‘Simple as Water’ director Megan Mylan on telling the stories of forgotten victims of war

In finding a way to document the experiences of families displaced by the Syrian civil war for “Simple as Water,” Megan Mylan had to carefully thread a delicate needle. “We wanted to try and find a way to convey the scale of the mass migration and displacement that the Syrian war had reaped and do so in a way that feels organic to me, which is very intimate observational,” she tells Gold Derby during our recent Meet the Experts: Film Documentary panel (watch the exclusive video interview above). Those contrasts would end up informing all of how the film was structured. “I wanted to find a way for the film to be both large and intimate at the same time and get in all the different layers of what the experience of displacement and war is.”

“Simple as Water,” currently streaming on HBO Max, examines five families who are living with the lingering effects of the Syrian civil war. One is a mother in Greece living in a makeshift tent city with her four children. Another mother in Turkey is trying to send her kids to an orphanage so they can be cared for full-time. A mother still in Syria waits for news on her older son who has disappeared. A man in Pennsylvania helps his brother get through high school as both wait for asylum and another man in Germany awaits being reunited with his family. Mylan is no stranger to awards as she won the Documentary Short Oscar in 2008 for “Smile Pinki.”

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Of the five stories, the toughest one for Mylan to capture was that of Diaa who is still in Syria and trying to find out what happened to her son who has been forcibly disappeared. Mylan was able to find two Syrian women who helped capture Diaa’s story. “They wore a lot of different hats: producing, camera, sound. They went out and started talking to these families and one thing that drew us to Diaa and her family was that they had already been public about their son’s disappearance.” The relationship that Mylan built with the Syrian crew and the family proved very helpful on a number of different levels. “There was times at risk that we always were led by the safety of the family we were focusing on and that felt like it was really fundamental.”

The treatment of these refugees has varied from country to country with many having a backlash to their arrival. Still, Mylan has seen numerous examples of people being willing to open their hearts to those that have been displaced. “There were elements. For example, there were people in Greece really reaching out, a lot of volunteers showing up, trying to make things joyful. But Greece was so economically depressed that the opportunities for housing, schooling and jobs were so limited.” It repeatedly comes back to specific people who are helping to improve the lives of these people. “It’s a lot of individuals showing up who it’s not their job, just people giving of themselves. I think I can think of examples in every single story where that made a really critical difference.”

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