HBO documentary 'Simple as Water' reveals intimate, untold stories of Syrian refugees

·6 min read

Oscar-winning director Megan Mylan’s latest HBO documentary Simple as Water (on Crave in Canada), which has been shortlisted for the 2022 Oscars, tells stories of Syrian refugees in a more personal and intimate way than you’ve ever seen before.

The film consists of five stories of people in Turkey, Greece, Germany, Syria and the U.S., with a focus on displaced and separated Syrian families affected by the civil war who are trying to stay together and rebuild their lives.

What makes Simple as Water particularly unique is that there is no narrator, no footage of war-torn landscapes and it does not have a focus on politics. This is a completely and entirely human story about family.

Yasmin (right) with her daughter Faten (left) in the HBO documentary
Yasmin (right) with her daughter Faten (left) in the HBO documentary "Simple as Water" (Courtesy of HBO)

Mylan recalls watching the exodus out of Syria across the Mediterranean in 2015/2016. The situation made her question how, as human beings, we were allowing people who had just gotten themselves out of a war zone to be put in a position where they had to negotiate with smugglers and risk their family’s lives to get to safety.

As the mother of a three-year-old at the time, it was seeing the injustices from the perspective of a parent that really touched her.

“It was particularly that point of view of parents wanting to be able to say…to their children, everything is going to be OK, and that we should all have the right to be able to say [that] to our kids, but can’t,” Mylan told Yahoo Canada.

“When [I saw] the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy whose body washed ashore, I fixated on his shoes. He had these little velcro ties and that very morning I had tried to get my son to do his own velcro… I learned that his father had survived and I thought, somebody put those socks and shoes on that child, and now someone has the pain of knowing that he said this is the right thing for us to do and it ended disastrously.”

With these thoughts consuming the filmmaker, she saw a “primal” point of entry to the story, through the family experience.

Muhammad, Fayez, Samra in the HBO documentary
Muhammad, Fayez, Samra in the HBO documentary "Simple as Water" (Courtesy of HBO)

The Syrian families in 'Simple as Water'

First we see Yasmin, a young mother of four children who are living in a tent at the Athens port. She is trying to create a safe space for her kids as she attempts to reunite them with their father in Germany.

Samra is a widow who is grappling with the decision to leave her five children at an orphanage in Turkey so they have a chance to get an education and have a better life, but her eldest son in particular, who has taken on a lot of adult responsibilities, does not want to lose his mother.

Omar, 22, lives in Pennsylvania and has taken on the responsibility of the parent to his brother Abed, whose left leg was blown off in a rocket strike in Syria. Omar is trying to help his brother navigate high school while also waiting to hear if they will both be granted asylum in the U.S.

Diaa remained in Syria when others fled and is trying to search for her son who was sent to Egypt but went back to Syria without telling his parents. He has now “forcibly disappeared” and she is constantly checking social media hoping that he is still alive.

In Germany, Butzbach and roommate Abdullah live in temporary housing and connect over being away from their children, missing milestone moments, anxiously waiting for the day they can hopefully be reunited with their families.

HBO documentary "Simple as Water" (Courtesy of HBO)
HBO documentary "Simple as Water" (Courtesy of HBO)

'This is something more human'

What is particularly impactful in this documentary is Mylan leaning into the complexity and fragmented nature of story, with multiple stories that never come to a true, tied-up resolution, which is a far more honest depiction of the experiences of these families that do not unfold in a linear track.

For Syrian producer Hazem Obid, while he was happy to work with Mylan, he wasn’t particularly excited about the topic of the documentary.

“I wasn't really happy about it, my first reaction was, really, no not a film about refugees,” Obid told Yahoo Canada. “If you're sitting in Germany, back then, [it was] the only thing that you would hear about.”

“Then we had a conversation, a long conversation… This is a film about family, this is something that I don't hear about, [it is] something beyond politics, this is something more human, and it took out my insecurity to talk about it, to work on it.”

Yasmin (right) with her children Mohammad (left) and Faten (center)
 in the HBO documentary
Yasmin (right) with her children Mohammad (left) and Faten (center) in the HBO documentary "Simple as Water" (Courtesy of HBO)

'It's our future unless things radically change'

Mylan also made the famed 2003 film Lost Boys of Sudan, which follows two Sudanese refugees on their journey to America. The filmmaker highlighted that what makes these stories so compelling is that while they may be complex, particularly politically, there is a basic idea that families should be able to stay together and that children should be able to slowly grow up, and should not be thrusted into adult responsibilities.

In 2000, there were less than 40 million people forcibly displaced globally and now that number has dramatically increased to more than 82 million, the most in history, which includes more than six million Syrian people currently living in exile.

“This is our reality, this is our current moment and it's our future unless things radically change,” Mylan said. “As long as there are conflicts, and increasingly so with climate change, people are going to move to safety and it's going to increasingly be so.”

The filmmaker added that we should be asking ourselves questions such as, are we going to demand that policies be put in place to prioritize getting children enrolled in school, even if they are waiting for asylum? Will we offer jobs, education and resources to people to allow them to rebuild their lives when they land?

“That's in everybody's self interest,” Mylan said. “It doesn't even have to be altruistic, it's just how we will have a vibrant society.”

“I think there's no reason to believe that these trends of increasing displacement are going to diminish or go away, and so I really think it's a question of our priorities of offering safe passage when people are getting out of war zones.”

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