“Honestly, is this actually a real headline?!” was my exact reaction after reading a headline about Lena Dunham being chosen to adapt a story about a Syrian refugee. And that’s exactly how Alia Malek, a popular Syrian-American author, among many others felt about it as well.
In a Buzzfeed article about the situation, it’s explained that Dunham announced that she’s going to be the person to write the film adaptation for the book titled A Hope More Powerful Than the Sea: One Refugee’s Incredible Story of Love, Loss, and Survival, written by the UN’s refugee agency spokesperson, Melissa Fleming.
Apparently, J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg handpicked Dunham for this role, and people are pretty upset that they did. Malek tweeted further about her feelings regarding the decision saying, “I’ve debated responding because this isn’t surprising, but it’s still jarring to see how tone deaf, self-congratulatory, & unable to learn from past mistakes Hollywood can be – despite what might be best intentions on all sides.”
Not to mention, she definitely isn’t Syrian, a refugee, or someone who has worked with refugees frequently in the past, which makes me think it will be very hard for her to compose a believable account of what it’s like to be a refugee from Syria
I think this statement sums it up pretty well. Dunham herself has been criticized heavily in the past for being caught up in other similar situations regarding different topics like race and sex, and has been dubbed as a very problematic person in Hollywood overall with a capital P. Based on all her past actions, did they genuinely think she’d be the best person for it? Not to mention, she definitely isn’t Syrian, a refugee, or someone who has worked with refugees frequently in the past, which makes me think it will be very hard for her to compose a believable account of what it’s like to be a refugee from Syria.
The main character in the book is a refugee named Doaa al-Zamel, a Syrian woman who fled Syria with her fiancé to Europe during the Syrian revolution. Once a supporter of it, al-Zamel changed her opinion when peaceful protestors near her home were shot and killed, and everything is taken over by troops. Without giving too much away, the boat they flee on is attacked, and they’re left for dead in the middle of the Mediterranean, and the rest of the story is meant to recount the harrowing tragedies they went through on the remainder of the journey.
The book itself already received it’s fair share of criticism, since it didn’t contain enough of al-Zamel’s own voice. This isn’t a story that can be told lightly, and definitely isn’t a story that can be successfully told without letting al-Zamel speak for herself, in a way. I reiterate – without aiming this article entirely at dragging Dunham further through the mud – why would Abrams and Spielberg think that asking her to adapt the story of a refugee would make it better? In my eyes, this will only white-wash it to a greater degree, and take the central voice even further away from where it’s meant to be.
Again, good intentions might not be enough in this case, even if they are trying to do beneficial work. It’s wonderful when widely famous people use their platforms to speak up for marginalized people, who sadly don’t have much of a voice in society, but for certain situations, I think it’s better for people from that same area of the world to tell the story instead. Another Syrian would likely be able to tell the story in a better fashion, and that’s just a fact. Malek went on to explain that she appreciates Lena Dunham, J.J. Abrams, and Steven Spielberg using their high profile to highlight Syria stories, “but why not enable Syrian storytellers? There are so many Syrian writers/directors who have lived a version of these stories or are at least way more intimately acquainted with them.”
It seems so obvious that this is the route they should’ve taken instead, yet they decided to ask Dunham to do it, who again, is a very disputed person already. Hollywood recycles the same actors and actresses for everything, even when the actors and actresses don’t have anything to do with the role, and can’t relate in any way. They’re doing the same thing for this – asking Dunham because “who else could they really ask”? The most well-known actors and actresses still deserve role offers of course, but it doesn’t hurt to expand who they reach out to and elevate either, especially when it’s imperative for the portrayal of the storyline.
After fleeing the turmoil of their country, Syrians should be able to find some solace in places like the U.S., but now they instead have to flee the looming shadow of misrepresentation that Hollywood is creating around them.
Instead of giving Syrians a voice, this will likely instead only silence their voices yet again. The story could become instantly more authentic by casting a Syrian-born person to tell it. Every time someone non-Syrian takes on this story, they only deplete the important details more and more, even if they don’t intend to. After fleeing the turmoil of their country, Syrians should be able to find some solace in places like the U.S., but now they instead have to flee the looming shadow of misrepresentation that Hollywood is creating around them.
That’s frankly all it comes down to – Hollywood consistently seems to have such an issue casting the appropriate roles for stories about minorities and different cultures, when it really isn’t that difficult. There are plenty of people out there who are more qualified than the people they pick, time and time again. It just requires a little effort, and what’s a little effort in the face of authentic story-telling?
Because it’s one thing to do your research and understand the workings of a story, but it’s a whole other thing to live through it, experience it first-hand, or be deeply informed about the workings of that country’s government, prominent religions, and overall cultural dynamic.
What I personally appreciate is that Dunham responded to some critics by announcing that she would donate her salary from the project, and that she’s open to dialogue about the project so that she can better adapt the story by incorporating viewpoints from others, who have a plethora of information about what it’s like to flee from Syria. Let’s hope she sticks to this promise, and donates her earnings so that she doesn’t, in a sense, profit off of the struggles that Syrians have been through. Because it’s one thing to do your research and understand the workings of a story, but it’s a whole other thing to live through it, experience it first-hand, or be deeply informed about the workings of that country’s government, prominent religions, and overall cultural dynamic.
If you don’t fully grasp these concepts, you honestly shouldn’t be relaying stories about them in the first place. It’s not that we’re constantly looking for something to criticize and that we’re not happy that people want to elevate the voices of people who don’t usually get heard; it’s just that it’s frustrating that these situations are still being approached in such an arguable way, when it’s seemingly obvious that a different approach could properly represent the people this adaptation is about, pay homage to their losses, and send them respect for their experiences. It’s the least they deserve after all they’ve been through.