A refugee of the Syrian Civil War flees to France, hoping to reconstruct his life after the war and become a professional architect in his new home.
Interview with Director/Producer Juan David Romero
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
My film “Unbroken Paradise,” which tells the story of a young Syrian refugee fighting to restart his life in France after the Syrian Civil War, was born in the French city of Lyon. Actually, it was born well before then, but the event that set everything in motion happened in Lyon and by the time I met Ramman, the refugee, my whole life had prepared me for that moment.
I must say that directly or indirectly, the plight of the migrant and the displaced has always been familiar to me. I am both lucky and grateful to say that when my family and I resettled from Colombia to the U.S., it was voluntary—yet the purpose was the same, to seek a better future. So, although I was not undocumented, I had friends, colleagues and family that were and my understanding of what that meant was always crystal clear.
So crystal clear that when Donald Trump won the presidential elections of 2016 and word got around that he wanted to impose a travel ban on Muslim nations, I knew exactly what that meant and looking back, the numbers show exactly what that meant—as of April of 2018, the U.S. has resettled only 11 Syrian refugees.
As such, on December of 2016 I quit my job as a multimedia journalist and communicator in Washington D.C. and decided to take a gap year off. For one, to materialise my dream of traveling abroad and learning French, but also to have a chance to make a direct impact on the refugee community and perhaps even tell a story.
So I packed my camera gear and made my way—though I must admit that at the time and subsequent to my arrival in Europe, it was never truly clear that what I would end up doing would be an entire documentary film. For me, I simply wanted to shoot a few short clips and nothing more.
Once in France I began to volunteer with a refugee-aid organization called ActForRef (Action internationale d'aide aux réfugiés) based in Lyon. I met with the president, Gaëlle Gormley, and pitched the idea of shooting a short promo for the organisation. Before knowing it, I was doing that and much more—it was a truly beautiful experience.
One day on March of 2017, Gaëlle said a young Syrian activist named Ramman was organising a protest against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and that I should go and film and so I did. Little did I know that this footage would actually end up in the film.
When I met Ramman, his energy and passion stole my heart. For me, he represented the exact image that I wanted to capture of the many Syrian refugees I met during my time living in France—hard-working people with an incredible desire to survive and restart against all improbabilities.
It was so starkly different, positive, and it contrasted so well with what is shown on television and this was the opportunity to break that—to step on the other side of the fence and amplify this current and universal story.
Ultimately, I hope Ramman’s story will open people’s eyes and have an impact on them the way Ramman’s story has impacted my life.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
“Unbroken Paradise” is a refugee story that inspires and as such, I think everyone has something to learn from it. There is something quite magical about watching someone dig their way out of the ground so hard and yet fly so high above. It activates something in your soul, whether you are a refugee or not and I can say this because, people want to see the film.
At first, we began by screening “Unbroken Paradise” at independent venues, local cinemas, and educational high school and university settings in Colombia, the U.S. and quite actively in France thanks to Ramman and we’ve built up an audience. However, the real treat happens when we screen at a film festival and in this regard we’ve been extremely lucky.
The film first officially premiered at the 2018 Global Impact Film Festival in Washington D.C. and a few weeks later our film was selected to screen worldwide at this year’s Global Migration Film Festival by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN Migration Agency. Even beyond 2018, next year the film will screen at the Amnesty International Human Rights Film Festival (Festival Amnesty International Au Cinéma pour les Droits Humains).
We will be releasing the film online next year once the festival season is over and everyone should see it because this is an honest film made with hard work that tells a true story of a young man showing the world he is not simply a refugee, but a human being with the capacity to dream and fight for his paradise.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
The obvious universal themes here are migration, survival, hope, and hard work and I think all of us can relate to this one way or the other.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development?
One of the reasons that I love working as a documentary filmmaker is because the craft itself in this genre is not compulsory of a script. That, however, does not mean that the film did not evolve over the course of its development. Once on the editing board, the film went through many iterations and I think this is imperative of any film.
For our film, it meant slowly earmarking the film’s overall tone and at times even crafting it in a way as to more closely embody the message that both Ramman and I wanted to get across. In fact, my initial aim was to make something short and compact—no longer than 5 to 10 minutes. Yet, I had with me over two hours worth of interview footage to comb through, so when I first showed my initial draft to Ramman he said: “That’s it? That’s so short. Can’t you make it longer?” and I am so happy he caught this early on, because he was right—and he was also right the second time around when I bumped the story to 15 minutes and at that point I just said to myself: “You know what, we’ve already come this far, let’s just plow forward and see if I can actually make something far more substantial here.” But this is emblematic of how pivotal Ramman’s feedback was to me throughout the entire process, because I’ve said it and I say it again, this is my film as much as it is his. It’s his story and I am simply grateful to be the one amplifying it.
All of this to say that, postproduction did not come effortlessly. After France I moved to Morocco for a month, then I went back to Colombia for a couple of months, and eventually I camped out in Chios, a Greek island besides Turkey, working as a volunteer at the refugee camps. This island was the backdrop for the initial editing phase of “Unbroken Paradise” and it was also where I eventually shot part of my second short film “An Iraqi Belly Dancer.”
A critical development that managed to add the final layer I needed to finish “Unbroken Paradise” came in September of 2017 when I found out I would be returning to Lyon. However, by then Ramman was no longer in Lyon but studying in Bordeaux. So, I decided to make my way to Bordeaux and that’s where we managed to fine tune some things, re-shoot part of the interview, and finalise the A-roll aspect of the film.
