UNIT9’s Lefty and agency Purpose on working with Abdullah, an Iraqi refugee living in Berlin, to tell his story
For the first time ever, a team made up entirely of refugees is competing at this year’s Olympic Games. 10 athletes from South Sudan, Ethiopia, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo have headed to Rio to compete in athletics, judo and swimming. To support the #TeamRefugees movement, ad agency Purpose and UNIT9 directorial duo Lefty (Felix Thompson and Brandon Roots) headed to Berlin to meet Abdullah, an Iraqi refugee who has used boxing to integrate into his new life in the German capital. The resulting films (one 60-second and another, longer two-minute version) are stories of inspiration, resilience, humanity and hope. LBB’s Addison Capper caught up with Lefty and Purpose’s creative lead Lauren Rodman to find out more.
LBB> Can you tell us a bit more about Team Refugees and what it involves? How did it come about?
LR> The #TeamRefugees campaign is part of a larger initiative led by UNICEF and other partners, including UNHCR, Save the Children, International Rescue Committee, the ONE campaign, Theirworld and World Vision, to test a new collaborative approach to more effectively create positive change for children. The initiative, called Article 26 in a nod to the provision in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that provides for the right to education, aims to boost public engagement around the Syrian refugee education crisis.
#TeamRefugees from Purpose on Vimeo.
LBB> What are the challenges that come with dealing with a sensitive issue such as this?
LEFTY> There’s always a responsibility that comes with telling anyone’s story. You try your best to capture their voice authentically - to find the heart of who they are and what they’ve been through. But when you’re dealing with someone who has gone through things that are so outside the world of your own experience it can be daunting. Ultimately we think the most important thing you can do in those moments is just listening and allowing them the space to talk. Too much pushing and prodding is an easy way to shut someone down.
LR> After a couple of conversations with Abdullah, we began to understand in more detail what his journey had looked like - the dangers that forced his family to leave Iraq as well as the challenges that they faced over the course of their journey from Iraq to Berlin. We were honoured that he was willing to share his story with us but one of the greatest challenges that we faced was determining how much we wanted to share in order to balance the strategic objective of the piece - humanising the refugee crisis through his personal story - and the safety of him and his family, making sure that we only shared elements that would not put his family members that are still at home at risk.
LBB> What kind of conversations were you having with Abdullah to make him comfortable enough to open up?
LEFTY> There’s no substitute for spending time with your subject. We did a brief interview with Abdullah at the beginning of the shoot, but it wasn’t until we had spent a few days with him, meeting his family, following him at the gym and around town, that we settled into feeling truly comfortable with each other and began building an understanding. We did a longer interview at the end of the shoot and it was there that Abdullah began to tell us in more detail some of the things he had gone through and what really motivated him as an athlete.
LR> We were introduced to Abdullah through BoxGirls, an organisation that allows refugees to train for free in Berlin. Once we connected with his trainer Natasha, we spent time with Abdullah at the gym, observing his training and hearing about his experience making the journey from Iraq to Germany and integrating into his new community through the sport of boxing. Over the course of a few days as we all got to know each other, we got to learn about his life back in Iraq, why his family was forced to leave and what their new life in Berlin is like. He spoke a lot about how boxing has been the way that he has made new friends and found a new home in Germany.
LBB> From an art direction point of view, what were your aims for this film? A lot of it is based in Berlin, how did that influence it?
LEFTY> We wanted this piece to feel very personal, it was ultimately Abdullah’s story. So as much as possible it was shaped by the places that he actually inhabited, the places that he trained, the neighbourhoods that he knew. We didn’t want to knock anyone over the head with “This is in Berlin!” which is why even when we see the famous TV Tower, it’s from a rooftop many miles away.
#TeamRefugees: They motivated me from Purpose on Vimeo.
LBB> It’s got a real cinematic vibe to it - like a preparation sequence you see in sporting movies. Was that on your minds during production?
LEFTY> We very consciously wanted to avoid doing a talking head interview doc. We wanted this piece to feel more like a poem, narrated by our subject: an ode to perseverance and motivation. There was a strength and grace about Abdullah that we wanted to capture. Ultimately we wanted the world to see Abdullah as his friends and family see him - as a hero, as a boxer, as someone to look up to.
