I Want to Live: Documentary Film on Kurdish Refugees from Rojava in Kurdistan

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I Want to Live ©Karzan Kardozi

I Want to Live Karzan Kardozi

Here are some still from my documentary feature film on the life of Shndar;  A Kurdish refugees from Rojava in West Kurdistan (Syrian Kurdistan) now living in South Kurdistan in a camp. He fled the the recent ISIS attacks upon Rojava, he is 16 years old who has Thalassemia and must have immediate treatment. He live in a camp with his father who is deaf and mute, work as a laborer when there is a job outside the camp, because of his Thalassemia, he has to get blood transfusion every month in order to live.  The film is about him, his daily life on the camp and outside of it, and also the life inside the camp. The film is slow paced, rather Arty, more visual and very little dialogue driven. More than being a film about the life of refugees, it is a meditation on life, death, war, peace, and tolerance.


I gave this Interview about the film to Suna Alan on how the films was made:

When and which camp in South Kurdistan did you shoot your documentary ‘’I Want to Live?

For the final project of my Master degree, I was required to make a film, and I went to back to Kurdistan in the Summer of 2014, I shot the film in the span of one week at Arbat Camp outside Sulaimani. I did the producing, directing, cinematography, editing of the film. At a distance of only 40 minutes from the city of Sulaimani is Arbat Camp in the town of Arbat, the camp had more than 700 Kurdish families from Rojava. Despite having the permit, on my visit to the camp I was denied the access to the camp, I was told to meet personally the head of the security of the camp, and it took me two days to meet him, at first; he was against allowing a camera into the camp and giving us access for many days and nights, but after a lengthy talk and my explanation that the film was for a Western audience and part of a Master degree program, he was more than happy to allow me to film, wanting a Western audience to be informed about the life of the Kurdish refugees in the camp, I was giving permission to film for eight days and nights with full access to all the areas inside and outside the camp. On the same days I visited the camp to find a subject and a narrative to follow. I was confident that by walking around the camp and talking to people, I would find many stories and subjects to film, my original plan was to have three different narrative on three different subjects; a young boy, a women and a man. While walking around with a guide, as he was showing us the different area of the camp, in the school, we meet a little boy of 16 by the name of Shndar, right way I knew my film will be about him. Unlike many people in camp who only spoke the Kurmanji dialect of the Kurdish language, Shndar was fluent on both Kurmanji and Sorani dialect, at first he was shy to talk to us, but after talking to him for a while and walking around the camp with him, he became a friend to us and was more than happy to be filmed, on the same day, we visited his tent, talked to his parent and got their permission to film him.

How were the conditions of the Rojavan refugees in the camp in general during your shooting?

I tried to become one of them while shooting the film, and we would go around all over the camp with the camera, so the people got used to us, after a few days, we were like someone who lived inside the camp, just a normal person, they did not look at us as outsiders, and you can see that in the film, they behave naturally in front of the camera. As for life in the camp, you can see it in the film how life is, I don’t need to comment on it, the film does.

What is the main subject of your story?

The story if not mine, it is the story of Shndar, a little boy from Rojava who has Thalassemia, and he must have a surgery very soon, or it is too late. I wanted to see life the way he does, so it is his story, the camera is there to capture it.

Why did you choose to tell the story of a refugee boy instead of the refugees in the camp in general?

Well, for one reason; I do not like to generalize, you see that everyday in the News and Documentaries, in which people become just a mere number or a group, they lose their individual identity, I wanted to show, that among these Refugees that you hear about everyday mentioned, they each have a story and life that is precious to them as it is to everyone, and they are not just a number.

6. What are your messages via your film?

I really do not have any message, I’m not a filmmaker that want to manipulate or sell an idea or ideology, I want to show life as it is, and it happened that in this film, the life is that of a Refugee boy, a Kurdish Refugee boy who has no home, no country, nothing to call his own, not even a healthy life. I let the viewer make up his/her own interpretation of whatever the message of the film might be.

Will you have any other film project on Rojavan refugees in south Kurdistan?

I hope so, this was my last Documentary film, I wish in the future to make Fiction film, and Rojava will always be part of my future plan.

Here are my notes on the Production:

Day One:
I took the task of Director and DP upon myself, for the simple reason that having a crew of more than two meant attracting the attention of the people in the camp, and the people would be uncomfortable in front of the camera seeing the large crew behind it, also upon meeting Shndar, I realized that he was a shy person that did not want attention nor eyes to be looked at him while in front of the camera, and having only a crew of two mean that we melted into the people of the camp as we became friend with many of them, and indeed that happened; within two days of shooting, they treated us as one of them. I decided the narrative of the film to be in the control of Shndar and his daily life. We would visit his tent every morning and would follow his daily plan, but I was not yet sure of what style to follow. The first day of filming took place in the school; I filmed everything in a formal and constructive manner, using long lens for rapid shift between different shot sizes, from extreme close-up to wide shots, I filmed everything in coverage, with the editing in post-production for each scenes and sequence in mind all the time. On the same afternoon, as we took a break, I looked into the footage inside the camera that was shot, and I noticed the realism in the scenes came from those wide shots that I let the camera run and did not force my own personal perspective or coverage style of the film. That is when I decided to film the rest of the scenes using Wide Angle lens, with the camera at a distance, and latter use editing in little manipulative manner. Choosing such style meant shooting lengthy takes and having a film that is slow in pace, but such style was best fitted for the slow life of the camp, I had to use it in order to capture the reality.