This process proved efficient because it was in one of these sessions of re-shooting A-roll and re-recording voice over that we were able to address things we might have missed on the first round or that we wanted to add this far in the post-production process.
One of them was when Ramman says that some of his friends or family did not have his luck and, in fact, perished trying to cross onto Europe through the Mediterranean Sea. This part was important for me, as the filmmaker, because I knew Ramman’s story was different and not all refugees have it this way and he knew that. For me, it was important for people to understand that France is not all-welcoming and those who do make it as refugees are the minority, not the majority.
So, there was never a script in the traditional sense, but there was a script in terms of the questions and concerns that we wanted to address in the film.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
The feedback we’ve received thus far is nothing but positive and that obviously makes me happy. It fills me with joy to see people of all walks enjoying and learning from this film. There are so many misconceptions people have about the refugee community, particularly so if they’ve never met a refugee themselves, and my hope is this film helps dispel some of these misunderstandings, and I do believe it is doing so
Just a couple of weeks ago Ramman got to screen the film at the Pierre-Gilles de Gennes High School in Cosne-sur-Loire in France and both teachers and parents were so thrilled with the film. As Ramman said: “Students did not just watch the short film and ask questions. They also sent me private messages highlighting my journey as a refugee and telling me they were touched by my story.” Even parents have messaged us on our Facebook page saying: “My daughter attended this screening, and she returned home positively marked by your journey and your courage. It is a very beautiful lesson of life and these students valued the opportunity to interact directly with you. Thank you and congratulations to the school for organising this event!”
Every time that a community opens its arms to our film and to Ramman, I am happy, because I know that Ramman is also happy. It brings me great joy and constantly reassures me that this film was made not in vain. That it has changed my life and Ramman’s life for the positive. And that through it, the world (even a small part of it) is better because of it.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
The feedback has been surprising in a positive way and I’m just happy with everyone who is embracing this film, because that is nothing more than what I was hoping would happen.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
More visibility is always good and being able to get this message out to more people would simply allow me to fulfill our mission, which is to get more people to care. This could translate to many things: a request to watch our film, a follow or a positive comment on social media, a donation to our film on our web site, or a request to host a screening or distribute the film. All the love we can get is always welcome.
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
Right now we need people to come on board who are able to promote the film, be it a journalist writing an article about it, a distributor wanting to host the film on their server, a festival director wanting to screen the film at a film festival.
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
I would like this film to go as far as it can go and I must say that as of now I am terribly happy with the impact its had. If you told me when I finished the film that I would be showing it at the United Nation’s Migration Agency Global Migration Film Festival or at the Amnesty International Human Rights Film Festival I would have not believed it, though I certainly hoped for it. I want this film to continue soaring, because the message is strong and I sincerely believe this is a story for all of us to hear.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film
A key question that would help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film is simply asking someone “What is a refugee to you in your mind” and ask them the same after watching the film. I believe the answers will be quite different.
Would you like to add anything else?
As an independent filmmaker, the process of capturing, creating, and truly birthing a project of this magnitude into existence was both arduous and demanding.
I've spent hours upon hours with each clip in this film, each cut, each sound--and sharing this story with all of you is truly a privilege. Not simply because it's my first short film of this length, but because it's a film that, at its core, was and continues to grow from the heart.
Despite the fact I shot, produced, and edited the entire film on my own, I was not entirely alone. First of all, I had the support of Ramman, who has been actively involved with the project since the beginning. And thanks to an earlier crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter I was able to finance the majority of the project and hire collaborators, colorists, sound editors, illustrators, and animators. And to all of them I am deeply grateful.
What other projects are the key creatives developing or working on now?
Right now I am working on promoting my other short film “An Iraqi Belly Dancer,” about an Iraqi LGBT refugee who fled his country seeking safety from a family who wanted him dead and hoping to find a home that would grant him a life in peace and tranquility. So far it has screened at the East End Film Festival in London and at the Chicago LGBTQ+ International Film Festival in Chicago.
Interview: October 2018
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A refugee of the Syrian Civil War flees to France, hoping to reconstruct his life after the war and become a professional architect in his new home.
Length: 25 minutes
Director: Juan David Romero
Producer: Juan David Romero
About the writer, director and producer:
Director: Juan David Romero is a filmmaker from Colombia and the U.S. Before filmmaking, Romero worked as Communications Officer at AAAS doing animation, writing, photography, and video production/editing in Washington D.C. Most recently he worked on-the-ground and remotely with various refugee-aid organizations in Greece and France documenting the experience of refugee migrants from Syria and other nations through short videos. In his free time he also contributes his video editing skills to the U.N. as an acting volunteer. His other film “An Iraqi Belly Dancer” has also screened at film festivals. He presently resides in Athens, Greece.
Key cast: Ramman Ismail
Looking for (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists): Yes, looking for distributors
Social media handles:
Hashtags you use: #UnbrokenParadise #ParadisIninterrompu #ParaisoInquebrantable
Where was this filmed? In France in the cities of Lyon, Annecy and Bordeaux.
Where can I watch it next and in the coming month?
At this year’s Global Migration Film Festival by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN Migration Agency; and next year at the Amnesty International Human Rights Film Festival (Festival Amnesty International Au Cinéma pour les Droits Humains).