LBB> Lauren, why were LEFTY perfect to helm this film?
LR> The LEFTY team was a dream to collaborate with. In addition to capturing beautiful shots, it was immediately clear that they were deeply invested in the issue and took great care to make Abdullah comfortable throughout the process, building a trusting rapport both with him, his trainer and the translator. The process was incredibly smooth and integrated.
LBB> How has working on this campaign personally affected your thoughts towards the crisis?
LEFTY> One of the things that excited us about this campaign was that we had seen so many representations of refugees in the media as a faceless group - as people that were weak and parasitic. And here was a chance to reveal the falseness of that narrative. To tell a single human story that showcased the strength that these people have - their hopes and ambitions. Honestly hearing stories not just from Abdullah, but also from his family and our translator Mahmoud was really eye-opening. You wonder what would have to happen to you to leave your own home? To leave behind everything you know and go on a dangerous journey to an unknown country where you don’t speak the language. It’s an incredibly difficult decision. One often made to protect the safety of family, friends, wives and children.
LR> The courage and resilience that he has shown, the spirit that his family has maintained… I can’t imagine what it would be like to be kidnapped, lose the home I grew up in, my friends, my community - to see all of that disappear and be forced to flee and rebuild my life in another place. And this is the story not just of Abdullah’s family, but of thousands of families around the world - a shocking 65.3 million people were forcibly displaced as of 2015 according to UNHCR.
As we were talking to him, I could see how he was coming to terms with the fact that being a refugee has become part of who he is, but it is only part of his identity. He’s also a boxer, a son, a student, a member of a new community and that’s what we were trying to show. It’s hard to show all of that in 60 seconds but the story was so powerful and that’s why we felt like we had to do the two-minute piece as well.
One of the reasons I thought this was an important, powerful story to tell was that our media is always filled with one type of story. We often see such negative stereotypes of young, Arab men represented in the media and we wanted to show a real story and subvert these stereotypes.
LBB> What were the trickiest components of this project and how did you overcome them?
LEFTY> The most important aspect of this piece was finding the right story and the right subject. So we have to give huge props to Lauren at Purpose and to Harry at UNIT9. Those guys were on the ground in Berlin putting feelers out to every organisation they could imagine. How on earth they found this incredibly humble, driven and caring young boxer who used to be on the Iraqi national team is beyond us. Go them.
LR> Once we aligned around the idea that we wanted to focus the piece on the story of a young refugee athlete, one of the trickiest elements of the project was finding the right person. During pre-production, we were exploring leads from our partner organisations in multiple countries. While we focused in on leads in Germany, Greece and Kenya, we ultimately decided to focus on Germany, specifically Berlin. When we made that call, we still didn’t have a specific protagonist locked, rather a handful of leads. So we landed in Berlin with a short list of strong contacts, locations and athletes that we were going to meet. Though there were a few incredible stories, once we met with Abdullah the first day in the gym, we were confident that we wanted to focus on him and explore how to best allow him to share his story as an athlete and Team Refugees fan with the world.
LBB> How much was scripted? Was it mostly Abdullah's own words?
LEFTY> All of the voice over came through recorded conversations with Abdullah. There are a lot of different stories you could pull from those conversations. He talked about his journey over with his sister and her family, and had stories from back home - a lot of which ultimately didn’t fit into the piece.
LR> The entire piece is in Abdullah’s own words. As a team, we finalised the questions that we wanted to ask Abdullah but every word is his own. We had a sense of things that we wanted to accomplish with the piece - to humanise the refugee experience through the appeal of sports, to clarify that refugees do not choose to leave their homes but rather that they are forced to flee, and to inspire people around the world to support Team Refugees. But the strength of the piece comes from Abdullah’s willingness to share his experience so openly.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
LEFTY> Yeah, you better be cheering for Team Refugees this summer! Seriously. These guys are amazing, and they are standing on the world stage to show everyone that no matter what circumstances you come from you have the potential to do truly great things.