An Interview by Ashia Lance
SIMPLE AS WATER is an exquisitely shot and urgent film that looks at war and displacement through the lens of parenthood. The San Francisco International Film Festival’s “Doc Stories” noted “The modern world has become all too familiar with images of refugees fleeing their homes, desensitized to the onslaught of harrowing images and heartbreaking stories. Academy Award® winner Megan Mylan (LOST BOYS OF SUDAN, SMILE PINKI) trains her lens on the everyday acts of courage and determination that drive her protagonists, featuring families in Turkey, Greece, the US, and Syria. From a soft-spoken Uber driver who sacrifices everything for his teenage brother to far-flung parents urged on by parental love, this timeless film explores ties that bind and the dreams that empower humans to overcome the unthinkable.”
We invite you to discover from Mylan’s film and this interview what happens after these displaced individuals find sanctuary and slip from the headlines?
You have quite a range of experiences. Tell me about your journey from Oregon to Georgetown’s foreign service to Brazil and to documentary filmmaking.
I don’t have one of those “aha” stories of wanting to make films or, when sort of an international focus exactly came in. But I think in parts I’ve always just been really curious about people whose lives are quite different from my own and never necessarily with the idea that it was going to manifest in filmmaking. But my dad was also the lead of the international students’ program at the law school for most of my junior high and high school years so I hung out with them a lot, meeting students from all around the world. I already had that sort of international affair thing, and then I transferred to Georgetown for the School of Foreign Service.
I do think that Georgetown had a lot to do with my ending up being a filmmaker, even though I never took a film class while I was there. I wasn’t raised Catholic, but the Jesuit tradition of social justice and social change was pervasive throughout all of the teaching. I was influenced by mixing all that, being in DC, and meeting all of these amazing core faculty members. Plus the adjunct professors coming in to do human rights work and women’s rights work from around the world. And so out of Georgetown I worked with Ashoka, this really amazing nonprofit (in Brazil)
I met some documentary filmmakers while I was in Rio, and I just instantly felt like I resonated with them. I knew that I had met my tribe. And I started volunteering with them. And then eventually they hired me and I just loved like the layers of it. Sometimes it’s very collaborative and organic. And then other times it’s very cerebral and solitary and just a way to build human connection through stories. It just clicked. That’s my meandering story.
AL: That’s a fabulous story — how did you choose to go to Berkeley?
MM: I was working in Rio as sort of a fixer for a BBC project in the Amazon. It was really interesting but I didn’t feel like I knew anything about filmmaking, and it wasn’t clear to me I was going to be getting into the field in a way that I would learn that much. The same organization had a film festival, and I was the translator for British and US guests. I met international filmmakers like the makers of HOOP DREAMS and BHAJI ON THE BEACH. Everyone said, “You need to learn from some master filmmakers.” And so I decided to try to go to grad school. I think it was when my sister Julie came to visit me and I had written my essays for Berkeley and Stanford. I put them on a disk. She flew back and went to print them at Kinkos to submit on time. The Stanford essay file wouldn’t open and so I only applied to Berkeley!
AL: What an interesting twist of fate!
MM: It was really a good fit. Berkeley has a documentary program within the journalism program. I liked the rigor of the journalism training. It was really hard to adjust to that fast pace of daily journalism, but the rigor of the fact-checking and the sourcing — even though my films don’t feel like they have that — there really is a spine. Especially during the pre-production that informs all the choices of location and character. And emphasis on the edit is something that I really credit Berkeley for instilling in me.
AL: What inspired SIMPLE AS WATER?
MM: I imagine I came to this story, really as a human being — not as a filmmaker — and as a mother. So back in 2016, as the Exodus Out of Syria and the crossing in the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece really intensified, I was just overwhelmed with the news. And I would start every morning just reading hours and hours of coverage and looking at footage and photographs, not really with any intention to make a film. I just couldn’t reconcile that we live in world with all of our modernity and stuff yet we’re allowing families to get out of a war zone, and then forcing them to risk their lives on smuggler boats or using smugglers to go under barbed wire and being chased by dogs.
I just was – “captivated” isn’t the right word — It just really pulled me in a somewhat obsessive way. And, after a while, if you’re a documentary filmmaker, and something has hold of your head and your heart that intensely, you have to start thinking about whether there’s a film for you to tell. And I was in that sort of early motherhood stage where when you have a little person, you know, it’s so primal, so many of the basics of just protection and providing.
But also, I’ve always felt like, my job is equally joy and a sense of security. And that was the piece that I really couldn’t reconcile is like, how is the parent? Do you say that very normal thing of everything’s gonna be okay when you have no way of saying that with any conviction, and everything is out of your control, everything is chaos? You’re faced with that information, that option; it just really pulled me in the way that situation apparently just changes the way you see the world. It’s beauty and joy, but also, it’s injustice.
