The title “Simple as Water,” a five-part Syrian refugee documentary structured like an omnibus film, could just as well apply to filmmaker Megan Mylan’s spare and unassuming directing style. You can hardly see the scaffold of a documentary film at all. In fact, “Simple” unfolds more like a riveting neorealist drama, with no trace of the woman and her crew behind the camera, no talking heads, no filmmakerly intervention of any kind. Instead, five stories of refugees from Syria and of the people still living in its war-rattled grasp unspool with an unadorned melancholy, giving way to an emotionally searching journey through the planetary ripple effects of a devastating crisis emanating from the Middle East.
Academy Award–winning director Megan Mylan has spanned the globe before in search of a compelling story, whether to unsung corners of India (“Smile Pinki”) or Africa (“Lost Boys of the Sudan”). “Simple as Water” takes Mylan and her team (including cinematographers Lars Skree, Michael Chin, and Rafia Salameh, who bring an observant yet never invasive eye to the proceedings) to five countries: Turkey, Greece, Germany, Syria, and eventually the United States. Part of what makes this film a success is its universality — even its lack of specificity — as we’re given names of cities, states, and countries, but not much other geographic or tangible information to tether the subjects to a specific moment and place.
In the first stretch of the film, a Syrian mother named Yasmeen lives with her brood of small children in a refugee encampment perched in Athens, Greece, tents lined up and down the dockyard. She’s waiting to reunite with her husband in Germany, but both must face the rigamarole of bureaucracy that impedes their reunion. Getting the necessary papers together, a counselor tells her, could take 10 months. “This is giving me a headache. I’ll just go back to Syria,” Yasmeen jokes. This segment of the film finds perhaps the most levity, offering a hopeful bookend for the bleaker (but never exploitatively miserable) stories within. The end of “Simple as Water” circles back to Yasmeen and her husband Safwan, living with other refugees in a spartan holding center in a small German town.
In Turkey, single mother Samra is overwhelmed by the duties of caring for five children and working full-time. Her husband, she tells a worker at an orphanage, was “taken away by the regime” in Syria, though his fate is (as it is for many of the men offscreen in “Simple as Water”) not certain. Her oldest son, Fayez, is 12, and he’s assumed the responsibility of caretaker for his siblings. “I want to be their father. I don’t want them to feel like they’ve lost their dad, so I can manage,” he tells the orphanage. Fayez, like many children caught in the crossfire of Syrian civil war, has had to rapidly mature and has lost most of his childhood by now.
Next, delivery driver Omar works in Pennsylvania, where he awaits news of his asylum in the U.S. Living with him in the United States is his teenage brother, who, as gleaned in a moment shared between Omar and his enthusiastic high-school teacher, is a budding math prodigy even as he struggles to fit into American culture. Omar, meanwhile, gets dealt bad news about his asylum status due to his past entanglements with the Free Syria Army, a faction that has mostly dissolved since 2012. The documentary’s most harrowing sequence reveals that not only is his brother an amputee, but he was interviewed on CNN during news coverage of the civil war, as shown in images some might remember of a child with his arms and legs blasted off. Mylan (also an editor here) and editor co-editor Purcell Carson present this information with a journalistic matter-of-factness that makes it all the more abrupt and shocking but still non-exploitative.
Last is what must have been the most technically challenging of the vignettes, shot in the opposition area of Syria with the help of two women credited with pseudonyms. In press notes, Mylan said she looked into getting access, “but it would have been incredibly risky not just for me, but for the crew and most of all for any family we focused on—they’re living under a dictatorship in a war time.” The sequences are captured by hidden camera gear, and with equipment hidden in toys and diapers, with direction conducted through Skype and WhatsApp. The vignette centers on a mother of two named Diaa, desperately searching for her son, who went missing five years ago, possibly disappearing into ISIS. She uses social media to find dispatches from the Syrian Democratic Forces that may indicate some kind of surrender of prisoners. “He lived in this house like a breeze,” she says at one point, crying and cradling her other young son, who is disabled.
Ultimately the strength of “Simple as Water” lies in its austerity: There’s no political agenda here, no overt commentary on the global refugee crisis, no indictment of Syrian individuals on either side. From the looks of the film, you wouldn’t seem wrong to think that Mylan simply observed her subjects. Instead, she visibly had a level of deep, intimate access and rapport that few filmmakers can hope to achieve.
“Simple as Water” is now playing at the IFC Center in New York City. The film will premiere on HBO and HBO Max on November 16.