A Film Staring 11,000 People

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11,000 people fled Syria on Friday and became refugees.

That’s a dubious new record for a conflict that’s claimed nearly 40,000 lives and displaced some 4 million people. The numbers are staggering to comprehend.  Imagine watching a film with 11,000 different shots of people taking that last step out of Syria into the unknown. People making the choice between exile and possible death. Each with a unique path to that exit. It would make for an epically long film but you’d start to get a sense of the scope of the crisis and the multitude of ways people end up leaving. But it still wouldn’t capture the inner drama of that decision and the uncertainty of the following weeks and months in a foreign land. For that you’d need to watch 11,000 films. And even after watching those hours and hours of footage you might only posses a small insight into one day’s worth of refugees. Tomorrow will bring thousands more.

This is how I see those numbers after filming in the refugee camps of Eastern Chad and meeting the individuals that make up those headlines with trailing zeros. Each refugee has their own story and most have many. It’s my challenge to capture as many as possible while also acknowledging the limits of the viewer to emotionally connect with more than a few characters at one time. That’s the odd paradox in trying to put “a face to the numbers.” We do our best to honestly profile one refugee while not implying that he or she is somehow symbolic of the whole population. That’s often the impulse of the storyteller but it can reduce the massive scale of the population in the same way a big bold headline number can.

That’s why we’re constantly meeting new people in the camps and they in turn connect us with their families, friends, classmates and coworkers. Each one with a piece to add to the larger story. It would be quixotic to try to profile all 250,000 residents of the 12 camps that stretch over 1,000 miles in Eastern Chad. But after seven years in the region and hundreds of hours of footage, we’re still trying.

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The Guardian has produced some excellent video pieces about the Syrian refugee crisis, many of which have focused on individual children and families. Here are my favorites:


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