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“Camp Evolved from Small Tents in 1948, to tall towers” Says Mats Grorud, Director of The Tower

Released on February 27, The Tower is an animated movie by the Norwegian filmmaker Mats Grorud. It follows the life of a Palestinian young girl in the Burj El Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon.

Inspired by the memories of his director who lived in the camps for some tile, this film is a poetic tribute to the struggles of exile but also a beautiful message of hope. It begins on a madeleine of Proust: the one of a guava that Wardi eats with her great-grandfather: Sidi. The same ones he used to pick from his orchard as a child, living with his parents in their land of Palestine, a month before the “nakba” (the disaster) of 1948.  From this pivotal date, the audience travels through the story of Wardi’s family: a serie of characters, both funny and moving, dancing between joy and trauma. An odyssey through time and space but also Palestinian’s and Lebanese history.

We met his director, Mats Grorud to talk about the power of animation movies in showing the world and developing empathy with distances topics….

 

You lived in the camp of Burj al Barajneh in Lebanon for several years. During you experience there, what did strike you the most?

Looking back now, the things that strikes me the most are the honour of people. The way in which people manage to joke about tragic events, not in a way that makes it less unjust, but rather possible to bare. I was also surprised by people´s genuine warmth and sincerity, the immediate way in which people opened themselves up to me and invited me to see their lives and realities in the camp, when I was a just a stranger that came to visit. Also, the sadness in the adults eyes that lies under the surface, and that you get glimpses of, every now and then,  between a small joke, a cup of coffee or a cigarette. Like my friend Abu Hassan would tell me: “War was easy. You knew you either would live or die. But seeing your friends in the camp die a little every day, that´s the real war”.

How did you manage to gather all those stories in order to build your characters?

Well, I lived inside the camp for a year so a lot of the details in the film are from my observations and talks while living there. I recorded my friends interviews  and worked closely with other Palestinians while making the script, so I could check the details and correctness of things. I also read a lot of books on the subject and came across important collections of interviews in Dina Matar´s book: “What it means to be Palestinian” as well as Fawaz Turki´s book: “Soul in Exile”Elias Srouji´s book “Cyclemenes of Galilee” and the “Nakba Archives” in Beirut.

Why did you decide to represent all the generations of the family?

The prime idea of the film is the image of the Tower that keeps rising in the camps. Each time a new generation is born, a new floor has to be built as the Palestinians are not being allowed to own land in Lebanon, neither to return to their houses in Palestine. So this surreal situation of being stuck, generation after generation, was my starting point for the film. I also wanted to see how the camp evolved from small tents in 1948, to the tall Towers of today. I was interested to see how history is transmitted from generation to generation, and to look at how people have tried to find hope in different ways.  

In the movie, we can also find the “pigeon boy “, an enigmatic character who refuses to go down from his building’s roof ? Can you explain this character?

Everything in the film is taken from the reality in the camp. There, we can see a lot of rooftops with young boys that have pigeons and train them. They are homing pigeons so they can find their loved ones as well as food and shelter. They seems to be in their world by  being with the birds and the sky. The rooftop is also a place that provides the feeling of space and freedom where they can escape the memories of the past and hardships of everyday life in the camp. Yet at the same time, the pigeon boys are stuck cannot move anywhere.

In the story, the girls seems to be more hopeful and positive. Like Wardi’s joyful aunt or grandma. Whilst the men are darker and more nostalgic. Is it a reality in the camps?

Yes and no. For me it was important to show that the women of the families as strong because that is exactly what they are. I found that in most families I have met there, the women were the engines of the families. In the film we try to humanise the Palestinians, and to show them as something much more than “refugees”, by breaking the stereotypes. So in regards to the portrayal of women,  it was important to show the audience the strength of the women and girls in the camps and in the palestinian society in general.

Lately we can see more and more animations movies exploring dark chapters of history like Parvana and the Talibans of Afghanistan, or Funan and the Red Khmers. What do you think animation movies can bring in talking about those kind of  topics?

I think animation talks to us in many different ways that live action films do. The power to use allegories and metaphors gives the possibility to make complicated issues more easy to comprehend. One of the main strengths of animation is that it allows the audience to empathise and identify with the characters, making the story on screen their own and not just something that concerns the “others”. The abstractions of the puppets and drawings allows us to think of the characters as ourselves our families.  

Do you think animation movies should be more engaged or should rather stay purely fictionals to “preserve kids”?

I guess the parents must assess when it is the right time to expose their kids to certain type of stories or images. I think it’s good to allow children to see the reality  of this world, so that they can have an emotional or intellectual reaction to injustice or violence. And with the animation movies this can be done in ways that are not traumatic for them. In my film, it was important that the violence and cruelty of the world was balanced with the feeling of hope and love that the characters share.  

As you said previously, the movie is a also about hope and transmission. Do you think there is a brighter future for Palestinians youth tomorrow?

The political and humanitarian reality of the Middle East is not very bright. But saying that, we never know what the future will bring and what the new generations will aspire to change and overcome in their struggles for better lives.