The Rest of Filming:
We filmed 4 days and one full night in the life of Shndar and the camp, and spent another 2 days recording his voice-over. Each day we would follow Shndar, he would tell us about his daily plan, and we would arrange shots to be setup as we followed him around, most of the time I filmed him without his knowledge, for I realized that by doing so, he behaved in a normal and realistic manner, same was true with the scenes that were shot with the people in the camp. To give an example; Shndar would tell us that sometime in the morning he would visit the children playground, I would ask him to take us, we would walk to the place, I would setup the camera and let it run, then I would tell Shndar to walk to the playground, at the first two takes, he would act as in a fictional film, swinging his legs and body as he walked, very theatrical, instead of telling him to do it again, I kept the camera running, telling him that we filmed everything and it was all good, let him take a break, then I would ask him to walk to the playground and wait for us to join him, or I would tell him that we had to do one more take just for sound, only then, when he thought that the camera was not filming did he gave a realistic performance. Everything was captured in such realistic manners, not a single shot in the film was staged, there was one shot that I filmed but not used in the film that I staged in a fictional manner; the scene was of Shndar visiting the Doctor in the camp, they both watch a French song on a laptop, I staged that scene and filmed it, but later during editing, I realized that it was rather weak, and I did not use it in the final film. Choosing such style and directing approach for the film with only two of us as a crew meant that we moved fast between places and we encountered many surprises, some of the best scenes in the film is shot in that manner, for example; the scenes in the cucumber field, as we started filming, it rained, the cloud came, and Shndar felt such happiness in being in the field, away from the tents, under the rain, he was laughing from joy. Summer rain in Kurdistan is very rare, and I knew it would not last more than half an hour, so we had to shoot every single second of it, as I ran from one place into another to film each scene.

I filmed a total of 20 hours of footage, and it took me almost a month to captured the scenes that I wanted to use in the film, the war with ISIS on the borders of South Kurdistan and the flooding or refugees lead to electricity power shortage which gave me little times use my computer to capture the footage. I captured a total of 6 hours of films and lined them up as a rough cut, then I had to start chopping them to pieces, and it hurt, because not only did I had to eliminate many shots in the film, but I had also to trim the rest of the shots that ended up in the film, despite wanting to have a very slow pace film that made the audience live in the camp for with Shndar and these refugees, to take them and making them experience the life in the camp, into a world far from their comfort zone, but I had no choice than to be realistic to cut down the film to 1 hour and 45 minutes in the end, some scenes in the film suffers because of that, if I had filmed a long take of 4 minutes during filming, it meant that I wanted it to end in the film in such length, but on the editing stage; I had to trim it down to 30 second or 45 second, only then could I have shortened the length of the film. More than wanting to slow down the pace of the film, I also used different pace to shift between sequences; Day One is fast paced, because it fit the narrative, Shndar is in School and visit the Bazaar with his brother, both place are crowded and life in them are fast. Day Two is very slow, because Shndar walk around the camp, watch TV in his tent and goes to picnic, all are less crowded places and the pace was indeed slow as time seemed to slow down. His visit to the cucumber field is edited in a poetic style, and the final scene is the longest, because I wanted the audience to feel every second of Shndar taking the shot and the pain as he is in bed for 6 hours waiting for the medication to end.

Voice-Over and Sound Mixing:
It took us two days to record the voice-over, I recorded all the sound in secret; I ran the camera and we sat in the tent with Shndar asking him different question about life in Rojava, his sickness, the family becoming refugees in Kurdistan, I asked him about everything; from nature of War, to love, to hate, to religion, to music, etc. At times I would ask the same question in different manners as to get his view on a subject, and all the time the camera was recording, the lens away from him, but the microphone right beside him recording the sound, a reason that his voice-over is so realistic and he seem to be talking to a friend rather than to a camera. The total voice-over of Shndar and us asking him questions was more than 6 hours in length, with 2 hours of his VO in the rough cut and I had to trim it down to around 20 to 30 minute in the final film. I did not use any sound effect other than what is captured in the scenes. For my fictional short films, I usually use many different outside sounds and effects, mix it into the film, but for I Want to Live, I only used the sound in the shots and did no manipulation of them for the exception of changing the volume when the VO come into the scene, for my aim was realism.
Color Correction: I used very little Color Correction during editing, I had to bring back the White Balance for a few shot, and I wanted the film to look grainy, I prefer a grainy image to a sharp one, some of the scene had to be grainy for I had no choice; such as the scenes of the camp at night, for it was impossible to light a whole camp, and it is rather more realistic to have a grainy shot than a blurry sharp one that is fixed in the post-production. More than having a grainy film, I also let some of the technical detail stay in the film to give it more realism; in some shots you could see rain falling on the lens, there are spot of rain left on the lens, I did not clean it up until the shooting of that day was over, even one can see a light reflected in one of the shots. I left them all in the film and did not want to remove them or fix them in post-production.

Budget and Aftermath:
What I’m most proud off is the fact that I made the film with less than $400 spent. Making a feature documentary film in such small budget is not even heard off here in Kurdistan, a local TV station will spend more than $5000 for such a film, I managed to do it, because there was only two of us in the crew, and I shot it in the span of only 6 days, did all the editing, color correction, sound mixing and creating English subtitle by myself, it was physically and mentally a hard challenge to tackle, but we did it and proved for others that they could do it. More important; I became a close friend to Shndar and him family, visiting them many times after the filming was finished, we are still in touch. Spreading awareness about the life in the camp, the struggle of Shndar with thalassemia and life in the camp is a worthy cause to make a film about, if that is what the film comes down too at the end, then, it was worth all the effort that went into the making of the film, because of the film now Shndar got a chance with his family to go to UK in order to have a bone-transplant and his live might be saved.

P.S: The quality of the images are lowered for it to be uploaded.

I Want to Live (Karzan Kardozi, 2014)

I Want to Live (Karzan Kardozi, 2014) Public Domain

I Want to Live ©Karzan Kardozi

I Want to Live ©Karzan Kardozi