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Hot Docs 2021 Women Directors: Meet the Team Behind “Only the Ocean Between Us”

Khaldiya Amer Ali is Syrian filmmaker living in Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan. Her short film “Another Kind of Girl” premiered at Sundance; screened at Cannes and SXSW; was featured on The New York Times’ Op-docs; and won numerous awards, including the Emerging Filmmaker Production Grant from Kassel Documentary Film Festival.

Marah Mohammad Alkhateeb is Syrian filmmaker also living in the Za’atari Refugee Camp. Her short film “Children” won numerous awards at film festivals, including the top award at Punto De Vista International Documentary Film Festival. More recently, Alkhateeb created a short film for the Thomson Reuters Association.

Christy Cauper Silvano is a Shipibo photographer, filmmaker, and cultural practitioner living in Cantagallo, Lima, Peru. She co-directed the short film “Un Pedacito de la Selva en la Ciudad,” which won an audience award at the Mi Primer Festival in Lima. Silvano’s photographs were also featured in the group exhibit “Fotos por el Cambio” at the Peruvian North American Cultural Institute.

Karoli Bautista Pizarro is a Shipibo filmmaker, cultural practitioner, and activist also living in Cantagallo, Lima, Peru. Her short film “Escúchame Cantar” screened at the North Carolina Latin American Film Festival and Alice Fest. Pizarro’s photographs were featured in an article in the Peruvian investigative journal “Ojo Público” about human rights issues in her community during the 2020 lockdown.

“Only the Ocean Between Us” is screening at the 2021 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, which takes place April 29-May 9. The fest is digital this year due to COVID-19. Streaming is geo-blocked to Canada.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

KAA: “Only the Ocean Between Us” is a documentary film about the lives of four refugee women from two different countries and cultures. Despite these differences and the vast distance that keep them apart, there are many points of common ground between the four women.

MMA: It is an interesting documentary film that tells the life of four refugee girls from different countries, with the same ideas and the same dreams.

KBP: “Only the Ocean Between Us” is wonderful. It shows friendship across cultures, one that overcomes distance and language — and the empowerment of young mothers with many dreams through an exchange of ideas.

CCS: For me, the film is the bond of beautiful friendship we formed with women from Syria. We all live in displaced communities and through our videos, we were able to create something so wonderful. It’s really powerful for me because we see the empowerment of four young women who struggle daily against a society that’s so cruel toward women.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

KAA: The bullying we are exposed to as refugees and displaced people — as well as women — and people who perceive us negatively.

MMA: People have a bad idea about [refugee] camps and I want them to get the right picture of the circumstances.

KBP: Many people tell their stories in different ways. Khaldiya, Christy, Marah, and I decided to do so audiovisually because we all want to show the reality behind what people usually see about our cultures or the places we live; to show our constant struggle as young people, mothers, and Shipibo and Muslim filmmakers. We gave people an intimate view of our lives, showed them our homes. We are not from the places where we’re living now, but we’ve worked hard to build our homes and families there.

CCS: I was really drawn to the similarities between all of us. Seeing Za’atari reminded me so much of my community, Cantagallo. I saw that they also had a loudspeaker that is used to call people. All these things filled me with inspiration, and I saw that it wasn’t just us who were struggling — there are similar situations in other countries we may not even know about.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

KAA: All human beings have dreams and aspirations, but not all can achieve them. The reason is that life exists with the rich and the poor; the strong and the weak; and there are those who find life’s opportunity, seize it, and strive to achieve their goals. And there are also those who have not yet had the opportunity to pursue their dreams.

MMA: We are very positive despite many misconceptions about camp life and asylum: in fact, we live a normal life like the rest of the world.

KBP: I don’t just want them to think. I also want them to be inspired by the power of family, by the strength of women, and by the many things we can achieve with perseverance. I also want them to be interested in learning more about how to support filmmaking.

CSS: I want people to be filled with emotion seeing the struggle of four women who formed such a great bond of friendship. I also want audiences to know that young women like us are fighting to change society and the world. And more than anything, I hope that they know how to value my culture — not just mine but also all the cultures of the world. And above all we hope that with this film, we will inspire many women to be unafraid to express who they are.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

KAA: Overcoming [restrictive] customs and traditions was a challenge — and breaking the barrier of ignorance that exists for some people.

MMA: Because we live inside the camp, we are constrained by the security measures and it was difficult to do some of the things we wanted to do. Another problem was the really bad internet connection in the camp.

KBP: For all of us the first obstacle was language, and also being mothers and making a film at the same time.

CCS: The biggest challenge for me was: “How will I talk to my friends in Syria if I don’t speak Arabic, in order to create this bond of friendship?” It made me think a lot. Above all, I challenged myself as a woman because I had to be really creative, so people could see my culture and my language.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

CCS: The film was funded by a grant from Sundance through Another Kind of Girl Collective. We also did a crowdfunding campaign.

It was difficult for us because we didn’t have sufficient funding. We completed the film with the support of our families, who took care of our children while we worked on the film. Sometimes we would bring them with us and tell them not to make any noise because there wasn’t anyone we could leave them with. Other times, we’d get back home really tired but had to keep studying and doing housework. Sometimes, we would walk because we didn’t have the money for transportation. We would even sell our artesanía [handicrafts] when we didn’t have enough to eat or drink in order to achieve what we wanted to.

It was really difficult but also we had to give so much of ourselves to achieve something so valuable. We didn’t have all the tools we needed to be able to make our film and we couldn’t travel to our hometowns to film where we were born. As young mothers, we don’t have a lot of [filmmaking experience], but this motivated us to keep going and show people that with what little we had, we could make something so great.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

KAA: The nature of my life and the environment in which I live in were great inspirations. And my teachers, Laura and Tasneem, I thank them first and last.

