David Henry Gerson
“El Ra’sa” (The Dance) composed and performed by Anas Maghrebi, from the film The Story Won’t Die
“NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.
David Henry Gerson: What I find most inspiring by Anas and by many of the other artists in the film is how no matter the circumstance, they are always finding ways to turn these very dark, awful circumstances coming out of Syria into creativity and not looking away, but looking into it and using it. I just feel very inspired by their ability to always rise.
Jo Read: That’s David Henry Gerson—he’s the director of the documentary called The Story Won’t Die which was an official selection of AFI Docs and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.
The Syrian refugee crisis is a humanitarian emergency. The civil war began over ten years ago. Since then, about 13.5 million Syrians in total have been forcibly displaced, that’s more than half of the country’s population. Of these, 6.8 million are refugees and asylum-seekers who have fled the country.
David Henry Gerson set out to make a film about it, but he trained his focus on the exiled artists of Syria…or more precisely, eight Syrian artists—visual artists, musicians, dancers who were active in the uprising against Assad in 2010 and have since fled the country. In his new documentary The Story Won’t Die, Gerson interweaves their stories, giving pride of place to the art that they create.
The life of an artist is never easy—but to create art first, under a violent and oppressive dictatorship and then as a refugee struggling to survive in a strange land is something else again. What meaning does free expression have to someone in exile? Who is there to see or to listen? Who can understand? These are some of the questions that the film explores with the artists as it follows them from the refugee camps to European cities where they do create art that speaks to the experiences of war and the burden of exile. I spoke with director David Henry Gerson about The Story Won’t Die and asked him why he was compelled to make this particular film.
David Henry Gerson: Sure, and thank you very much. Well, my father, who recently passed away, named Allan Gerson, was born as a refugee in Samarkand, Uzbekistan after World War II, and I grew up in Washington, D.C. and, to be very honest, didn’t really know what it was like to be a refugee or to live a life in exile. He was also a photographer and in growing up, seeing his photography, trying to understand, I think, the pain that he was born out of was always fascinating to me. I made a thesis film from the American Film Institute that won the Student Academy Award in 2016, and there was also a film called 4.1 Miles that was nominated that same year that was about refugees landing on the island of Lesvos in Greece. And it really brought my attention to the fact that we were living through the largest displacement of people since World War II. And it brought my attention both to what was happening in Lesvos and also to what was happening in Syria. Now, I mentioned my father only because, growing up, his parents told him to etch in stone a memorial to those who died in World War II of his family, never forget. And here I’m seeing this is the worst displacement since World War II and I think something in my DNA just said, I need to pay attention to this. So as we got into making the film, we started finding news stories about the refugee crisis and, of course, they are amazing documentaries about what’s happening in Syria. My angle and what was personally of interest to me was, Who were the sort of Primo Levis, the Goyas, the Picasso Guernicas coming out of Syria. Who are the people who are the first ones to really try to process the chaos that they had fled from through art? And how is art being used to process the war, as well as part of the uprising against Assad that is now ten years since the uprising began?
Jo Read: How did you find the eight artists that you focus on in your documentary?
