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Thursday 16 July 2015

A children’s cinema in Aleppo

Khadija and her cousins, refugees in Reyhanli.
Photo: Watanili

Watanili is a grassroots initiative dedicated to providing support for displaced Syrians through arts therapy, educational programmes, and community orientated projects. We asked Yara Tlass to tell more about their current project.

Watanili works directly with civilians within and outside Syria to empower communities to restore the social and intellectual fabric of their lives. When Watanili launched in May 2014, it all started with wanting to offer a different image of the conflict. Initially, we were mainly focused on shedding light on civilian stories and pressing issues that we thought were not being covered enough by the mainstream media. We did that through a series of videos and by sharing photo stories on social media. Today our focus is primarily on creative education and community-building.

Our latest project is a mobile cinema in the city of Aleppo, providing the kids with a safe space of solace, exposing them to educational animation and video cartoons in order to create a happy environment in one of Syria’s darkest zones.

Could you tell us a little about the films you chose to show, some examples of individual titles and what they were about?

We choose to show films that the children can relate to. The content is very carefully chosen depending on the context, age and level of education. Most of the films are about stories of hope, optimism, social responsibility, good behaviour and citizenship. Through animation, we seek to entertain, put smiles on their faces, and take their minds off the gloomy war situation, but also we want to give them something to learn from, something to look forward to. By creating a sense of positivity and excitement in their heads, we stimulate their hope in a better tomorrow.

Some examples of individual titles include a video animation series created by Save the Children. It is about children who were forced to flee Syria, animated by Syrian children. Another film is called ‘The Tent Flew Away’ – it was initially a book for young adults, published by Books for Syria, about a young girl who is forced to flee from home and adapt to her new life in a refugee camp. She learns to make new friends, faces challenges and reminisces over her past. The book and the screening in this case leaves us with many questions: Will she be able to adapt to this new environment? Will she able to start a new page and pursue her dreams?

Another one is called ‘Dir Balak’ (Watch out) and it aims to educate children in basic first aid and principles of good behaviour through engaging words and pictures, so that children can better cope in emergency situations when an adult is not there to help them.

Were there particular films that got an especially good reaction? Were there some that didn’t work well?

The ones that got a really good reaction were the ones which were narrated by children themselves. With the Save the Children series, we remember them watching and asking us questions afterwards such as where is this young girl now? What happened to these refugee children?

We noticed that the younger kids between the age of 3 to 7 were much more distracted than the older ones during the screenings as the concept of film was uncommon to them. But we still feel it is important to introduce it to younger kids. Most of the screenings, however, occur in schools and informal settings where kids are aged between 8 and 14.

Were there particular things any individual children said about the mobile cinema or about particular films that made a strong impression?

What they liked most about the mobile cinema was the diversity of the films. It created a curiosity and they started wondering about the next screening. They were impressed by the openness of the team as no one enforced anything religious given the religious atmosphere they are being surrounded with.

Residents of Aleppo, and families  said that it is bringing a little life to the city and their children are looking forward to the next event. And that is why we decided to pursue the project and launch another campaign.

We usually interview the kids after the screening and get their feedback: what they liked or disliked and what they learned. We iterate and tailor the films depending on their answers and feedback, and that is the best part.

What kind of things do the children normally get to watch outside of the cinema? How is the cinema experience different?

The children of Aleppo today are not being exposed to educational films or entertainment for that matter. Most of the kids in the city are living under harsh conditions. Being under siege, watching TV has really become a luxury. The cinema experience is different in that it creates a cheerful atmosphere where they can come together, learn, and enjoy themselves for a while.

Before 2011, what cinema was available to children in Aleppo?

Before 2011, children used to watch TV in their houses as part of a family gathering. This is different as in it is a collective activity where children from different backgrounds, ethnicity, age and religion are brought together to cherish a moment of peace, being in a safe space where they can start expressing their thoughts, feelings and impressions despite everything that is going on around them; and that for us is very important as we seek to create a collaborative hub for cultural expression, using the power of education and films to alleviate the suffering and bring about hope and joy.

 • Fundraising page for the Aleppo children’s cinema project

 • www.watanili.com

 • Watanili on Facebook, and on Twitter.