EDUCULT Talks: with Linda Zahra and Alfoz Tanjour
Linda Zahra and Alfoz Tanjour left Syria in 2012, because of the war after taking part in several demonstrations and producing critical films. First they came to Beirut, where they stayed for some months and then decided to flee to Europa. They arrived in Vienna in 2014 with their two children. Linda Zahra started working as a photographer and had already three exhibitions here in Vienna. Alfoz Tanjour is a well-known filmmaker in the Middle East especially for his documentaries and is now working on his first feature film about a Syrian refugee story in the framework of the Austrian society.
Linda Zahra’s portaits of 15 Syrian women from Vienna can be seen until the 18th of March at the Hauptbahnhof Wien on the DigiWall next to track 3 and 4 in the exhibition “Insight – Syrian Women – Destination Austria”.
Deutsche Version hier.
EDUCULT: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your artistic background?
Linda Zahra: I was a make-up designer in Syria and worked with many films as a make-up artist. Eight years ago I started to be a photographer. This is my real passion. I was also an executive producer on many films. For some of them I worked with my husband.
EDUCULT: Was there a considerable film industry in Syria before the war and how would you describe the current situation for filmmakers?
Alfoz Tanjour: In Syria there was only the National Film Organization that supported film making financially, I mean only cinema films like 35 mm film. There is no money and no real industry in Syria for realising documentaries. The mentality of accepeting documentaries in the Arabic world is very limited. In 2003 the Al Jazeera Documentary Channel started, they began to make a lot of films and to spread this culture of documentaries in our world. From that moment I would say, that the filmmakers began to find their ways to make their documentaries. Me for example, I worked for the documentary channel Al Jazeera and Al Jazeera network as well as some other stations.
EDUCULT: Is there a professional training in filmmaking in Syria, like a film academy?
Linda Zahra: No, we don’t have a film academy in Syria.
Alfoz Tanjour: There is just the Higher Institute for Acting. You can be an actor or a critic. We studied film together in Moldove from 2000-2005.
EDUCULT: Would you say that the film industry in Syria and the neighborhood countries is more or less destroyed?
Alfoz Tanjour: All my friends who are against the regime left the country. I know some filmmakers, who are in Berlin now. The ones who decided to stay in Syria are allready with the regime. There are some new films in Syria every year, but all of them have a special intention and are more or less propaganda.
Linda Zahra: They tell the people to come back, that there would be enough work for them. But this is fake, we don’t believe in this.
Alfoz Tanjour: So even the cultural scene in Syria is seperated in the people who are against or with the regime. But the people who are working there now, are all “new” people. I have never heard about them before. Many journalists, writers and filmmakers had to leave Syria.
EDUCULT: Why did you exactly come to Austria?
Linda Zahra: We came here because of the war in Syria. It was too dangerours for us to stay there. We stayed in Beirut for almost two years until we experienced the same kind of dangerous situation there. A friend of us lives here in Vienna and adviced us to come to Europe. We did some research about the European countries and so we chose Austria, because of our friend here and the city of Vienna. We thought that we would have a good chance here in this city.
Alfoz Tanjour: At the beginning of the revolution in Syria we participated in several demonstrations by making photographs and short movies and putting them on the internet. When the guns began to speak, we decided to move out of the country.
EDUCULT: Was it difficult for you to become members of the artistic scene here in Vienna? What have been the main challenges for you?
Alfoz Tanjour: In general it is very hard to find your way and get a real chance to prove yourself outside of your home country, even in Beirut it was hard for us. But the people here in Europe respect art and they know a lot about it. If someone finds something really interesting about a new artist, he will try to support him and make an effort to make his art public. For me it was never a problem to find work to do, because I am a well known filmmaker in the Middle East and many funds and Arabic stations know me. For the last seven, eight years I did documentaries, but here I have the chance to work on my feature films. In the last four years I was working on my first long feature film which I hope to realise in the coming year here in Austria. It is about a Syrian refugee story, but also in the framework of the Austrian society, so the film is meant to be half Syrian and half Austrian.
Linda Zahra: I like to take pictures. I don’t like to speak so much about it. I found my way to work as a photographer here in Austria. In January I had my first exhibition here in Vienna at Galerie ART 3 in January and then I did the visuals for the opening event of “Syrian Links” at the Theater Akzent last month. Now I just have my third exhibition, “Insights” at Wien Hauptbahnhof. I am beginning to realise myself as an artist here in Vienna.
EDUCULT: Are initiatives like “Syrian Links” helpful in the process of finding a way of realising your artistic work here in Austria?
Linda Zahra: “Syrian Links” offered me many opportunities like to make this exhibition at Wien Hauptbahnhof and also the visuals at their opening event in February. And I think I will have another project in the future. We need the initiatives in Vienna, because now more Syrian artists live here and they need the chance to present their art.
EDUCULT: Is there a considerable number of Syrian artists in Vienna? Do they have similar chances like you or are they still searching to find their way?
