This was a line from one of the many profound anecdotes that Nigel relayed fondly to us over the course of the week we spent together in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. I couldn’t help but think that the trip we were on would inspire anecdotes of my own some day.
I first came to hear of this particular project when Majid - one of the people I’m very fortunate to work for at Penny Appeal, presented it to me and suggested the possibility of filming some content, which could be used to promote the programme and secure funding for its continuation, in Lebanon and elsewhere. It’s quite normal for me to receive information about programmes that have a potential for filming but this one stood out above all the others that had come previously for me. It was intriguing. Usually the programmes we have delivered for Syrian refugees have centred around life-saving emergency aid - but the last time I was in a refugee camp in Lebanon I came away with one of the beneficiaries comments ringing in my head, ‘we appreciate the food and emergency aid, but we need more - we need healthcare, education, a future to hold hope for’. This particular project, ‘Harmonics’, was offering something close to that - a three month course for children living in the camps to learn to sing and express their emotions through creative art forms with the intention of relieving the symptoms of trauma they developed as a result from fleeing bombs and crossing a terribly dangerous border. At the end of the programme they would perform ‘Peace Train’ - a Cat Stevens song that felt so incredibly relevant to their situation.
I knew exactly who I needed to hire for this too - the project was too beautiful and had so much depth it had to be executed well and tell the real story. A few months previous I had been in another part of the Middle East with a Director, Roscoe Neil and a Cinematographer, Dave Galloway. The chemistry of the team as we worked together there felt special, and their interactions with the Middle-Eastern people and culture made me feel sure they were the right people to take on this next adventure. Roscoe came on board as Director, with Dave joining the team as the DOP. We had multiple discussions about the project prior to flying, and researched our main protagonist, Nigel Osborne, to find out as much as we could about him. He is very much one of the pioneers of using music as a form of therapy for victims of conflict, having previously delivered similar programmes in places such as Bosnia, Kosovo and the Middle East. We purposely didn’t over-script what we wanted to shoot and what story we wanted to tell, as we wanted to leave room for discovery and fluidity in the documentary. For this reason we pre-planned to spend the first day in Lebanon purely as an exploration/recce day rather than plan to shoot any scenes.
Our arrival to Lebanon wasn’t without issue (arriving to the Middle East rarely is in my limited experiences) - having passed through passport security roughly one hour later than expected we found out that our car that was pre-booked was no longer waiting - and as such we were stuck at Beirut airport at 1am searching for a non-booked taxi to take us to Bekaa Valley… not the safest situation I’ve ever found myself in. I spent the entire drive working out emergency plans, messaging the license plate of the car we had taken to our emergency home-based contact and praying that the not-so-well maintained vehicle being driven at excess speeds on the extremely bendy mountain road would make it to the hotel. Anyone who has visited Lebanon can sympathise I’m sure with having at least one dodgy car ride whilst you’re there. We made it, thankfully.
As previously mentioned our first day was to be spent visiting the project and trying to understand what it was we wanted to capture. We knew that at the end of the week the programme would finish and the children would perform in a theatre to their relatives and friends - so we knew we had to build a narrative that led to that pay off, but needed to work out how. We were introduced to Nigel at the offices of the delivery partner, SAWA for Dev & Aid, as well as the partners themselves and the teachers who were working with the children. Without the pressure of cameras we were able to chat freely with Nigel, the partners and the teachers about the programme and build a rapport with all of them, which in retrospect I feel was vitally important for filming later in the week. Sometimes local NGO partners can be suspect or wary of foreign camera crews, and understandably so, given the tendency in the past for Western charities to exploit beneficiaries for financial gain. Being able to let them get to know us as much as us trying to work out them meant that for the rest of the week we felt completely comfortable in their company - and I would hope that they felt similarly. We were also introduced to our personal driver, Fouzi, and interpreter, Bashar, who would be with us for the week. They were both Syrian refugees themselves and helped us to really understand better the situation from a Syrian perspective, as well as taking us to the best places to eat and keeping comedy never too far from the scene.
