'Hand the microphone over': Syrians react to Lena Dunham writing refugee screenplay

'Hand the microphone over': Syrians react to Lena Dunham writing refugee screenplay
News that the gaffe-prone writer and actor is to pen the film script of the story of Syrian refugee Doaa al-Zamel was met with ire from Syrians and Arabs online.
4 min read
30 Oct, 2018
The choice of US starlet Lena Dunham, whose hit show 'Girls' was castigated for its glaring white privilege tone-deafness, to pen the script for the real-life tale of Syrian refugee Doaa al-Zamel's tragedy-stricken journey across the Mediterrannean, has been slammed by Syrians and Arabs alike for being, well, a bit problematic.

The film, based on the book "A Hope More Powerful than the Sea", is to be produced and directed by Hollywood heavyweights J. J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg, however their involvement as privileged white men has attracted considerably less ire. So has the fact that the book was authored by Melissa Fleming, the UNHCR chief spokesperson, and not Doaa herself.

However, as the internet loves to hate Dunham, the Twitterstorm raged over primarily why, of all the people who could most sensitively portray a story of distress and dispossession, did they pick the screenwriter who embodies the polar opposite of life experience.

Along with a gaffe-strewn public career and personal life, including posing on Instagram with a blanket wrapped round her head which she captioned her "fundamentalist attitude", her hit TV show "Girls" received a chorus of ridicule for its virtually snow white portrayal of famously diverse Brooklyn.

"I appreciate @lenadunham @jjabrams Spielberg using their high profile to highlight #Syria stories.But why not enable Syrian storytellers? There are so many Syrian writers/directors who have lived a version of these stories or are at least way more intimately acquainted w/them," tweeted Alia Malek, a US-based Syrian author.

"I've debated responding bc this isn't surprising, but it's still jarring to see how tone deaf, self-congratulatory& unable to learn from past mistakes #Hollywood can be - despite what might be best intentions on all sides," she reflected in a thread about whitewashing in film and TV.

Some people were less restrained in their feelings over the writer's selection:

"This is a Big 'F*ck You' to all the talented Syrian writers and directors and actual refugees who have lived through awful times of hardship and violence & can actually write about it themselves," tweeted Syrian political analyst Danny Makki. 

"But no, Lena Dunham is better equipped to tell the story."

Hassan Akkad, a Syrian refugee who produced the award-winning BBC documentary Exodus, reached out to Dunham for her new project:

"Congrats @lenadunham important story to tell. Would love to work with you on this since I am Syrian myself, did a journey similar to Doaa Al Zamel's and been working in tv production for three years. DMs open x"

More people offered "cultural" assistance, evidently concerned after hijab-gate:

"Excited that this story is being adapted. But as a Syrian American with family and friends who became refugees, I concur with some of the comments. Please do these stories justice — and as a writer I’d love to help. hmu if you need a cultural consultant! Good luck. 🍀"

Fellow Arabs joined the heated debate, some with strongly worded advice:

"Can I respectfully suggest that if this project happens, you involve as many Syrians and refugees as possible in the making of it? You have a huge platform to get stories out, but I think it would be a sign of good faith to include the people whose story you are telling."

And some with pure objection

Alia Malek summed up the essence of the outrage in punchy fashion:

"Isn’t it clear now that sometimes the best articulation of good intentions is to step aside & hand the microphone over to the very people who've been excluded from telling their own stories?" she tweeted on her thread.

"Hold the mic, pay for the mic, make money from the mic - OK. But get off the damn mic…"

The people have spoken Lena, time to get off the damn mic.