David Henry Gerson: We started with just kind of a broad search. I teamed up with a wonderful producer named Odessa Rae, and we found I think online or through maybe a podcast or radio interviews, a man named Anas Maghrebi, who had a band and the sort of apocryphal story that he had of landing on the beaches of Lesvos with his band, and when they got off on the shores of Lesvos, not like the images we’re used to seeing on the news, they started handing out their CDs on the beach like rockstars landed in Greece and traveled across Europe until settled in Germany with their band. But we also teamed up with someone named Abdalaziz Alhamza who is the subject of the documentary City of Ghosts by Matthew Heineman, and he was part of a group called Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, RBSS, which was an underground citizen journalist group in Syria documenting the rise of ISIS with sort of secret body camera footage. And he really guided us less towards stories of just processing art, but more towards the questions of freedom of expression. Where are there artists who have tried to speak up against the regime, but because of the lack of freedom of expression, were put in prison, were tortured, and in some cases killed? So he introduced us to another artists named Abu Hajaar who is a rapper. He has a group called Mazzaj and he did a lot of rap during the uprising that had him imprisoned and tortured. Diala Brisly is an artist we met, again through Abdalaziz, who makes kind of lighthearted-seeming animated works. Her work is like a Trojan horse. The images look lighthearted and sort of youthful, and yet they are images of the horrors of war. And so using a certain aesthetic to maybe allow an audience or a viewer to access the work in a way that maybe they wouldn’t expect to if they saw something like destroyed buildings right up front. So these were some of our first artists and then we met other people. In Lesvos we met a break dancer Bboy Shadow and followed him across Europe and talked to him about how he uses his dance to process the war. We met another dancer in Berlin named Medhat Aldaabal who is a choreographer who really takes his specific haunting memories of his year traveling across Europe and trying to make it eventually to Germany, and he uses specific moments like when he was huddling on the side of the road in Greece, freezing in the winter, with no place to sleep. And he uses that feeling of huddling in his choreography. He is working with a great company called Sasha Waltz’s Company in Germany. I kind of digress here, but we found these amazing artists, and there are others as well. And just their inspiring stories of how they did not look away, but how they used their art to look directly into the heart of hell that they had fled from.
Jo Read: I’m curious how you approached them, how you talked to them about what you wanted to do, and how open they were at first. Did they have misgivings? How did you earn their trust?
David Henry Gerson: Yeah, great question. There is a line in the film where one of the artists named Bahila Hijazi, who was in the first all-female rock group in Syria, a band called Karma Band. And she has a line in the film that says, We end up now just being lab rats for documentaries. I would say everyone who we approached to be in this film had a very healthy dose of skepticism coming into this. Because they have, many of them, not all of them, done many other interviews, been on PDC and CNN and different news sources around the world, and they are trying to live their lives. I mean, here I am coming along asking them to open up about these really awful circumstances that, in many cases, they are just trying to get away from. So to kind of earn trust and respect, I did end up speaking quite a bit about my father and my grandmother and how my own grandparents were processing World War II and the Holocaust, and sort of using that kind of personal story as a way to start speaking about their stories. I think it is harder to just walk up to someone and say, Hey, tell me about what happened. Like, who are you? And, in a way, you know my father died in the middle of making this film, of editing it, and in a way, because I had had these intimate conversations with everyone, they became some of my best friends during my grieving period. And, in a way, editing the film and weaving their stories together while I was dealing with my own grief and speaking to them about their grief and sort of behind the scenes, they are speaking with me, became a very healing process. So I don’t know, maybe the best answer is I tried to become friends with them first before anything else.
Jo Read: The film as this arc of moving through this political awakening and action in Syria, and that moment when Syrians, these artist, are sure change is going to happen. And they are very expressive of that exhilarating feeling they had. And then we have the government response, which was violent and fierce and relentless. And you show a lot of the footage of attacks on demonstrators. Obviously, you weren’t there for that. You got that from someplace else?
David Henry Gerson: Correct, yeah.
Jo Read: And then that wrenching decision to leave, as they realize, My god, if I like something that’s posted on Facebook, I can be arrested.
David Henry Gerson: Yeah.
Jo Read: And I think it’s so hard for us in the West –in Europe and in North America--to really understand the implications of what it means to leave your country. Even though, as Medhat pointed out, this has been going on for thousands of years. But to be at the point, when you’re living in your country and realizing as he said that you just don’t want to understand this anymore. That it’s time to go.
David Henry Gerson: Yeah, right.
Jo Read: It just tore at your heart.
