This week the internet went crazy when it was announced that Lena Dunham will be adapting the story of a Syrian refugee to be produced and directed by Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams.
The story will be adapted from the book, A Hope More Powerful Than The Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival, written by Melissa Fleming, the chief spokesperson for the United Nations refugee agency.
Fleming’s book recounts the journey of Doaa al-Zamel’s and her fiancee, who found themselves refugees fleeing the brutal Syrian civil war. Al-Zamel’s story is tragic, harrowing and full of horrors, and has been hailed as an eye-opening look into the experience’s of countless refugees. Much of the criticism of Fleming’s book comes from the stark absence of al-Zamel’s own voice. Despite Fleming conducting many interviews and working with various experts to write the story, a review by The Guardian’s Natasha Walter expressed the widespread criticism perhaps most succinctly, that “there is no moment in which you feel Zamel standing beside you, speaking in your ear”.
So now, with Dunham adapting Fleming’s book, and Spielberg and Abrams producing the movie, many have voiced fears that the story is becoming diluted through whitewashing.
Dunham, in particular, has been copping a lot of heat for her decision to work on the project. Many have voiced the opinion that they would have preferred a Syrian writer or someone with personal experience as a refugee adapting the complex story. Whilst I personally disagree with her choice to work on this movie, as this is an opportunity which could have been given to a Syrian or refugee writer, it is important to remember that she is not the instigator of this project. Spielberg and Abrams are. And whilst the duo may be drawn to creating powerful stories on film, to take someone’s story and use it to further your own creative desires, and then choose not to include Syrian writers or people who have experienced life as refugees, is utterly tone deaf.
I mean, I get it. Spielberg and Abrams are veterans in an industry which has historically normalised the concept of white people telling stories that don’t belong to them or that they have little right to tell. The pair probably has no inkling of how appalling their decision to approach a project like this is. But they have an opportunity to use al-Zamel’s story as a platform for other Syrians and refugees to move into the world of Hollywood. There is a danger in only researching, and not including. To not include is not acceptable, and I refuse to support a project that does not include those that the story is actually about.
So I call on Spielberg, Abrams and Dunham to include Syrians and refugees in their film production process. To use their platform as a force for good and give people a leg up in the film industry by allowing them to lend their voices to their film. Al-Zamel’s story is incredibly powerful and in order to do it justice, it needs to be rooted in Syrian and refugee experiences. Without including these voices, the film risks lacking authenticity. And it would be such a shame if an important, harrowing and topical story like this one were to merely become a distorted, whitewashed version of its true self.