You can’t help but be a little skeptical when you hear about the filmmakers Chris Temple, who’s 26, and Zach Ingrasci, who’s 25. They don’t just make documentaries. They make themselves part of the story. They lived on a dollar a day in Guatemala when they filmed Living On One over 56 days in the summer of 2013. And they spent a month with Syrian refugees in Jordan for their new film, Salam Neighbor, which premiered at the AFI Docs Film Festival in Washington, D.C.
At first, it sounds a little like showboating.
Then you meet the characters in their films.
Ra’ouf, who’s 10, lives in Za’atari, the second largest refugee camp in the world with 81,000 inhabitants (Kenya’s Dadaab camp is number one). He’s all smiles as he helps Temple and Ingrasci tidy up their tent.
They later find out it’s been over a year since Ra’ouf has gone to school. He won’t even go inside one.
With good intentions, they try to convince the boy to attend classes. Ra’ouf sits on the ground, back to the wall, and cries.
Later, his father, Abu Mohamed, explains Ra’ouf’s school in Syria was bombed.
Since then, the boy has been too traumatized to continue his education.
“You’re opening up old wounds,” Mohamed tells them.
Ra’ouf is one of the many people whom Temple and Ingrasci befriended when they decided to live alongside Syrian refugees for a month.
They spoke to Ghousoon, a single mother of three and former nurse, now living in nearby Mafraq, who started her own hair clip business.
She sits on a cushion on the floor, spending 30-40 minutes on each clip: melting wire with a lighter, decorating with vibrant fabrics and selling around 200 a month.
Temple and Ingrasci made sure to highlight this type of resilience because that’s how the refugees manage to get by.
“Entrepreneurialism isn’t really a choice,” says Ingrasci. “You have to be an entrepreneur to survive.”
As the title of the movie suggests – it means “hello neighbor” – the filmmakers want to bridge the gap between comfortable viewers in the West and the refugees in Jordan.
“It’s been a real challenge to show the individual Syrians’ side of things,” says Francine Uenuma, director of media relations at Save the Children. “I am hopeful that something like this will appeal to a broader audience that doesn’t follow the hard news on the Syria crisis.” At first, she wasn’t sure the filmmakers’ technique was the right way to go. Seeing the stories of the refugees has convinced her.
In fact, the filmmakers have partnered with Save the Children as well as the UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, and International Rescue Committee. These groups will receive a share of the documentary’s profits to use for their work with Syrian refugees.
The filmmakers are giving back to Guatemala as well. They’ve set up a nonprofit, Living On One, which has raised over $450,000 to support organizations that provide small loans around the world and support education for residents of Peña Blanca, the town featured in the movie.
Meanwhile, the two Americans have learned that even total immersion has its limits. In Guatemala, Temple battled parasites. He couldn’t have afforded treatment on a dollar day but fortunately had brought emergency medications.
In Syria, they didn’t stay in the camps due to safety concerns and camped out in an abandoned building in Mafraq.
Then there’s the biggest advantage of all.
“We get to go home,” Ingrasci says, “but our neighbors don’t.”