This year’s Athena Film Festival will feature a documentary concerning the experience of a Syrian-American girl as she moves to Los Angeles, highlighting the immigrant experience in the current political climate.
Held at Barnard annually each February since 2011, the Athena Film Festival celebrates women and leadership through film, highlighting the work of female filmmakers.
“Dalya’s Other Country,” directed by Julia Meltzer, features the story of Dalya Zeno, a Syrian teenager who immigrated to Los Angeles in 2012, and her mother Rudayna. Filmed over four years, the documentary follows Dalya through her high school career as she adjusts to a new country. The film also looks at the effects of recent political developments on the family.
Meltzer was asked to screen “Dalya’s Other Country” at the festival earlier this year. She and Dalya’s brother Mustafa will attend the festival and hold a Q&A session after the screening.
Meltzer met Dalya and Rudayna through Mustafa, who helped Meltzer distribute her previous film about a school teaching the Quran to girls and women in Damascus.
“They know that I know something about their culture and wouldn’t be a total stranger walking into this situation, and they agreed to be filmed. And you know, when someone agrees to be filmed, in a documentary, I don’t think they ever really have any idea what that will entail,” said Meltzer. “Four years is a very long time, and you don’t think about what that means in terms of sharing.”
Meltzer initially intended to focus solely on Dalya, but after talking to Rudayna about her experience leaving Syria when her husband married a second wife, she decided to include Rudayna’s story as well.
“Talking about polygamy, especially from the point of view of a woman, is not something that’s easy to talk about for that community,” said Meltzer. “Generally it’s a topic that you keep very quiet. It’s not super common in Syria, it’s something that happens really behind closed doors and is lied about very often.”
Instead of shooting constantly over four years, Meltzer was strategic in the moments she selected to film. Before beginning filming, she knew what the rough outline would be—starting at the beginning of Dalya’s high school career and ending at her graduation—but unprecedented events, both personal and political, changed the course of the story as she filmed.
Meltzer pinpointed the end of 2015 as a pivotal moment in the Zenos’ story, as the backlash from terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino gave rise to a resurgence of Islamophobic sentiment.
“It’s very hard to be in the midst of finishing your film when a major historic event is happening, because you don’t really have any perspective on that event, you know? You’re in it,” Meltzer said. “You’re in the midst of it, and so it’s very hard to figure out how to tell that story when you’re in the midst of it.”
Shortly after, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump announced plans for his Muslim travel ban, a highly publicized aspect of his campaign’s platform. The shadow of the 2016 election would continue to follow Dalya and Meltzer as they filmed more of the documentary.
The day before the election, Dalya turned eighteen. Meltzer followed her to the voting booth.
“If I put [the results of the election] at the end of the film, it really frames where Dalya is now and her story; you end up with that presidential election,” Meltzer said. “In some ways I felt like I was giving the film over to Trump, and I really didn’t want to do that. He doesn’t get to have the last word. The film does not get to end on him, because that’s not what this is about. This is her story.”
Instead, Meltzer decided to run the credits alongside footage of Dalya at a protest against the Muslim travel ban instituted shortly after Trump’s inauguration.
Despite the influence of political events, Meltzer maintains that the focus of the film is Dalya and her experience as a Syrian-American immigrant.
“It ended up being an immigrant in America coming-of-age story. That’s how I would characterize it,” Meltzer said. “You could look at Dalya’s experience and map it onto a lot of different immigrant groups, not just a Syrian-American girl.”
“Dalya’s Other Country” will be screened at the Athena Film Festival at 12 p.m. on Feb. 25.
Photo by Maryam Hassan.