David Henry Gerson: I know, for me, I grew up where, being a Caucasian man, I could protest. I could go to the White House and protest any time I wanted. And I did. To learn from them that protesting is a life-or-death situation, and like you say, even liking on Facebook, sharing something, anything online showing your interest in this expression of grievance against one’s government could and, to my understanding, continues to this day, land someone really in a dire, terrible situation. That was shocking to me, given my background as an American. And of course, I knew about it. And of course, even now I know about it. And of course, I know more today than I did when I started the film, by far. But this was just very hard to process. I think Diala in the film says at one point, You know, American movies show bombed out buildings and destruction here and there, but it’s so hard to comprehend. And even after having looked through hours and hours of awful, awful, awful footage, very little of which is in this film, it’s such an alien experience. And some of them have even said, even though you’ve experienced it yourself, once you’re living freely in France, as she is, it’s hard to think, did this really even happen? And I think that’s where art has a very unique power to illuminate these complexities to a viewer. And of course, we have many different forms of art in the film. We have dance and music and visual arts. And I think that was really the main impetus for doing this, was seeing this destruction and other realm through their lens, through their art works. Not in a literal way, n this Trojan horse kind of way, of allowing a viewer to come in more gently perhaps into this world. I often talk about something called the Van Gogh effect, where we see Van Gogh’s Starry Night on a sidewalk, on a billboard, on someone’s backpack or computer screen. You see it so many times that when you go to the Met or the MOMA or wherever it is and you see the actual painting, it takes about ten minutes of looking at the image before all your preconceived notions can disappear, can just dissipate. And the same is true for Syria or a Holocaust film or any kind of film where we have preconceived notions. You have to find a way to bypass this Van Gogh effect. And I think that’s what these guys do really brilliantly.
Jo Read: Well, One of the artists in the film, the extraordinary painter Tammam Azzam said, I think very rightly, Art can talk about politics. Politics can’t talk about art.
David Henry Gerson: Yeah.
Jo Read: And he’s also an example of the Trojan Horse you referred to. He uses western images imposed on scenes of destruction—images of the Mona Lisa of Goya’s The Third of May superimposed on scenes of destruction in Syria.
Jo Read: Like Goya’s The Third of May or the Mona Lisa or these images that he then superimposes and they are extraordinary work.
David Henry Gerson: Yeah, yeah. Tammam’s journey is tracked in the film and those works came very early. It was called the Syrian Museum. They became very famous. They were on CNN. They became very popular on Instagram. These were images where he did mashups of photographs of the destruction of Syria against popular Western images. Like you said, Third of May, Mona Lisa, Gauguin, Clint, Matisse. He took these iconic images, again, to try to find a way to get a Western world to look at what was happening in Syria.
Jo Read: Exactly.
David Henry Gerson: These were images that he posted very early on, I believe 2012, to bring attention to what was happening. Then, after he left, and now ten years later, the mission changes. The immediacy of trying to get people to pay attention to this injustice changes. And you’re trying to go on living your life and you’re no longer in Syria, and in some cases your family is still there, and you don’t feel that your uprising is making the change that you had hoped for. And the artwork changes, therefore, too. His works now are no longer these graphic designed smaller images. He makes, and you see them at the end of the film, these larger, immersive, paintings that fill the periphery of your image. And I feel when I see Tammam’s paintings, it’s as if he’s transporting himself back to Syria. And there’s a mixture between images of destruction and images of the natural landscape, which is a volcanic rock landscape near Suwayda in the south Syria. And it’s this abstraction between nostalgia for home and horrors of home that can only be accessed in art. I find that fascinating. I find that evolution of his work just really fascinating, in watching how an artist evolves over time in processing this war.
Jo Read: And one of the methods he uses in these paintings and we see it in the film is that he layers paints on the canvass and then scrapes it away which of course changes the color and the texture and it seems like such a fitting way to depict destruction and what lies beneath.
David Henry Gerson: Yeah. Absolutely.
Jo Read: I thought the musicians had more difficulty in expressing themselves through their art than the visual artists. And I think they felt it too. Abu the rapper says, Yes, I have freedom of expression but it doesn’t make sense now. Because there are no echoes.
David Henry Gerson: Yeah.
Jo Read: And Anas who was in the rock band says, What am I saying with my art now?
David Henry Gerson: Yeah.
Jo Read: And obviously, language is an obstacle if you’re living in Berlin, you’re living in France. If you’re rapping and singing in Arabic, who is the audience and where does this resonate? Especially when you’re also looking to survive and searching for an artistic identity in a country that isn’t your own.