I was just seeing it, as a parent and as a mother, and I guess I started feeling like, well, maybe that’s a valid point of entry. I never experienced this displacement, I don’t come from a family of refugees. I’ve never been to Syria, and so you have to find some valid points of connection in order to feel you might have something to say about somebody else’s life experience. Once I landed on that sort of connection, then I started thinking about the scale of this exodus. You mentioned having seen LOST BOYS OF SUDAN that I directed with Jon Shenk. That journey very much focused closely on two young men stories and that’s the style of filmmaking I like to do.
But one family’s story felt really anemic for the absolute massive scale of this upheaval and loss of life. And I really chewed on that for a while and landed on this sort of vignetted structure as a way both to be able to film in many different countries to have geographic scale, but also have all of the layers of what conflict and displacement does to families.
I didn’t want to give sort of an artificial sense of linear “Year in the Life” or sort of a full telling of any of the family’s experiences because I knew that we wouldn’t have that. What we would do is drop in for a moment in time that was emblematic of that experience and sort of catch that mix of forward focus, resilience, trying to overcome upheaval, and loss daily. It just felt like maybe they could handoff to each other and build on each other in ways that would feel full and complete but wouldn’t give sort of an artificial tidiness to their stories because they’re so mid-stride.
AL: And for that reason I think it is satisfying as an audience member to see the bookends. That it does have a positive, if not an insecure ending because you don’t really know how things will end…
MM: We decided my point of entry was of parenthood, and then it’s going to be these vignettes. And we did this massive, you know, mini grad school pre-production of interviewing and talking first to Syrians and then refugee advocates and trauma experts; every conversation led to two more conversations.
AL: Was there anything that truly surprised you during the making of the film?
MM: Oh, gosh, so much. I mean, so many surprises – that’s part of what’s so fun about it, right — is that you don’t know what you’re gonna get; you don’t know what your relationship with the people in the film is going to be. You don’t know how they’re going to respond. I like that unknown part of it — as much as you plan like that in the moment, for this observational style, then it’s just organic, and you let go. And hopefully, if you’ve done your homework well, you know what is relevant. And you see the meanings, and also, all of the layers that you were hoping to reveal. If you’ve selected the right subjects at the right time in the right setting, and built trust with them, it’s going to keep offering that up to you.
Director Megan Mylan was interviewed by Ashia Lance at the San Francisco International Film Festival’s “Doc Stories” on November 6, 2021.
SIMPLE AS WATER has played the festival circuit and is now streaming on HBOMAX.
98 minutes – in English and Arabic with English subtitles – not yet rated by the MPA.
Megan Mylan creates intimate observational nonfiction films. She has been recognized with an Academy Award®, Emmy nominations, an Independent Spirit Award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her work includes: SMILE PINKI, LOST BOYS OF SUDAN, RACA, and numerous short documentaries. Megan served several years on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Executive Committee for Documentary. She has a BA from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Master’s degrees in Journalism and Latin American Studies from UC Berkeley. IMDB Filmography.
The filmmaker’s SIMPLE AS WATER website.
Ashia Lance is an educational psychologist and an award-winning screenwriter, documentarian and musician. She is a writer in the Harvardwood Writers Program and a Fall 2021 recipient of the Chao Seat for the Sagansky/Harvardwood TV Module, given by Angela Chao, CEO of Foremost Group and Co-Chair of The Asian American Foundation Advisory Council, to support Harvardwood Asian-American artists and their work.
Megan Mylan tells Hari Sreenivasan about the project on Amanpour and Company.
Watch a conversation between Megan and Maggie Mackay of the Vidiots Foundation.
Simple As Water and HBO are proud to highlight the work of organizations dedicated to protecting and advocating for refugees around the world. If you want to help safeguard the rights of refugees, click on resources below and more information.
Karam invests in young Syrian refugees so they can build a better future for themselves and their communities.
RCUSA is a diverse coalition advocating for just and humane laws and policies, and the promotion of dialogue and communication among government, civil society, and those who need protection and welcome.It promotes efforts to protect and welcome refugees, asylees, asylum-seekers, and other forcibly displaced populations.
The International Rescue Committee helps people affected by humanitarian crises—including the climate crisis—to survive, recover and rebuild their lives.The IRC is now at work in over 40 crisis-affected countries as well as communities throughout Europe and the Americas. We deliver lasting impact by providing health care, helping children learn, and empowering individuals and communities to become self-reliant, always seeking to address the inequalities facing women and girls.
Welcome US celebrates that the United States has long been a beacon of hope for newcomers from around the world. For generations, millions of Americans who started out as refugees have made incredible contributions to our country. The same will be true for this generation. But first, they need our help.