Lebanese director's documentary 'We Are From There' charts the journey to a radically new life

'We Cannot Walk Alone' is the theme at this year's Refugee Week festival in the UK

Lebanese-Syrian director Wissam Tanios' debut feature, We Are From There, will have its UK premiere in July at Safar Film Festival in Londo. Photo: The Arab British Centre
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When Wissam Tanios heard his Syrian cousins were leaving for Europe in 2015 he said it had been like a "slap in the face."

Jamil and Milad Khawam were a vital part of the Lebanese director’s life. Before the war, he would travel to Damascus – a mere three-hour drive from his hometown of Beirut – to spend the summer with them.

In a bid to deal with the loss, Tanios reached for his camera and began filming what eventually turned into his first feature-length documentary, We Are From There.

Now, after more than a year of one of the worst socio-economic crises Lebanon has ever faced, the filmmaker has an entirely different perspective.

"If I would shoot the film again, it would be a totally different narrative," Tanios tells The National, referring to the part in the film where he tells his cousins that he isn't ready to leave his home.

When he walks the streets of Beirut today, Tanios says he sees a city in freefall and is taken back to the scenes he filmed six years earlier with his cousins.

“With what's happening in Lebanon, a lot of things that they said resonate and I can relate to what they felt because I feel it now,” says the 31-year-old from his apartment in the Lebanese capital.

While Tanios is actively looking to leave the turmoil in Lebanon for Europe too, it is unlikely to be as perilous a journey as that undertaken by his cousins and captured in his film.

Director Wissam Tanios says Lebanon has become suffocating as it spirals further into its political and economic crises. Photo: The Arab British Centre

His documentary followed Jamil and Milad across the Mediterranean by boat and then overland, a journey undertaken by millions of Syrian refugees in recent years.

Premiering at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in January 2020, We Are From There went on to win the Best Arab Film award at the 2020 Cairo International Film Festival. Its UK premiere next month in London will be at Safar, the UK's only Arab Film Festival.

While the film is ostensibly about refugees, Tanios, who is half-Syrian, says he was keen not to attach that label to his film. He wanted to tell a universal story about the “psychological and the inner transition” people go through when they adapt to radical change.

“The big question of the film is where do we go? Or what kind of person do we become? We see people leaving but I wanted to explore the after. When two people go on an inflatable boat, it's like, okay, they arrived. That's great. But what happened to these people when they arrived?”

For the brothers, the short answer is that good things happened. Five years on from arriving in Sweden and Germany respectively, the older of the two, Jamil, will secure Swedish citizenship this year and is engaged to be married. He works for a construction company and specialises in carpentry, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather in Damascus.

Milad lives a more bohemian life in Berlin, a freelance musician who has just recorded his debut album, To The West. The city is home but Tanios describes Milad as still somewhat untethered and open to the idea of moving on elsewhere. Neither see any imminent - or distant - return to Syria.

We Are From There follows the journey of Syrian brothers Jamil and Milad over five years as they embark on a life-changing journey for new lives in Europe. Photo: The Arab British Centre

The longer answer is, however, at the core of the film. Tanios calls leaving a "little death" and wanted to explore what being "reborn" somewhere else was like. Shot over five years, the bulk of Tanios’s documentary takes place after the two men arrive in Europe. It tells a moving tale of the silence, loneliness and inertia that so often marks the resettlement experience of refugees.

Since German Chancellor Angela Merkel famously welcomed refugees in the summer of 2015 about 800,000 Syrians have settled in the country. In Sweden, the number of refugee arrivals reached a height of 163,000 in 2016, which led to a tightening of the country’s asylum laws. There has been a declining number of asylum grants given since then and approximately 82,000 refugees reached the country in 2020.

In September 2015, the UK set up the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme to relocate 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years.

A new consolidated UK Resettlement Scheme, with a pledge to take in 5,000 global refugees a year, is meant to take over from the old scheme that has now ended.

The UK Home Office has recently proposed overhauls to the country's immigration system that will make it harder for some asylum seekers to stay permanently and it has been criticised by refugee advocates for being harsh and "inhumane."

Under the new plans, only migrants who arrive in the UK through official channels, such as refugee schemes in war zones or by escaping persecution, will be entitled to stay permanently.

This week marks Refugee Week in the UK, where a programme of arts, cultural, sports and educational events takes place across the country for refugees to share their experiences and connect with others. The festival is held every year in the run-up to World Refugee Day on June 20.

Earlier this week Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council and Chair of Refugee Week, criticised the UK Home Office for using the festival’s occasion to defend its new plan for immigration, calling the proposed policies discriminatory against asylum seekers.

“The right to seek asylum is universal and does not depend on the mode of arrival,” said Mr Soloman in a statement.