Young Filmmakers from Conflict-Ridden Countries Tell Stories of Love and Sports

A group of young international filmmakers

A group of young international filmmakers whose work is being developed with the organization Films Without Borders. (Photo: Jocelyn Gonzales)

What’s your film about? I asked Ahlam Darwish, 17, from Jerusalem, while waiting for her film to screen at the Curious Pictures studio in Manhattan.

“It’s about a very talented, young girl who plays the piano, but what many do not know is that she is about to go blind,” Darwish replied excitedly.

Who is this girl?

“Me,” she replied before erupting into giggles.

Darwish, an upbeat Arab-Israeli with a smiling face, is one of 10 teens who created short films about their worlds with the UK-based Films Without Borders. It’s a nonprofit organization that works with young filmmakers from “disadvantaged backgrounds” to create films that “break down barriers, build bridges and create a dialogue.” A curated selection of their films were screened in New York this April.

“The Gift,” Darwish’s 20-minute documentary about her love of piano music and her struggle with imminent blindness, was one of the films. The others included “The Ticket,” a story about finding love in a lost bus ticket; “Unknown Circumstances,” a tale of superstition set in Israel; “Love & Obsession,” about a shy girl learning to dance who ends up teaching her classmates her unique style of dancing; and “Football the Wonderful Game,” which chronicles the lifestyle of a devoted football fan in all its hilarity.

Not one of the films had a political message.

“The ideas were their own. We had nothing to do with it,” said producer-director Richard Blanshard, who assisted the filmmakers between the ages of 15 and 18 on technical aspects as writing scripts, editing and camera & lighting. “They chose to do love stories and sports.”

The film closest to sending a political message was Darwish’s “The Gift.” She said she’d like her film to call attention to the Arab minority living in Israel. About 20 percent of country’s population is Arab, many of them living in Jerusalem.

“This film is not about me,” she told Feet in 2 Worlds. “It about our life, our music, how we live.”

Ahlam Darwish, a 17 year old Arab-Israeli filmmaker from Jerusalem

Ahlam Darwish, a 17 year old Arab-Israeli filmmaker from Jerusalem. (Photo: Jocelyn Gonzales)

The story follows her around as she plays Bach, Beethoven and Arab music even as she suffers from a condition called ‘retinitis pigmentosa,’ which can lead to premature blindness. It shows her quiet, charming Jerusalem neighborhood and interviews her mother about how the family is coping with Darwish’s possible loss of sight. The young woman teaches piano to young children and also goes to a music therapist to help with her condition.

Rwandan Jeannette Umugwaneza, 20, said she directed the romantic comedy “The Ticket” because “you need love in order to survive.” Umugwaneza also starred in her film about a Rwandan woman who falls for a fellow passenger after he gives her a ticket that allows her to get on a bus. They agree to meet for a date but she finds out he is seeing another woman. Conflicted about her feelings, the woman tries to forget the two-timing passenger until she runs into him again. This time, he introduces the other woman as his sister.

“I like being the director,” said Umugwaneza. “I just tell people what to do.”

Asked in a panel discussion about the most difficult part about the filmmaking process, the young directors said seeking permission from people and authorities can be time-consuming.

Films Without Borders gives young people opportunities that are more than often not readily available to them, said founder Jill Samuels. “It is about leaning about one’s self, and learning about others as well as learning the first stages of filmmaking, ” she said.

The teens were chosen from a list of potential candidates submitted by the British Council offices in various countries. The films are produced over the course of two weeks, with professionals like Blanshard providing advice on technical matters. The best films are selected and shown around the world and the young filmmakers are invited to speak about their experiences and get to meet famous names in the industry, such as George Lucas and Whoopi Goldberg.

Darwish, who described herself as shy, said the film forced her to confront her condition and share it with her audiences.

“I do not say my disease in a loud voice,” she said, but in the film, “I have to be prepared to tell about it in front of other people.”

AboutCristina DC Pastor
Cristina DC Pastor, a former Fi2W Business and Economics Reporting fellow, is the publisher and editor of The FilAm ( Her book, “Scratch the News: Filipino Americans in Our Midst” (Inkwater, 2005), is a celebration of ordinary citizens at the center of extraordinary stories. She is a graduate of The New School.