships and loss in our lives, even if not as extraordinary as the losses experienced by Lamya and her real-life counterparts. In those moments we are often pulled toward bitterness, anger, and debilitating self-pity. But as Rumi says, those same experiences can also open us to greater compassion, patience, and mercy toward others. “The world keeps breaking your heart until it opens,” says Rumi in another famous poem, which we include in the film along with some of Rumi’s other poetry. Suffering can seem meaningless. But it can also create rewarding connections to others and bring us to a deeper understanding of ourselves.
Q: When you all set out to make this film, to which audience did you want to aim this animated experience?
The intense situations and mature themes of the film make an older audience one of the main targets, however we avoided any depictions of graphic violence and included a younger, rascally character (Bassam) to make the film something that can also be viewed and enjoyed by families.
Q: The animation has this charming mix of visuals that remind me of a children’s storybook. What was the decision-making behind what the film was going to look like in between the different story lines and how they connected to one another?
In designing Lamya’s Poem, we set out with the goal of creating a film that would have a refined, artistic look appropriate to the topic. We drew inspiration and techniques from several sources, including graphic novels and classical paintings, to create our visual palette. Our intent was to compliment the mature nature of some of the themes of the film with the grit and texture afforded by visible brush strokes, roughened textures, and imperfect color fills.
In this classic tale of good versus evil, we used green and red as beacons of guidance for the audience in the film. Through these uses of color, as well as many symbolic visual metaphors, we were able to support the storytelling. For example, in the beginning as Lamya dreams of chasing fireflies in a beautiful garden, we opted for a subtle but peaceful green as the dominant hue in the night sky. The use of green is extended to the fireflies, which throughout the film, symbolize hope. Green is also the color of Lamya’s teacher’s sweater, whose guidance nurtures the start of her journey. In contrast, red hints at the corruption of anger and hatred which stain the dream world and even flicker within Lamya as she struggles. We see it in her eyes, which are a window into the hope and despair she feels as a refugee.
While doing justice to the tragic reality of such a life, Lamya’s Poem also evokes a sense of rich culture through classical painting techniques, bold silhouettes and large vistas. The use of a wide visual format for the film helped to further the sense of scale and adventure.
Q: Obviously with the political climate going on around about immigration and the uproar in the middle east, due to the setting and the commentary touched upon in the film, was it at all emotionally draining due to what is going on in the real world to work on this film?
It was the emotional call to address the Syrian Refugee crisis in some way, to at least try, that was the context for why the story of the Syrians reading poetry in Athens affected me so deeply. And it remains one of the goals of the film to help in some way. In fact, a humanitarian educational project using the film has already been launched. It is called “Unfold Your Own Myth,” which is a line of Rumi’s poetry and the last line of the film. The project takes its inspiration from the relationship between Lamya and the young Rumi and is a program aimed at young refugees, migrants, and Muslim youth to help them overcome dislocation and loss through writing and sharing poetry. It is a project to help them gain agency over the circumstances of their lives through gaining control over their personal narratives.
I must mention at this point our producer, Sam Kadi, who in addition to being a gifted film maker and dramatist, is a Syrian who grew up on some of the same Aleppo streets we depict in Lamya’s Poem. His experiences and connections to Syria helped center the film throughout the process. I also have to mention some of the Syrian Refugees that we consulted with regularly – most of whom wanted their names withheld out of fear of putting their families back in Syria in danger. One who we worked most closely with was nearly deported due to some of the draconian rules put into place during the Trump administration, and I lived her fears with her during much of the production. Happily, I can report that her immigration status is now secure and she will be able to remain in the US.
Q: As a follow-up, did you have to be careful with what you showed and how you portrayed it?
I wouldn’t say “careful,” but rather mindful.
Q: How did the casting process begin and end with finding the main actors for each character?
The talented Mena Massoud (Aladdin) was our first choice to voice the character of young Rumi. We were lucky to get the very gifted young actress Millie Davis (Wonder) for Lamya. And the experienced actor Faran Tahir (Iron Man, Star Trek) brought his natural gravitas to the character of Rumi’s Father.
Q: With the film being made when films like The Breadwinner and The Swallows of Kabul were coming out or were released, is it pretty inspiring to see more animated stories focus on this part of the world?
It is inspiring, yes, but also a reminder in citing those few examples that out of the thousands of animations produced every year, a scant few focus in a sensitive way about Muslims. Except when cast as villains, Muslims hardly appear in animated features and series. I hope that Lamya’s Poem inspires others to tell more stories and grow an audience eager for them.
Q: Do you have any advice to anyone who may want to get into animation?
Storytelling through animation is limited only by your imagination. Nevertheless, like in all filmmaking, the hardest part is raising the funds. Again, I hope that films like Lamya’s Poem create an audience that opens the possibility for greater resources for new projects. It would be amazing to imagine these kinds of stories becoming an entire genre in some future date.
Q: Are there any animation misconceptions by fans or outsiders that you would like to squash?
One that I myself had at the beginning is that animation is in some way “easier” than live action. In live action films, of which I have done several, if you are filming an interior scene, an Art Director populates it with tables, chairs, carpets, etc. to match the vision of the film. Perhaps you have a choice between two or three different possibilities, but usually not, and in any case those decisions are made quickly, often after one glance. In animation, every element has to be designed: the chairs, the table, the carpet, but also the cups, the saucers, their color, the how narrow or bowl shaped they are, the shape and size of the sugar cubes, the color of the tea. Thought has to go into every element and takes time to realize. An orange appears in one key scene of the film that took hours and hours of work to get it to just the right color, shape and size.
Q: Are there any animated films at Annecy or coming out this year that you are curious about or hyped to see?
To be perfectly honest, I am hyped to see all of them. I’d say that I’m hyped to be in their company and have Lamya’s Poem part of the competition against a slate of such worthy films.
Thanks for reading the review! I hope you all enjoyed reading it! If you would like to support my work, make sure to share it out, and if you want to become a Patreon supporter, then you can go to patreon.com/camseyeview. I will see you all next time!