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Forging Ahead
Two Syrians painting a mural on a brick wall surrounded by rubble with a group of children looking on.

Forging Ahead

Lauren Anders Brown ’07 documents life without documentation

Award-winning independent filmmaker and photographer Lauren Anders Brown ’07 knew what she wanted to spend her life working on even before college. She was interning in the film and photography field, but she wanted a core education as the foundation for her career. What she learned at UMass Amherst (including how not to be afraid of languages she didn’t know) has helped her build a vibrant and acclaimed international career.

Brown has worked as a camera assistant and operator on more than a dozen television shows and feature films, including Ugly Betty, Nurse Jackie, and Argo, to name just a few. These days, she runs her own production company, colLABorate: ideas and images, which has created short- and long-form video, photography, and multimedia projects covering a variety of health and human rights issues. Last year, Brown curated an exhibition for the United Nations. Her projects have taken her to over 40 countries around the world, where she has documented people in many low-resource settings, including conflict zones. In her own words, Brown believes in “the power of visual storytelling to amplify the stories of people who cannot tell them on their own.”

Her most recent project is Forged, a documentary film about how the dozen-years-long civil conflict in Syria has led to a loss of identity documentation, how that loss is being used to control the population, and how the Syrian people are trying to cope. The documentary focuses on the inhabitants of Idlib, a city in northwestern Syria, and highlights their resilience in the face of political conflict and natural disasters.

Brown, who has covered topics such as global disability rights, reproductive rights, and displacement, sees Forged as part of her larger goal of “artivism”—bringing art and activism together to amplify neglected voices and perspectives. Here she shares images from her time working on Forged, along with behind-the-scenes stories of the people and places that were featured.

A couple walking with a stroller and a Syrian flag.

Photo: Saleh and Marwa (last name withheld)

Saleh, Marwa, and baby Yasmin protest in northern Syria

“The conflict in Syria came out of protests against the [Bashar al-Assad] regime, which demonstrated it would use any means necessary to silence the people. Many journalists were imprisoned or killed for reporting on the conflict. Their jobs and their names made them targets, and so they were often unable to seek identity documentation from the government out of fear of being targeted, forcing them to seek other pathways for documentation to travel.”

A still taken from the documentary Forged.

Photo: Still from the documentary Forged

Ali teaching in his school in Idlib

“The other largest group living in the shadows in Syria are those who left their compulsory military duty. As they are unable to pass any checkpoints, they either have to take a risk by going around them or stay where they are, as teacher Ali has done. He’s struggling, though, to prove his educational background at the school where he teaches because he does not have a copy of his university degree and can’t cross a checkpoint to get a copy. His daughter is also undocumented and can’t attend the school where he teaches.”

Syrian with head scarf blowing a puff of smoke out of their mouth.

Photo: Lauren Anders Brown

Quona in Al Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan

“When balancing out the stories we were capturing, I felt it was important to include a story of an elder who grew up in an era when documentation wasn’t something people required. I also wanted to capture the variation in living conditions Syrian refugees face, and so being able to access the Al Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan through my connections with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was crucial in meeting Quona. Like most refugees I have met, she welcomed me into her home with the standard overly sugary tea and was open and honest with any questions I had to ask. We spoke about what her life was like growing up and how quickly she had to flee. She no longer had her family book, which kept track of all her family members, past and present. It was left behind in Syria, along with all her belongings—as she described, she couldn’t even grab a teacup to flee with.”

Child sticking their head out of a white and blue world map.

Photo: Ali Al Ibrahim

Hidden in the world

“I could not have made this documentary without the world of my co-director, Ali Al Ibrahim, who captured this photo on one of his filming trips to the displaced areas in northern Syria. When we were both filming on opposite sides of the border, he in Syria and I in Jordan, the area had successive snowstorms that made our initial filming nearly impossible. Both of us came away from that first trip with little filmed, but a lot of groundwork was laid that led to us being able to each return independently to different locations to continue capturing the stories. One group of people that did not make it into the film was the undocumented children born to people in the terrorist groups ISIS and Al-Nusra. They had no hope of ever receiving an education or going further than the displaced camps.”

Haifa holding her baby as she watches a little boy walk down a staircase.

Photo: Lauren Anders Brown

Haifa and undocumented baby Yousef

“Haifa never expected to be a refugee. She had gone to visit her husband, who was working in Lebanon for a short trip when the border closed. She and her five children and husband all had to live in the small one-room apartment he rented in Beirut while he was working. It was about the size of my first dorm room in Butterfield at UMass and held seven people with an eighth on the way. I loved filming with Haifa, though. She let me join her along her pregnancy, and I felt it really made us feel the film in real time through her story. Later, the revolution in Beirut made for an unexpected turn of events while filming, since Haifa needed to register her baby but wasn’t able to within the expected window after Yousef’s birth.”

Saleh and Marwa embracing while looking at a destroyed building.

Photo: courtesy of Saleh and Marwa

Saleh and Marwa leaving their home

“In order to escape the regime but without being able to cross international borders, Saleh and Marwa were forced to leave their home and move to Idlib, which is the last territory held by those opposed to the Assad regime—or ‘the system’ as it is often referred to in the documentary. Idlib has its own government and its own documentation system, but having a piece of paper from an unrecognized government does not mean it will be valid if they were to cross the border to Turkey. On principle, Saleh prefers the unverified document from the independent government to that of an official document from ‘the system.’”

Syrian painting on a red wall, surrounded by demolished buildings.

Photo: Aziz Al-Asmar

Forged, an art installation

“As an extension of the documentary, we commissioned a mural to be painted in Idlib. Its purpose was to allow those most affected by the issue of identity in Idlib to reclaim their identity for themselves by interacting with the installation. The mural was installed by Aziz Al-Asmar, a locally renowned mural artist working across Idlib who uses the walls of buildings destroyed by the Assad regime and their Russian allies as his canvases. He is regularly joined by children when creating his artwork. Aziz uses his drawings to raise the spirits of those around him and inspire confidence in their cause. The mural was installed one week before the devastating earthquake hit northern Syria and Turkey, but it survived and is still standing.”

Watch the trailer for Forged below and then watch the full documentary by streaming it online.