That first night myself, Roscoe and Dave spent around 6 hours and 200 cigarettes hammering out the narrative of the film in Roscoe’s hotel room. We went one way then the other, argued about one direction then switched positions and argued for the opposite. We lived and created on paper a thousand different films that evening, but eventually settled on a basic script, shot list and shooting plan that we were all happy with, and couldn’t wait to get started on. Again, looking back this felt like one of the most important parts of the filmmaking journey for this project and made me confident I’d picked the right crew - asking people to work past 9pm on an acclimatisation day with little sleep the night before doesn’t usually work out this well!
I won’t go into too many specifics of the shooting days so as to not spoil the film for those that haven’t seen but over the course of the next 5 days we shot within the camps, at the rehearsal space where the children were and in the classrooms where the children were being educated. Roscoe always kept an eye on the narrative to make sure we were telling the story in the way we envisaged it being told, Dave set up each shot meticulously to make sure the film visually was better than anything we had done before and I ensured everyone was okay, that we were in the places we needed to be at the times we needed to be there and pushed everyone around the film to give us that little bit extra. Working in extreme heat in a country such as Lebanon where you don’t have the same conveniences so readily available can be stressful but the shoot generally felt very calm, and bar some very minor hiccups it was one of, if not the smoothest shoots I’ve produced.
Nigel himself, or ‘Nige’ as we came to call him - something which even now almost a year on he brings up as something he was very fond of during the week, was more than an inspiration to our team. The man is a shining beacon amongst the humans on this planet and has received far more esteemed recognition than this blog, however it’s worth sharing just a few thoughts on this leader, pioneer and visionary. Nige told us many anecdotes over the course of the week about his charity work and the differences he had seen in former beneficiaries - tales of people with no hope being given hope, and going on to make differences in their communities and countries was so compelling to hear. Filming wise he gave us everything we asked for and more, never tiring or asking to cut, never refusing to repeat a line and even allowing us to film some more personal shots in his hotel room. I couldn’t speak more highly of the guy, and will hold him as a role model to aspire to as I write my own story.
I’d be remiss to not mention the refugee children as well in this post. It’s hard to fathom what these kids have been through. They’ve been bombed out of their homes, lost family members, then had to make a horrendously dangerous journey to cross the border to Lebanon. Once they’ve reached Lebanon they’ve had to grow up in tents made of tarpaulin, surviving off charitable donations and anything else they can get their hands on. You can’t comprehend it, you just can’t. And yet. Within a couple days these kids felt comfortable enough around us to want to be involved in the filming - or more likely to play a game of football. They laughed and joked with us and tried to steal Dave’s phone. It was so clear what a difference SAWA for Dev & Aid have made with these kids, giving them an education and delivering the Harmonics programme - when I compare the children here to children I have met in other refugee camps in Lebanon it’s not even comparable. These children somehow seem happy despite everything, in contrast to children I’ve seen who aren’t part of this programme and are understandably miserable/bored/traumatised from their experiences. At the end of the day this is why this programme is so important - it allows children to be children despite the circumstances, it allows them to understand better their grievances and express their emotions to relieve the trauma that sits inside them, and it allows them to grow up as humans with a hope for the future rather than angry at the world around them that they otherwise would have had a right to feel forsaken by in their hour of need.
Once back in the UK, Roscoe managed to cut together the film relatively quick and even on the first draft we knew we had a fist pump moment coming. It looked beautiful thanks to Dave’s talents and it told the story we wanted, with Nigel nailing every line and delivering the emotion to screen that was felt on the location. There was a small issue of all the footage being stolen along with the Mac it was being edited on but I’ll let Roscoe tell that story himself! The decision was made on final draft to put it in front of various trusted critics to see if it was worth putting onto the festival circuit, with the aim of delivering the film to a wider audience and attracting investment into the programme as well as awareness for the cause.
And here we are…
For more information about the film and screening locations visit asongcantburn.com
Photos by Roscoe Neil & myself, Martin Ball