Review of “We Are Not Princess” at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) 20193 min read

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We Are Not Princesses, directed by Bridgette Auger and Itab Azzam, tells the powerful stories from four women, Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, as they prepare for their roles in a production of Antigone. Antigone, the ancient Greek tragedy written by Sophocles, tells the story of a princess who defies her King’s edict by burying her brother, a story which resonates deeply with many of the woman with its themes of tragedy, love, familial bonds, and patriarchal oppression. The movie doesn’t go into too much detail about the theatre project itself (a workshop created by an organization called Open Art Foundation to help Syrian refugees build community and allow women to process their trauma). Instead, the film chooses to follow individual women in their everyday lives and as they open up about their stories about life before and after leaving Syria. The film also follows the women’s lively conversations in their workshop preparations about the meaning of the play to their lives and their affinity with Antigone and other characters.

You can sense that Auger and Azzam were able to connect with the women on a genuine level as they draw out intimate stories of emotional honesty. Many of the women talk about being married off at a young age, and the constraining effect that had on their lives. In one shattering sequence, Zayna, who was married when she was 14, describes being confined to her house by her husband after she lost her face veil, then begging her husband to let her out. Zayna’s family did not allow her to be filmed and in order to include her story, the filmmakers chose to illustrate her story and the stories of other women as well. The impressionistic animation style enables the film to visually represent the complicated inner lives of these women, their hopes and shattered dreams. In Zayna’s case, she imagines the world outside the four walls of her home, as the animation shows the mountains and forests that she is unable to experience, and her growing angel’s wings as she imagines flying home to Syria.

Grief and homesickness are part of the story that We Are Not Princesses tells. But the film also tells the story of resilience, community, and strength, as well as the ability of art to process and heal. One of the woman sees the act of Antigone defying the king’s edict as evidence that “a woman doesn’t have to accept a man telling her ‘no’ or ordering her around  Other women talk about how the theatre workshop gave them life and a sense of meaning. In a startling but fun segment, one women, Israa, stammers out a rap song about her escape from Syria in high heels. Oftentimes the news we get on the scrolling Facebook feeds and social mediate bites threatens to paint all refugees with the same faceless mass of suffering, dependence, and victimhood, and we fail to see people as individuals. We Are Not Princesses deftly tells the story of resilient individuals, who are surviving, yes, but also managing to thrive.

We Are Not Princess will be playing on Friday, October 4, 2019 at 11:00 at International Village

Patricia Lim lives in Vancouver and has also spent time in Halifax, Manila, and Beijing. She has written for Ricepaper, Schema, Converge, and Vancouver Observer. She enjoys examining the connections between culture, history, and identity.

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