By Grace Jensen
“We are Not Princesses,” a documentary feature about a group of Syrian women living in a refugee camp in Lebanon, played at the premiere Nevertheless Film Festival at the Michigan Theater on July 14. The women come together for a theater production of the ancient Greek play Antigone, and each find their own way to relate to the classic story of a young woman who defied orders from the king in order to bury her brother. The film follows four of these women in their rehearsals, conversations, and lives at home. The audience gets to know them as more than just refugees, but as unique individuals, each with their own story to tell.
“When I first started working on this film, I thought of each of these women as Antigone, as heroines,” said co-director, producer, and cinematographer Bridgette Auger. “But as I continued to work on the film, I realized that what most impressed me about these women was how in the face of so much adversity, they maintained their humanity, and humor, and kindness, and their supporting each other. And that’s what makes this story so universal: their ordinariness.”
“We are Not Princesses” presents the horrors witnessed by women in the Syrian refugee crisis but also gives hope that it is possible to heal from such hardships through the arts and sharing with a community. Through relating to the characters in Antigone and comparing the ways they deal with tragedy, the women found solidarity in both the fiction and each other. Throughout the film, they become steadily more confident and outspoken as they reclaim their power.
“I think it’s not enough to give traumatized people food, water, and shelter,” Auger said. “They need community, they need a way to process their trauma. And so the theater rehearsal space provided them [that]. You see in the film that laughter returns to the women as they are able to come to the workshop and hear other women’s stories. There’s one line where Mona [one of the women] says, ‘I became Antigone! I came home last night and my husband’s like, ‘What’s for dinner?’ and I was like, ‘You can make your own dinner! I’m tired, I’m going to rest.’’ And those little changes in their lives, those little battles — wearing makeup, smoking cigarettes, your husband can cook his own dinner — those are the things that added up to substantial changes in their lives.”
Auger described the difficulty in earning the trust of the women, some of whom were not permitted by their husbands to be filmed and shared their stories through animation and voiceover instead. However, for the women who were able to contribute, the documentary provided a means of sharing their experiences with the world.
“They were very afraid about what we were doing with the camera, were we pro-regime or anti-regime?” she said. “I mean there were so many sides, there weren’t just two sides. But through spending time with them, they realized that this was a way they could open up and have their stories be heard. And Mona is so proud that she can show her children that she has done something. She feels like this is something that is beyond just being a mother and a wife and a woman, this is a legacy for her children so they would know this story.”
The Syrian women were not the only ones who took something away from the creation of the film. “I really feel like I found my voice as an artist while making this film, just as the women were their voices,” said Auger. “It was very much in tandem.” Just as the women found solace and community in theater, the filmmaking crew, led by two female directors, found solace and community in putting together the documentary.
Auger and her team are currently taking their film through the festival circuit, but she hopes after the initial screenings are done to be able to use it as a conversation starter for dialogue between refugees and non-refugees in small community discussions. “I know this is a very micro-level way of working, but I think that’s really what we need to be doing right now,” she said. “That’s the legacy that I want to see.” She imagines hosting showings and group discussions in cities like Denver and Atlanta that have been impacted by the arrival of large groups of refugees, who often face challenges integrating into pre-existing communities, and hopes that having difficult conversations will allow all groups to learn from each other and see past their differences to the humanity they share.
“We are Not Princesses” takes a serious political topic (the Syrian refugee crisis) and brings it down to a level that is accessible to the general audience. Through the women’s own accounts of what they’ve seen and felt, it is easier to understand the daily headlines on a real, individual level. Light moments and jokes interspersed keep the film from becoming too heavy. The group’s rehearsals of Antigone provide a focus and a smaller story within the larger story of the refugee camp. Overall, “We are Not Princesses” educates, moves, and inspires. The audience gets to know the four women, their pasts, daily lives, perspectives, and personalities. By the end of the film, their experiences don’t seem so foreign, despite their location on the other side of the world. Whether you have an avid interest in Middle East politics, a passion for classical theater, or enjoy stories of strong women overcoming adversity, “We are Not Princesses” is truly a remarkable film to watch.