The refugees of the High Falls Women's Film Festival

Oct 29, 2019

"We Are Not Princesses," one of the films being screened during the High Falls Women's Film Festival, tells a story of lives destroyed by war.
Credit Provided by High Falls Women's Film Festival

The High Falls Women’s Film Festival pulls no punches when it opens Thursday at The Little Theatre. When the first film, “We Are Not Princesses,” lights up the screen, a woman who has fled her native Syria matter-of-factly describes wild dogs feeding on dead bodies in the streets.

The event debuted in 2001, and has undergone a few name changes and identity evolutions since then. This year’s program is four days of eight narrative features, five documentaries and four separate screenings of short films, many followed by question-and-answer sessions with the filmmakers. Plus assorted events involving coffee or cocktails, accessorized with some movie talk. 

But while the films -- all produced or directed by women, and running through Sunday -- may be women-centric, the audience is not intended to be limited to women.

Refugees are a recurring theme at this year’s High Falls Women’s Film Festival. “Nowhere” is a documentary on a Vietnamese boat refugee. And Syria plays a role in two of the films. “The Day I Lost My Shadow” is a fictional account of how the war there calls for a choice between fighting for a cause and holding together a family.

“We Are Not Princesses” tells a similar story of lives destroyed by war. It is a powerful documentary, an intimate look at a group of Syrian women who have fled violence for life across the border in Lebanon. Beirut’s an improvement, but not much. As one of the women says, “You could say we’re at the bottom of the refugee ladder.”

Their lives are a curious dichotomy. In one scene, the women might be describing their struggles as refugees. In the next scene, they’ve joined a theater workshop, smoking cigarettes, glancing at their phones, drawing pictures of their costumes and discussing how to read lines from “Antigone.” That’s a 2,000-year-old tragedy by the Greek playwright Sophocles. But these women are updating it, with their own tragic stories of the lives they left behind in Syria.

One was married when she was 14. Another married when she was 15. “I didn’t understand what marriage was,” she says. “My family wronged me when they married me off so young, because they deprived me of love. They kept me from having a beautiful love story in my life.”

And they sometimes speak poetically of their fates: “Life passed over me like the darkness of night.”

Sophocles’ Antigone is a woman who defies authority. She’s saddled with sadness and death, trapped by the circumstances of her life. It’s a trap much like the one that’s caught the women of “We Are Not Princesses.” They’re trying to rebuild their lives, even in this Beirut slum of houses built from cinder block and scrap tin, with the view from their windows one of graffiti and tangles of telephone wires. 

These women are intent on finding some purpose after leaving a society where they couldn’t venture out into the street without a face veil. Where they weren’t even allowed to go to the grocery store.

In spite of some obvious parallels between Antigone and these Syrian refugees, there is one essential difference. “Had she not been the daughter of a king,” one woman explains, “would she have the same strength and self-confidence? We are not princesses. No one knows us nor would say anything if we died. Even in death there is inequality.”

But perhaps there is hope, says another. “Antigone’s story is written, completed and finished. But we are still writing our stories.”

These are women drawn together by a theater group and telling their stories, what could be the premise for a Woody Allen movie. It is not. You may read about what’s happening in Syria, or hear news reports where the president compares the war there to two kids fighting on a playground. No. These refugee women are using an art form, theater, and by extension this film, to bring the horror right to us. And it is real.

For a schedule of the films and events, go to highfallsfilmfestival.com.

Jeff Spevak is WXXI’s Arts & Life editor. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.