“Guppies swimming in a tank, with the entire world peering in.”

That’s how Aaron Wagner describes the Syrian refugees living in the immense Zaatari refugee camp at the Syrian-Jordanian border. With the attention of the international news cycle boring down upon them, but given few opportunities to tell their stories free of editorialization, says Wagner, refugees have largely been denied a chance to express their lives “as they really are.” And while “basic needs—food, shelter, clothing” are the obvious focus for NGOs, “there aren’t many humanitarian organizations focusing on the higher level of human needs, and even fewer doing it through the arts.”

Wagner is trying to change that. He’s the founder of the nonprofit Voices of the Children (VOTC), an organization that conducts extensive filmmaking workshops in Zaatari. Last summer, VOTC teamed up with NGO Save the Children and two young filmmakers from the Syrian diaspora to conduct a three-week filmmaking workshop for children in the camp. Wagner and crew hope that moviemaking will provide their students the privilege of truthful representation and communication.

Faisal Attrache, a Syrian-American moviemaker, and Moe Najati, another Syrian moviemaker born and raised in Dubai, led last year’s workshop. Together, they taught 20 teenagers—14 girls and six boys, ranging from ages 13 to 18 and working in pairs or groups of three—the fundamentals of filmmaking, armed with iPhone 5Cs donated by Apple. The lessons covered the basics of documentary: Attrache and Najati encouraged the kids to simply to go out and shoot—looking for establishing shots, conducting interviews and finding relevant inserts. They studied the different uses of wide, medium and close-up shots, as well as fundamental story structure. The class, speaking Arabic, critiqued each other’s work every day. Although editing and sound mixing were part of the planned curriculum, the three-week course ran out of time, so Attrache and Najati themselves edited the footage from the nine films their students produced.

Wi-Fi access was limited. Without air conditioning or regular electricity, classrooms (at the boys’ and girls’ schools) were sweltering. The instructors faced pushback from parents who questioned the value of their children learning filmmaking; some preferred their kids to find work instead. In fact, many students were not given permission to enroll. And even the pluckiest enrollees ran into trouble finding interview subjects in the camp, where being filmed is a sensitive issue.

Despite these obstacles, the children enjoyed freedom of expression. The themes and storylines of the nine films were all theirs. Because of social restrictions on their roaming about, the girls’ subjects tended to be family, home or their neighborhoods. Boys made films about gardening, soccer and work. Via a connection of Wagner, the young moviemakers collaborated on Skype with first-year students from the McNally School of Music in Minnesota, who scored their films. At the big public screening event held for the finished films, parents gained a newfound appreciation for their offsprings’ work, and kids left thirsting to learn more. Now, the teens’ films are making their way to film festivals across the world under the title My Dream, My Right.

Faisal Attrache (background, left) and Moe Najati (background, right)

Faisal Attrache (background, left) and Moe Najati (background, right) walk their students through shooting basics in the Zaatari camp in Jordan

While VOTC’s Mount Vernon donors mostly funded the 2015 workshop, paying for organizers’ travel, room and board and visas (Save the Children covered logistics like permits for access to the camp and translators), Wagner aims to extend VOTC’s net of funding to be able to conduct programs beyond the existing ones in Washington and Jordan. Wagner, Attrache and Najati are working on the establishment of a fully fledged media school in Amman, Jordan (a one-and-a-half-hour bus ride from Zaatari). They envision a year-long course encompassing film, photography or journalism via a flexible, workshop-based curriculum.

Attrache has conducted another filmmaking crash course—for Syrian high-schoolers in Turkey alongside Chicago-based nonprofit the Karam Foundation—and has shot his own shorts in Zaatari. Yet the moviemaker, whose great-grandfather was Syrian revolutionary Sultan Al-Atrash, is ambivalent about his own work: “I draw a hard line with having anyone speak on behalf of Syrian refugees—even me. I am critical of what I did, making [his short] ‘Growing Home.’ In NGO videos, it’s like poverty porn, it’s voluntourism, it’s a white savior complex all mixed into one.

“The goal for me was to give these kids the camera and say, ‘Just tell us.’ Show us with what you see. To give them the foundation of skills needed to pursue film as a profession in the future. Because Syria has been destroyed. It’s going to be tough to create a new generation of filmmakers, because there are no more people in Syria. For me, teaching is about helping to rebuild this capacity. I want these kids to grow up—whether or not they will is beyond me—to be interested in this, because if they are never exposed to it, they’ll never know.” MM

In addition to their media program in Amman, Voices of the Children plans to cultivate a long-term series of introductory and advanced filmmaking workshops in Zaatari. To get involved or contribute, visit votchildren.org.

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Fall 2016 issue. In that edition, Attrache’s film is called “Going Home;” the actual film is titled “Growing Home.” Images courtesy of Voices of the Children.