‘Simple as Water’ director Megan Mylan on profiling 5 families affected by Syrian war

Megan Mylan’s process of finding the five families to focus on for her documentary, “Simple as Water,” was an extremely arduous one. “We did a deep dive: Research, pre-production, almost a mini-grad school of trying to understand what are the through-lines, what are the commonalities of this family experience,” Mylan tells Gold Derby in our Meet the Experts: Film Documentary panel (watch the exclusive video interview above). This led to talking with hundreds of Syrians in countries all over the world and Mylan getting a very critical assist. “The way I worked is we had two Syrian co-producers who worked across storylines, but then each vignette had its own family and its own particular crew.”

“Simple as Water,” which is currently streaming on HBO Max, tells the story of five families who are living with the horrible 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 a man in Germany awaits being reunited with his family.

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While it’s never mentioned in the film, there is a specific significance in the title that Mylan chose for the film. “‘Simple as Water’ is part of a full title of a collection of Syrian poetry, the full title of which is, ‘Simple as Water, Clear as a Bullet.’” The elemental and primal nature of it, specifically in reference to a parent’s love for their children is what Mylan found so compelling about the title. “We take it for granted when we have it, the love of a family and then are desperate for it when it’s gone, so it felt fitting.”

Mylan has a history at the Oscars, having won the prize for Best Documentary Short for “Smile Pinki” in 2008. The short, chronicling a young Indian girl trying to get an operation to fix her cleft lip, happened to be competing the same year as “Slumdog Millionaire,” which only added to the level of coverage they got. “All of India was paying attention to the Oscars in a way that they don’t normally.” The win also produced quite a few positive results for Pinki herself. “All sorts of good stuff happened. The road to her village was paved, there were new wells put in and metal roofs!”

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