David Henry Gerson: Yeah. We had, early on in the film, a question. And the opening sequence of the film is a song by Anas, sung in Arabic, filmed in a place that still has the destruction of World War II in it, an old music hall in Berlin. I was speaking with Anas about this the whole way through. We didn’t know whether we should subtitle the work or not. And that’s something unique to obviously language of music that the painters don’t have to deal with as directly. The song-- there were just so many metaphors that were beautiful, but sometimes just hearing the song itself transported you more than if you had to use your thinking brain in looking at the actual words. And I think you’re right. I think that’s one of the challenges is on what level can I fully communicate? And again, as my audience changes, as my community changes, how do I find new tools to communicate and to express myself, both to get it off my own chest and so that the receiver of my artwork can grasp the full meaning and intent of what I was after?
Jo Read: Yeah. Anas certainly had a thriving career and now he’s living in a room. And that has to be a very hard transition.
David Henry Gerson: Yes. I think also, one thing that isn’t entirely clear in the film, that room in the film is a dorm room. He is studying at Bard College in Berlin. So he was going from being this rocker to studying and living in a dorm room. He does have a studio and other places he is working. And it is a transition, though, for all of them. And really, for any artist you know. There’s the ups and downs of a career and what I find most inspiring by Anas and by many of the other artists in the film is how no matter the circumstance, no matter whether you’re Medhat on the road, struggling to survive, or you’re in your dorm room or you’re in your larger studio, they are always finding ways to turn these very dark, awful circumstances into creativity and not looking away, but looking into it and using it. And I find that very inspiring. We’ve all in this world, globally, had a very difficult time during Covid and the pandemic of last year and continue to have, and I see what these guys do and whenever I’m feeling sad or lost or hopeless, when I look at their stories, I feel real hope and that resilience is just such an important character trait. I just feel very inspired by their ability to always rise.
Jo Read: Well, I think it was Medhat who said, You know, well I’m lucking I'm an artist. I have a place to put these memories.
David Henry Gerson: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Jo Read: And I was also so moved by Medhat teaching traditional Syrian dance at a community center in Berlin as a way of giving back, of offering something to the country that took him in.
David Henry Gerson: And it’s beautiful. I’ve taken part in that class. Obviously, we filmed it. But I got to take part as well in his community Dabke classes. And Dabke is the Syrian dance. And it’s just like such a beautiful, joyful thing, of people from all nations, all cultures coming together, putting their hands together, dancing in a circle. And I think that’s just like, some people ask about integration and assimilation, and these are very difficult words because, as Abu Hajaar says in his rap, Do you want me to eat your currywurst instead of my tabbouleh?
Jo Read: Yeah.
David Henry Gerson: Well you should still be able to eat your tabbouleh. And I think the ability not to deny one’s identity, but to actively share it and help people and educate and bring the beauty of one’s culture, that’s what the free world is about, in my opinion. And, again, I find that really beautiful and inspiring.
Jo Read: I think if we’re talking about resilience, we have to call out the dancer Mohammad Sabboura.
David Henry Gerson: Also known as Bboy Shadow.
Jo Read: Also known as Bboy Shadow. Talk about exuberance! He’s gone through so much and yet, his spirit and his embrace of life is infectious.
David Henry Gerson: He’s amazing. We met him dancing in Lesvos in Moria. Moria, I think the closest word I can associate with Moria is Babel. There are 73 different nations, or there were. It’s actually burned down last year. There were 73 different nations from around the world in one camp that was built for around two thousand people that was housing, at the time that we were there, 14,000 people. I’ve never seen this many people living on top of each other and just the most difficult place I’ve ever been to. He we met jumping. Literally doing backflips, flipping around inside of this place. And he said to us, I need to dance every day to get the negative energy out of my body. And it’s like, that’s how we survive as a human species. And is just like a beautiful encapsulation of that, of his ability to just transform energy in his movement and in his body. And we have a scene with him calling his mother.
Jo Read: I was just going to ask you about that. Oh my god. Yes please.
David Henry Gerson: And even then, she was at that time still in Syria and in a terrible situation without ability to get electricity or diesel or gas to cook. And he’s charming her. What else is he going to do? And he’s making jokes on the phone.
Jo Read: And cooking with her.
David Henry Gerson: And cooking with her, yes. That’s something that I particularly liked.
