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We Are Not Princesses
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by Jay Seaver

"The play is not the thing, at least in this case."
4 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2019: In many cases, one might find oneself not quite dismissing this sort of documentary by saying it works because the filmmakers found good subjects, like a movie just happens when you point a camera at an unusual and charismatic person. It's probably more true that interesting subjects are all around, and the real challenges are getting them comfortable enough to open up, then pulling out the best parts. That, as they say, is the tricky part, especially when those people already have as much reason to try and blend into the scenery as the Syrian refugees in "We Are Not Princesses" do.

The filmmakers do a fair job of that, aided a bit by finding women in these refugee camps a little more willing to be extroverted than others might - they arguably wouldn't be joining a theater program otherwise - and figuratively looking over their shoulders as they discuss their current situation and how it relates to the production of Antigone they're rehearsing at a center in Beirut. For some, venturing outside the house for any reason but to do the shopping is almost terrifying, while others are more at ease than people might expect.

Though the film has the basic shape of a "let's put on a show!" story, the filmmakers are wise to recognize that the actual rehearsal and performance is not nearly so interesting as the discussions it brings about, so while there is a director and a stage and eventually an audience, that whole side of the process is only glimpsed briefly. Instead, directors Bridgette Auger and Itab Azzam focus on the everyday lives that these women lead, or more often let their conversations steer the film. It lets these women fully emerge as themselves, with only as much of Antigone and the play's other characters as they choose to acknowledge, and gives the filmmakers room to focus on things that have little to do with the play - a mother perhaps adapting better to freedoms she remembers from her you than her supposedly more modern daughter, for example.

Not everybody is entirely comfortable with being filmed in this situation, and rather than simply blurring them out, the filmmakers will often use animation to tell their stories. In addition to keeping the women who might feel unsafe in the picture, getting a broader range of voices, it also breaks up the look of the film with its deceptively simple style which can combine bold colors and deep shadows. It also gives a bit of insight into what the subjects imagine the play they are performing to be like, with visuals that often blend its setting of ancient Greece with their own culture. It's likely also a conscious decision to catch them eating lunch at a seaside restaurant toward the end - maybe they don't often get to the parts of the city that once made it a far more popular tourist destination, but making it there from crowded, run-down neighborhoods creates the feeling of success.

The film sometimes bumps up against the inherent difficulties of intersectionality, in that the combined and connected effects of their refugee status, the sexism ingrained in the culture, and other issues sometimes make the whole thing a bit too much to deal with so close to the ground. The filmmakers do well to just show everybody doing what they can to move a step or two forward, and let the audience take it from there.

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originally posted: 09/20/19 09:06:33
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2019 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Bridgette Auger
  Itab Azzam

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