Linda Zahra: Yes, there are a lot of Syrian artists in Vienna. Some of them are still searching for opportunities like “Syrian Links” and how they can prove themselves, but others like Salah Ammo or Adel Dauood already found their way.
EDUCULT: You came to Austria in 2014. I have the impression that the general attitude of the Austrian public towards refugees has changed. What is your impression of the Austrian society relating to the existence of refugees?
Alfoz Tanjour: In Syria we have been in a similar situation with refugees in 2003, when more than 1.5 mio. Iraquis came to Syria. We understand that it can be difficult to have refugees in your own country. When the numbers are growing, it is really a main concern. In some aspects I respect what European countries do now, because they want to keep their society save and they don’t exactly know who is coming from all around the world. But it is not a problem of the last one or two years, but of the last hundred years. I think that the West or America had the chance to stop the war in Syria, but they didn’t. I don’t want to speak more about this political stuff, but I think the whole world now has to pay for this processes and situation. Every country has to pay its bills. We could have done something to prevent this from happening, but since it happened, we have to find some solutions. But it is not just about building borders.
Linda Zahra: People will come and find their ways to cross them.
Alfoz Tanjour: In my opinion the solution has to start in our countries. It is important to find peace solutions. The moment the war stops, the refugees will stop coming. If the war stops know, it will be very easy for me to bring my family back home. We still have our home there, our relations and families.
Linda Zahra: After three or more years we can’t just move back. We could, but we have to think about our children. We have opportunities here and after some years it will be much harder to start again from the beginning in our country.
EDUCULT: What are the main problems or challenges you had or still have to deal with in your daily life?
Alfoz Tanjour: It is not just about learning the language. It is very hard when you discover that you lost your home and you are new in this country. I can learn a language in six months to communicate with people, but it is not just about this.
Linda Zahra: It is about learning how to live here, to deal with the other people.
Alfoz Tanjour: The air that you smell, your sun, your songs – everthing is different, the trees, the sky …
Linda Zahra: Every little detail is new.
Alfoz Tanjour: It is really hard for people. Maybe for us as intellectual people it is easier, but for those without educational background it will be harder to find their ways. But we have one serious issue now to deal with. Our son is twelve years old and he was a great student in Syrian and Beirut. Now he is facing a very new situation here in school, which is very hard for him to deal with at his age. When he started in Mittelschule, we discovered after two weeks that the level of education wasn’t good there, so we looked for a Gymnasium. But there in the first year he only got 45 minutes of German lessons extra per week. He was very disappointed, because he couldn’t follow the other courses without understanding the language. My friend in Germany has a son in the same age and it is the inverse situation there. First they offered him sixteen hours German per week and after three months step by step he began learning other things like history, geography and so on. He is now one of the best students in the school after just one year.
EDUCULT: I want to come back to your artistic work: Do you see a particular role of your artistic work in dealing with cultural differences – f.e. between “the Austrians” and “the Syrians”? Is there anything that could be transmitted via your artwork?
Linda Zahra: Yes of course. For example I decided to go to Turkey as a volunteer with a group of Syrian and Austrian people. I wanted to take pictures of the Syrians there to bring them back to Austria to show the society what is happening to us and our children. I made two short reportages. The first experience was just with Syrian children. But the last one in October was also with doctors from Austria who went to the border of Turkey and Syria and offered free surgeries for Syrians. I made a short film about this.
EDUCULT: You would agree that there is a particular job for artists?
Alfoz Tanjour: No, I never thought that art can change something. Art can’t stop the war or prevent military actions or political steps, but at least you can affect the sympathy of people. Art can change many things on the human level, the emotional level.
Linda Zahra: Art can’t change anything, but we can say something through the art. My exhibition now is about Syrian women who live here in Vienna. I want to present Syrian woman through presenting these 15 women and to tell people about our lifes, jobs, families and homes, and now our dreams here in Austria. I am trying to show them as really beautitful, strong and faithful women. When people will see the pictures at Wien Hauptbahnhof and read some lines about every woman during the next days, they can experience intellectual Syrian women of different ages and professions.
EDUCULT: What are your plans in the future? Do you want to stay in Austria?
Alfoz Tanjour: Just before the war started in Syria, we bought our first and I think last home there. We put all our money in this house in Damascus. We just stayed there for one year and a couple of months. All our stuff is still there in our closets.
Linda Zahra: We put all our dreams into this home.
Alfoz Tanjour: For the moment I don’t know, if we are going to become Austrians. Vienna gave us the opportunity to express ourself. I think now we also have to take our steps towards Vienna. I want to give something back to this place for example with my feature film. For our daughter it is a great experience here. She is in a fantastic kindergarten, they are really learning the childrens some beautiful things, to be self independant people, how to be open minded and accepting the others. I am watching her and I know, she is learning something very beautiful every day.
Linda Zahra: After five years it will be really hard for us to go back to Syria, because we allready have this good relation to Vienna. It is really hard to leave everything again after some years. It is all about time.
Thank you very much for the interview!