Jo Read: I love that. We should explain he’s in this communal kitchen and he’s facetiming with his mom and cooking as they’re speaking and she’s giving him advice about what he should be doing.
David Henry Gerson: And he’s bringing a smile to her face. Yeah, I think you’re right. It’s just really the resilience and the buoyancy of his spirit is something that really felt just totally inspiring and something I was glad to be able to share with people.
Jo Read: Oh, and I was so glad to see it. Tell me about the editorial process. I don’t envy you for a second.
David Henry Gerson: I don’t encourage you to envy me. I like to think of myself like Penelope weaving the tapestry of Odysseus. And these artists were Odysseus and I was Penelope, weaving and unweaving every night. Trying to weave the story together is very, very difficult. If you’re writing a screenplay, and my background is really a narrative work, if you’re writing a screenplay, you can look at it as for every letter you’ve got one click. Right? If you’re editing a film, it’s more like eight clicks. So it takes eight times as long in a way, because you’re looking for something, you’re finding it, you’re finding the effects, you’re finding the right song to match with this and that. And it became really an almost immersive process for myself. We started off with another editor named Christopher Robin Bell, who is fantastic, and he really helped us do the sort of what I call the paper edit. Where he really got the words laid out. And then, like I said, my father got ill and I moved to Washington and brought the hard drive with me. And just almost as a coping mechanism, and throughout Covid actually, had the project to really just get lost in interweaving, in trying to find where the through lines in the artworks and the stories to bounce off of each other, have moments where there’s humor or total tragedy and then cut the tragedy with humor, and really trying to bring their personality and their creations into one cohesive piece. Yes, it’s an arduous process.
Jo Read: I bet. Because you brought in their visual work, their music, their dance.
And I wonder, did you consult them about which paintings you were going to show and how you were going to show it? How involved were they in the editorial process, or were they not at all?
David Henry Gerson: Every step of the way. I mean, not every step because, obviously, you’ve got to show options to them. But certainly showing them, saying, Well, do you like this image? Are there images you like more? Should we subtitle the song or not subtitle the song? It was very much working with them, but also they kind of provided and very generously opened up their archives, both of their photographs and videos from their journeys, as well as all of their created works, really giving us sort of full range to play with and intersperse as we felt made sense.
Jo Read: You know, I just want to touch on this briefly because I think it’s important. So you do the film. You have it scored. It’s done. You even have all the permissions taken care of. And I know what that’s like. And then you have the great joy of distributing it. Job number two, and it’s really probably the more tiresome one, but equally important.
David Henry Gerson: It’s a whole different part of the brain. It’s a whole different part of the brain. And we are still looking for distributors, so if you’re listening to this, give us a call. But, you know, it’s a different part of the brain. As a creator, as an artist, on the one hand you want to just get lost in creating and weaving and creating. I’ll just leave it at that. And then you’ve got to get people to see your work. As inspiring as Van Gogh is, I don’t want to cut off my ear and die before anybody sees what I’ve made. We’re making this to have an impact, and you really want to reach the widest possible audience so that the film can do the greatest amount of good, if it can. And so it is a whole different thought process. And so we’ve just had our first festival premieres. The German ambassador in Washington opened her doors to us and had their sort of first kind of roundtable conversation about the film following the premiere. And it’s those kinds of conversations amongst artists, policymakers, organizations, that is really what we hope to continue to do with this film, so that it, again, can be used. I sort of said to them that day, another kind of mythological analogy, but I like think that this film is like a shield and my hope is that the Achilles’ out there, the warriors out there who are doing this fight on the ground can use this shield for their purposes. And that’s the task now, is finding those organizations, finding the people who are doing the work in refugee camps, in Syria, around the world dealing with these issues, and allow them to have the film so that they can create dialogue and awareness and use it as best that they see fit.
Jo Read: You’ve had premieres at Hot Docs and AFI DOCS fest. And AFI and, I imagine Hot Docs was too, was a hybrid. It was virtual but then there were some things happening in theaters.
David Henry Gerson: Yeah.
Jo Read: So what was that experience like, of screening this virtually?