MMA: My success in filming and video editing and the opinion of those important people inspired me. When you love people, and they love for you to be successful in your life, you become inspired to be as successful as they are for your future.

KBP: I’m fortunate to be able to film and have my videos and photos show my day-to-day life. It’s not that one thing in particular inspired me but rather every piece of work is my daily inspiration — that the camera can capture every instance of constant change in my world. My filmmaking is an expression of my daily life. I didn’t realize I was a filmmaker. I was introduced to it, and through the camera, I discovered a new way to share my culture.

CCS: Two things inspired me to become a filmmaker: first, my Shipibo culture. I had been afraid to show where I came from because in Peru, there’s so much discrimination that sometimes I would hide who I was. But through videos I’m able to show who I am.

Secondly, my daughter. Sometimes the world turns against you. As a young mother, I received much criticism but all of it motivated me to show that being a young mother doesn’t mean your life is ruined. Sometimes it gives you enough strength to look for the doors to your path, to struggle, and above all to demonstrate that, yes, we can do it.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

KAA: The best advice is to not care what intellectually ignorant people say. There is no worst advice.

MMA: The best advice I received was from my supportive husband: “Follow your dream, you aren’t doing anything wrong. This is your dream, move forward with it.”

The worst advice was from people who would tell me, “You’re a good girl: don’t film yourself and share it, people will talk about you.”

KBP: The best advice: Don’t forget anything. Remember it all and overcome it.

The worst advice: You won’t get anywhere or accomplish anything now that you’re a mother.

CCS: The best advice I’ve received was from my grandmother and my parents. I always remember it, since they are also a part of my struggle. They told me to keep going and continue to do the things I loved. They also told me to always think of God, and thank him for everything he gives me. And if other people don’t like what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes I didn’t have the strength to carry on, but I would just breathe and tell myself that I had to keep going in order to teach others what little I know.

The worst advice I’ve received was that I couldn’t do anything anymore because of my young daughter; that women aren’t good for anything except housework. I always remember that and will never forget it. And because of it I want to show that we women are empowered and capable.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

KAA: From personal experience, my advice is that a woman should be strong despite all the rough circumstances she is going through — there is no place for the weak in this life.

MMA: That all the negative comments from people need to be put behind you. Don’t let these negative circumstances or people to affect your life. As for your dream, have persistence and determination.

KBP: Enjoy whatever method you choose. Enjoy every idea. Don’t erase anything. It could be useful later because every video is different.

CCS: I want to tell them that we women are capable of everything. Being young doesn’t mean the doors are closed. That there are many women who are fighting just to be and show that we are better. We can have many friendships not just where we live, but globally. And by uniting our strength and knowledge, we can change society.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

KBP: I love “I Am Sam” directed by Jessie Nelson. It makes me sad to see how hard it is for the father and how much he does for his daughter, but I also love it because he does a much better job than many other dads, even if they’re more “capable.” I also love “The Hurt Locker” by Kathryn Bigelow because I love an adrenaline rush, and everything is suspenseful and unexpected!

CCS: My favorite woman-directed film is “The Piano” by Jane Campion, about a young woman who is mute but loves playing the piano. Ada has a daughter, but her father marries her to a man who lives in a faraway community, for which they must cross the sea and leave her piano on the beach. One day, a man decides to take Ada to the beach so she can play the piano and then makes an agreement with her husband to bring the piano to his house and learn to play piano. In reality, however, he just wants to abuse her and fulfill his own desires.

We can’t hear the voice of the protagonist but through the cinematographic language it transmits the emotions she is feeling, with the melodies she plays on the piano, that’s how we know when she’s happy, when she’s sad, when she feels despair or loneliness. It shows how her and her daughter’s emotions transform.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

KAA: I will not lie to you: life is very difficult. But I try to live with this issue in order to preserve my family.

MMA: Life was difficult in the beginning because COVID-19 stopped the world and our camp closed down completely. We adapted on a day-by-day basis with this disease and then, with the passage of time, things started to look up. The stress reduced and we continued our work, only via the internet. We did not allow COVID to stop our dream.

KBP: COVID-19 affected everyone, especially those who don’t have good economic or housing situations. But we take care of ourselves with what little we do have and always have our daily bread. And we’re healthy: if we get sick we recover quickly. But we did lose people in our family to COVID.

Throughout the pandemic, I’ve recorded a lot of the organizing and struggle in my community, but I didn’t feel creative. I filmed and photographed but didn’t know what else to do — all I could think about was how worried and scared I was about what was happening in my community.

CCS: The pandemic has affected me a lot: it changed my life. Since it’s really hard to find work in this country, I had to do many things and a bit of everything. I couldn’t film outside my home; I couldn’t take photos. So I had to take work in many places doing different things, such as sewing, artestanía, street vending. And even though I got sick with COVID-19, I had to be creative. I’m still taking photos of everything I do and I’m selling them online. I still film everything that happens in my community, above all our daily struggle for basic services.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

KAA: Stop discrimination and racism: we are all human.

MMA: My answer is: enough racism. Enough with distinguishing between skin color: we are all human beings and have the same goals and ambitions. We all feel together and we all have one heart.

KBP: We women already occupy a lot of different roles, and we still have to break through more of the limits that men have created for us.

CCS: I think we need to break those stereotypes that [are reductive toward] people of color. In my case, there aren’t enough stories about Indigenous people and I don’t see Indigenous women nor Indigenous mothers like me, who tell the story of their daily struggle against society. Not just in my Shipibo culture but also worldwide. It’s time for people to see and know all cultures. And for us people of color to be included not just as secondary characters but as protagonists: to show that we have talent and break those barriers to change society.


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