“The Story Won’t Die” director David Henry Gerson wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for the United States welcoming refugees—specifically, his Uzbekistan-born father, the son of Holocaust survivors—after World War II.
Exploring the ways people process traumas of the past is in his filmmaker DNA, he admits.
“When I heard that the crisis in Syria was the largest displacement of people on the planet since World War II, something told me I had to pay attention to this,” said Gerson during an extended post-screening panel, screened exclusively for Variety in advance of his film’s world premiere at the 2021 Hot Docs festival.
“The Story Won’t Die” intertwines the stories of nine Syrian artists active during their country’s uprising in the early 2010s—musicians, dancers, and visual artists who fled their homeland during the civil war that followed, and who continue to make art deeply connected to the ideas and emotions of those experiences.
Los Angeles-based Gerson told Variety earlier this week that he is currently developing a narrative feature, “Bird of Paradise,” which is set on Lesvos and draws from the refugee issues at the heart of his feature documentary.
For the sometimes emotional hour-long panel, which is appended to Hot Docs’ presentation of the 83-minute film, Gerson was joined by political rapper Abu Hajar and visual artist Diala Brisly, both subjects of the film, and by well known American street artist and activist Shepard Fairey, who is not in the film, but is an early fan of it. Variety chief film critic Peter Debruge moderated.
While shifting their artistic practices to express political ideas was a gradual process, all the artists on the panel said they had experienced vivid moments of realization.
“When the revolution started in 2011, I still didn’t know what to do with my art to talk about this, although many of us we were involved on the ground, for example protesting,” recalled Brisly, who left Syria in 2013, and is now based in France and has been exploring ideas and practices in art therapy.
“But it became clearer that things were not going well,” she continued. “Damascus became like little islands of checkpoints, and I started drawing because I had that sense that I could be drawing about what is happening. But I didn’t know then that it could be useful.”
Hajar, who is considered a fugitive in Syria and talks in the film about being imprisoned for his early music, released his first single during the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. In a brief rundown on the development of Arab hip-hop, he described himself as the first generation of political rappers in the region.
“I was doing something reactionary, but it got that political stamp from the beginning,” continued Hajar, a political theory academic who is developing his next album. “So I would say I didn’t politicize hip-hop but it politicized me.”
“It’s funny that Abu and I were both made more political by the invasion of Iraq by the U.S., which was a big turning point for me,” remarked Fairey, adding that the seeds of dissent were also planted in him by hip-hop artists such as NWA and Public Enemy.
“For me, it was realizing public spaces are relegated to government signage or corporate advertising but you’re not supposed to do anything that’s personal or political expression in that space—well, I don’t like that idea. So all those things came slowly into focus and really made me more overtly political in the early 2000s.”
Fairley believes that “The Story Won’t Die” will move audiences to greater awareness and understanding of the Syria crisis. “We’ve all seen footage of bombed-out buildings in Syria and statistics, but it’s the individual stories that will make everyone see themselves in the people in this film.
“The big problem here has been people not seeing the humanity in people from other cultures or other nations. It’s our job as artists to push through and see each other for who we are and the film does that really powerfully.”
For Brisly and Hajar, their current artistic practices are works-in-progress that are adjusting to new parameters.
“Up until the end of 2016, I still had the motivation and I was still doing a lot,” said Hajar. “I felt the responsibility, I felt all the guilt regarding the people I left in Syria who were still struggling and I needed to commit to do something good, transmit their voices.
“But after the fall of Aleppo I felt I was done. I kind of lost all of my childish hope and imagination of a better world. Now what motivates me is our psychological recovery. There was no time to think about that in Syria. It was the adrenaline rush.”
“Our dream, our right to change the system, it should be normal but apparently it was irrational,” Brisly added. “We really need to think of change from a different perspective, make it achievable, so we can feel alive and have hope.
“There is still something to be said, there is something to be continued. The story didn’t die and it’s not the final shape of our history. It’s not even the final shape of me.”
“The Story Won’t Die” is directed by David Henry Gerson and produced by Odessa Rae (formerly of Ivanhoe Pictures), with award-winning Syrian journalist Abdalaziz Alhamza serving as coproducer. Sales are being handled by David Koh.