David Henry Gerson: Honestly, I grew up in the theater. I grew up as an actor and in the theater, and I love being on stage and I love the interaction with an audience. And a virtual screening is very difficult. It’s very hard to gauge how your audience is feeling. Where are they silent? Where are they crying? Where are they laughing? So it’s very difficult. On the other hand, virtual is beautiful because people around the world who would not be able to see it otherwise, or at least these are geo-blocked screenings, in the United States or in Canada were able to see the film that would not have been able to if it was only in theaters. So there’s plusses and minuses, and again, the goal is for the greatest amount of people to be able to engage with the film and use it.
Jo Read: And then being there in person of course is the interaction and the connections that you can make.
David Henry Gerson: Absolutely.
Jo Read: Which happens with festivals and which is so important for independent film.
David Henry Gerson: Absolutely, absolutely, yeah. Finding your allies is so essential when doing independent projects like this. For anyone listening who does do independent film, you know, you just have to constantly be knocking on doors and pushing your project forward because you don’t have the massive supports. So anybody who comes along, like you for example, who helps give a platform to your work really means the world.
Jo Read: Can you tell me how the artists in the film are doing? You say at the end they’re still creating. Are they thriving?
David Henry Gerson: I guess it depends on how you define thriving. They’re really all in various degrees of their careers. Some of them are still dealing with visa processes and the sort of bureaucratic applications of asylum and stuff like that. Some of them never applied for refugee status at all. One, Tammam for example, is up in D.C. having an exhibition right now, had an exhibition in San Francisco at the Haines Gallery, just finished a month-long solo show in Berlin at the Kornfeld gallery. In fact, they just projected his images you were speaking of in like the Bundestag and other government buildings around Germany. Other artists are having residencies, are working, and some are very much struggling, as any artist does. What’s kind of exciting for me about the film is it’s really a wide spectrum. Tammam is really the most, in a way, successful Syrian artist, or sort of renowned Syrian artist. And on the other side of the spectrum, for example, B Boy Shadow, even though he’s got ten thousand Instagram followers, he’s getting a start. He’s a younger guy and it’s a different medium as well. So there’s really a variety, and we’re doing all we can on our Instagram, which is @thestorywontdie and on our website thestorywontdie.com to keep sharing works that they’re doing, concerts, exhibitions, performances, so that if people want to support these artists, I think the best way is go see their work and help champion their work. And other artists like them.
Jo Read: David, thank you. And I truly mean this. Thank you for making this film. I find immensely it moving.
David Henry Gerson: Thank you so much. I’m really honored.
Jo Read: That is Director David Henry Gerson we were talking about his film The Story Won’t Die. Find out more about the film and about the truly extraordinary artists whose stories it tells on Instagram @thestorywontdie. And we also heard “El Ra’sa” (The Dance) which was composed and performed by Anas Maghrebi. It’s from the film The Story Won’t Die.
You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Keep up to date with everything happening at the NEA including information about ARP funding for arts organizations at arts.gov.
I’m Josephine Reed. Stay Safe and thanks for listening.
In his documentary The Story Won’t Die--an official selection of the AFI DOCS Film Festival-- director David Henry Gerson looks at the lives and work of eight Syrian artists in exile. Since the civil war in Syria began ten years ago, more than half of the country’s population has been forcibly displaced. Of these, 6.8 million are refugees and asylum-seekers who have fled the country. The life of an artist is never easy—but to create art, first, under a violent and oppressive dictatorship, and then, as a refugee struggling to survive in a strange land, is something else again. What meaning does free expression have for someone in exile? Who is there to see or hear? Where can words and images resonate? How do you make a community in exile? These are some of the questions that the artists ask themselves and that The Story Won’t Die explores. These artists do continue to create in spite of displacement, As Gerson says, they “find ways to turn very dark, awful circumstances into creativity.” The Story Won’t Die interweaves the stories of these eight artists, with their art—music, dance and visual arts—taking pride of place in the film and becoming a central part of the narrative. In this podcast, David Henry Gerson talks about his decision to make a film that focuses on Syrian artists in exile, the relationship that developed with the artists, interweaving the art with their stories, the burden of exile, and the extraordinary resilience shown by these artists under dire circumstances.