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The only safe thing in filmmaking is to take a chance
— Mike Nichols





News & Press

Filmmaking helps refugee girls learn English

"From filmmaking, I learned to never give up on my dreams no matter how tough the path gets."

Alaa Mustafa, 13, is among the estimated 11 million Syrians who have fled their homes since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. Living in the UAE for the past six years, she was also among the 33 girls between 10 and 15 years old, to recently take part in the filmmaking programme under the NGO 'Lights Camera Learn' that aims to empower and educate children through the art of filmmaking.

As the war left over 3.5 million refugee children without proper access to education in 2016 alone, Lights Camera Learn teaches English to displaced children around the world through an interactive method of learning.

Through the programme that toured Palestine, Jordan and Tunisia, children got to write their own scripts in English and act in different roles on camera to produce short films.

In collaboration with a UAE charity organisation that helped select the girls, filmmakers worked with the youngsters to produce four short films that were screened during a red carpet ceremony at the Sharjah Art Foundation. 

During the five days, of eight hours each, the girls wrote scripts and filmed the movies that addressed topics like bullying, chasing dreams and featured the #GirlsCount campaign that aims to count the 130 million girls that have no access to education on videos.

The girls received small Oscar statues and certificates of participation during the red carpet event.

Mustafa who acted in a short zombie film could still remember the sentences she memorised - "Yes mum, I'm at the park," "Are you ok," "This can't be real" and "Yes Fatima, I have to leave". 

"I loved that I could apply it in acting, and it took me two days to learn these sentences. At the beginning, it was hard; then I found it very easy," said Mustafa.

For her, English was a tough language, but repetition was key. "When someone helps me memorise, it is easier," she said. The zombie idea for the movie came from a discussion with the filmmaker in charge of the group about horror films and alert they keep the children at night. "I would love to continue learning English," she said.

Amal Bahloul, president and founder of Lights Camera Learn, said: "The technique goes against the conventional ways of learning in a classroom. While it's easier to be a passive learner and look at words in textbooks, filmmaking forces children to speak English, which is harder but more efficient," said the 22-year-old Amal. 

With the guidance of a team of filmmakers, the girls come up with their own idea before jotting them down on a script and acting out the different characters. The Tunisian-American founder noted that with the difficulties the girls in reading letters, speaking sentences on video was "a huge success". 

"Every group picked their characters and we made sure their English was correct through repetition." She said a longer programme is in plans to be carried out with the girls in the future.

Amal added that the biggest thing the girls walked away with was confidence and love for a new language. "Some of these girls watched their houses bombed, while others were forced to pick cotton for a living. When they make their own films and speak a foreign language in five days, it shows them they can do whatever they set their minds on."

She added that through the programme, children are exposed to different cultures. For the girls who never spoke English and lived in areas with no exposure to another culture, they walked away with more curiosity in a foreign language.

Learning Through the Arts (LTTA): a refuge for refugees

Maher Bahloul, University of British Columbia (UBC)’s visiting linguistics professor from The American University of Sharjah, Dubai, has constructed a Learning Through the Arts (LTTA) proposal for refugees.

The concept of Bahloul’s proposal Meaningful Integration of Syrian Refugees: Targeting the Artists is based on several factors, including the recent arrival of Syrian Refugees in Canada and the country’s experience in arts-based education.

The reel beginnings

Over 10 years ago, Bahloul never expected he would be teaching English – or any other language – through an arts-based approach. However, when he took his daughters to a summer workshop in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S.A., something caught his attention. During the workshop, Steve Anderson, film production instructor from SCERA, a non-profit family-oriented arts organization, asked Bahloul to assist him in some scenes. Immediately afterwards, Bahloul recognized marked changes in the students’ behaviour.

“Their posture changed and they spoke more confidently,” says Bahloul.

When he went back to Europe, Bahloul decided to open a language school in Paris.

“I called up Anderson and asked if he would be interested in teaching some film courses.”

Anderson agreed, and subsequently, Bahloul witnessed these new students grasping language concepts more readily. He realized this program had merits beyond regular language courses, which sparked his passion for LTTA in regards to teaching language.

Amal Bahloul, his daughter and co-founder of the Light’s, Camera, Learn project, has also been inspired to teach language acquisition through LTTA in Tunisia. The recent graduate from Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA, says that film used as tool for education creates a powerful conduit for learning. This model is discussed in professor Bahloul 2012 publication Lights, Camera, Action and The Brain: The Use of Film in Education, co-edited with Carolyn Graham.

Newcomers in mind

It has been just over a year since 25,000 Syrian refugees were brought to Canada and Bahloul says the B.C. settlement agencies currently grappling with how to accommodate the surge in client needs caught his attention while he was busy doing his academic research.

“Syrians are renowned for their artists,” he says in regards to his experience living in the Middle East.

Bahloul’s proposal looks at how schools and community centres can facilitate the integration of the Syrian refugees by interning the artists locally. A highlight of the proposal’s objective is to create a meaningful space for Syrian refugee artists. Within this space, the goal is to identify them and make use of their artistic talents while assisting with social and financial integration. Bahloul feels this approach benefits the community as well as the newcomers.

“When you enjoy a lecture, an exercise, that joy plays a major role in learning an aspect of language. So, learning through joy – learning through entertainment – becomes a powerful tool,” says Bahloul.