Julia Meltzer on her ties to Syria and how it lead to Dalya's Other Country

Julia Meltzer on her ties to Syria and how it lead to Dalya's Other Country

In this interview Julia Meltzer shares the journey that lead her to tell the story of Dalya and her family in her new film Dalya's Other Country.


How did you decide on this topic and what inspired you to make this documentary?
I lived in Syria from 2005-6 and then I returned there every year until just before the war started more than 6 years ago. My last film, The Light In Her Eyes, was about a Qur’an school for women and girls in Damascus, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time learning about and engaging with Syrian culture and Sunni Muslim women. When my last film was broadcast on POV in 2012, Aleppo was just entering the war. I spent time in Aleppo and loved it. It was devastating to think about what might happen to the city and its inhabitants. I wanted to find a family from Aleppo who had recently come to Los Angeles escaping the war. Mustafa Zeno, the co-producer of “Dalya’s Other Country” worked on my last film doing outreach and distribution. I realized that his mother and sister had recently come from there and that the story I was searching for was right underneath my nose.

Can you discuss your philosophical and artistic approach to filmmaking in general, specifically the influences and strategies you try to incorporate?
Dalya’s Other Country is made in the tradition of observational cinema, favoring intimate cinematography and an emphasis on placing the audience in close connection with the subject matter. The scenes are edited to immerse the viewers in Dalya and Rudayna’s world and create a human connection with the subjects so audiences understand the world from their perspective.

What was your filmmaking approach for this documentary, did you have an idea in mind for the story you wanted to tell and if so, did it change during filming?
On and off from 2005 to 2010, I lived in Damascus and often traveled to Aleppo. Witnessing the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world where ancient trade routes, commerce, and culture were active—despite constraints imposed by the Syrian regime—made a deep impression on me. I knew Syrians to be incredibly resourceful people who take care of themselves and their families. The images that dominated the news focusing on the war and refugees didn’t fully tell the story of the Syrians who I know. Not all Syrians left their country in a raft, for example. Dalya and Rudayna’s move to Los Angeles is not the typical Syrian refugee story that has dominated the news. They are a middle class family with American citizenship; they were not suffering life in a refugee camp or trying to cross the Mediterranean in a raft; but they were nonetheless struggling to adjust to a new culture and the loss of their home. Their story offers a lens into how a traditional Sunni woman and young girl try to hold onto their customs and traditions within the US, which they sometimes perceived as an unwelcoming place.

In Dalya’s Other Country, many intimate details of this family’s lives are discussed. How did you build the relationship for them to speak so candidly?
Mustafa Zeno, Dalya’s older brother and Rudayna’s oldest son, worked on my last film The Light In Her Eyes. I got to know him and then his family through events and screenings of that film. Knowing that I had spent time in Syria and that I also understood the culture and their religion and even some Arabic, helped a lot. I also spent time with them without my camera; going over for coffee, having dinner, taking Dalya out from time to time. Having people feel comfortable with you involves more than just going over to shoot! They also spent quite a bit of time with my daughter when she was little and have watched her grow up. All of this builds a foundation for a trusting relationship.

You followed the family for four years, what changes did you notice in the family during that time?
In Dalya I noticed that she gathered her true friends around her and also more confidence as the years went by. For both Rudayna and Dalya I could see that they were increasingly more comfortable, confident, and clear about their direction. It has been an honor to watch them grow and change.

What difficulties did you encounter while shooting the film?
My daughter was born in July 2012 and I started shooting Dalya’s Other Country before she turned 1. The biggest challenge for me was to adjust to being a mother and a filmmaker; juggling child-care schedules, my desire to be with her and be a present person, and also to make another film. Amina came with me on more than several shoots and I slowly figured out how to integrate all of these responsibilities together. It helped that my partner is a supportive and present father who shared the child-care with me, and that we had an amazing babysitter too.  

How did you know it was time to put the camera down, that the story was finished?
The film was always meant to be a story of Dalya’s high school experience and that story ended with her graduation. After the presidential election in 2016, I had some doubts and thought maybe this material of her voting and watching the returns (which I shot) should be incorporated. I tried that out, but ultimately I decided to stick with the story as it was intended to be.

Who did you make this documentary for and what would you like people to take away from watching Dalya’s Other Country?
I made this film for people who are interested in coming of age stories, stories about how Syrian refugees are adapting their newfound homes, and for people who are interested in feminism and its many facets. I hope people take away a greater understanding of the experience of Muslim women in adjusting to life in the United States.

What are your thoughts and concerns about the current situation for Muslims in America?
It’s a very precarious and dangerous time in our country for minorities and people of the Muslim faith. I’m concerned about all people who might be subjects of hate crimes and violence. There will be more heinous crimes committed by ignorant people who want to kill others in the name of their shallow understanding of faith and God and I’m sure more ignorant acts of hate will follow. I hope that through the continued good work of many communities of faith to counteract these events that some small bit of understanding can be gained.

You have spent time in Syria, can you talk about in what capacity and also comment on the current situation facing Syrian refugees as you see it from there, here, and globally?
I lived in Syria from 2005 to 2006 as a Senior Fulbright Fellow. I taught filmmaking in the Journalism program at the University of Damascus. After 2006, I returned there every year until November 2010. I miss Syria tremendously. Some friends are still there but many more have left. The response to the Syrian war and the refugee crisis by the international community and other Arab nations has been dismally inadequate. A generation has lost hope for their education and their future. I truly wish that there might be some coming together to address the crisis, but I do not feel hopeful about this possibility.

Can you weigh in on the role of the filmmaker in this current landscape, and especially as a woman filmmaker. Can you discuss both opportunities and challenges for documentarians, and any messages you might have for student filmmakers?
Independent journalism is more important than ever right now. I think there are certainly more and more outlets for independent work, but the issue is how to get your film noticed, seen, and paid for.  The issue of how to make a living from being a filmmaker is harder and harder. I think it’s important to really think carefully about budgets and the return that might or might not come from the work that is put in. This is the hard part to figure out, and it’s important to gather together your filmmaker friends and collaborate and barter for work and gear.

What projects are you working on next?
I am going to document Rudayna’s experience attending UCLA and what it is like for her, a middle aged woman, to return to college. I am also working on a film about the poet Robin Coste Lewis, who wrote the stunning book of poetry, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” and is the Poet Laureate of Los Angeles.