Dir: Talya Tibbon & Joshua Bennett
The Nabi family have fled Syria and are living in a refugee camp near Thessaloniki in appalling conditions – they need to get out. Starting out from Aleppo, Syria, they attempt to make their way to Berlin – on foot. Sky & Ground is a unique and intimate insight into one family’s plight for safety and security. We accompany the Nabi family as they trek through the woods, camp and try to hide from the police. As the family encounter relentless setbacks and obstacles, the challenge of moving your entire family, including the elderly and less mobile, becomes a tense and astounding feat to witness. Travelling from Greece, to Macedonia, to Serbia and beyond, Sky & Ground is a deeply powerful diary of a precarious journey, and a courageous family.
Sky & Ground opens at DocHouse @Curzon Bloomsbury on April 12 with special Q&A moderated by Christiane Amanpour.
I first met Guevara and the Nabi clan in early 2016, not long after I arrived in Idomeni , a makeshift refugee camp on the Greek-Macedonian border. By then, some members of the family had been on the road for more than four years. They spent the last three months of that period stuck in Idomeni together with another ten thousand people, restless and anxious, when the borders along the Balkan route shut.
With a few exceptions (young people excited by the adventure), everyone I encountered along the way in the months of filming, hated being a refugee. They hated the label which they felt left them powerless and unable to control their lives. They hated being at the mercy of a border soldier, a Red Cross volunteer, or complicated agreements between world leaders. More than anything, they hated living between the world they left behind and the one they were hoping to reach- suspended in the unknown.
I had some freedom with this project, which was an independent production, and I used it. At first, I wasn’t sure where the film would go; would I stay and capture peoples’ lives at the camps, or would I keep going, tracing the path taken by a million other people.. We moved around between tents- chatting to people, hearing their stories, looking at photos and listening to music that brought them memories of home.
But the “Guevaras,” as I like to call them, had a family meeting and made a decision to move on. They were done and determined to not spend another day in the camp. Soon bags were packed, phones were charged and as long goodbyes stretched into the afternoon, I negotiated how we may be able to tag along. This was a big group and a family with many opinions. Not everyone was enthusiastic: some worried that a camera could be a distraction and even put the group in danger, some didn’t like to have themselves captured in this state. Luckily, the young generation prevailed. A long time after, one of them told me they felt almost sheltered by our presence, and not completely forgotten by the world.
Guevara was leading the group. But he hadn’t chosen to be the leader – he had to figure out how to be one. He and his family, their partners on the journey, and millions of others trying to make their way to Europe weren’t prepared for this ordeal. Nothing had trained them to negotiate with human smugglers, walk for days through the Macedonian hills and fields, sleep under the stars, hide from Hungarian soldiers or face an interrogation by Austrian police.
Back in Aleppo, he was a student-activist who dreamt of becoming a professor of Arabic literature. His nieces and nephew wanted to study law, film and music; Shireen, his sister, loved working in a hair salon while her husband Souleiman made a decent living from construction jobs. Jalila, Guevara’s mother, loved having her eight children and all of her grandchildren close. The war disrupted all of that. The large family dispersed from Aleppo and Guevara was tasked with taking to safety three generations of those who stayed behind.
As days turned into weeks and months we continued to follow their odyssey. I was touched by how, even though everything had been taken away from them, they were determined to remain themselves- never accepting that being “refugees” was their destiny. They always looked for a way out-back to normalcy. Meanwhile, they found comfort in sticking together as a family—in the daily routines of preparing meals, in cracking jokes and teasing each other and even in bickering over who carried which bag and what was worth keeping.
As a filmmaker, embedding with your subjects poses daily moral and editorial dilemmas. When Jalila, the family matriarch, wondered why we couldn’t get them a car (or put them in ours), or when the kids asked why do I get to go back to a hotel at the end of an evening and they don’t, I didn’t have good enough answers. They weren’t criminals and I wasn’t better than them. Such dilemmas double when you embed with people during a crisis and there were times when some of the family’s frustration was taken out on us. But from the outset I set up some rules: we couldn’t do anything illegal (like sneaking through borders) and we wouldn’t want to do anything that would potentially put the family at risk or alter their journey.
We couldn’t be there every moment of their journey, so I left a small camera with Guevara and later with his nieces. Sky and Ground features material that they shot on their own, as well as earlier footage kept by Guevara, who had started documenting the family in Syria. I see Sky and Ground very much as a collaboration with the Sheikh Nabi- Abdulrahman clan.
Guevara, his mom, his sister’s family and those who joined their journey are just one group among hundreds of thousands. In the last few years, millions of people made a similar journey, many got stuck somewhere along the way, and some turned around to go back to a war-torn country because the journey was just too much.
As the “anti-other” sentiment across Europe and the UK, as well as the U.S., continues to gain traction, I hope that this film will serve as an opportunity to remind us all that the only difference between being a “refugee” or “migrant” and the privilege of not being one, is nothing but luck.