Filmmaker tells 10-year journey of making The Translator

April 18, 2022
Award-winning writer and director Rana Kazkaz discussed her 10-year journey in making her first feature-length thriller during a Northwestern Qatar community screening of The Translator.
The film follows the story of a Syrian translator living in exile in Australia who returns to Syria when his activist brother is taken prisoner by the Assad regime during the 2011 protests. Since its release in 2020, the film has premiered in several countries including France and the U.S., and has been featured in numerous international film festivals and film societies, including the Institut Du Monde Arabe in Paris.
Marwan M. Kraidy, dean and CEO of Northwestern Qatar, introduced Kazkaz before the screening and noted that the film is “about courage and redemption in the very worst conditions,” underscoring how the film captures the human toll of wars.
Following the screening, Kazkaz was joined by Professor João Queiroga for a conversation about the film. She told the audience that at the outset of the protests in Syria, she was forced to leave the country as the unrest made her fear for her children’s safety. “People started looking at one another suspiciously immediately when you go out in the streets; friends and family stopped knowing how to talk to one another,” recalled Kazkaz. “My kids were small, and I was really scared to let the kids go to school.”
Using her foreign passports, Kazkaz was able to take her children and leave the country, but her husband stayed behind. “I thought I was leaving for a month … I packed a small suitcase for me and my kids,” said Kazkaz, but as tensions on the ground in Syria rose, her dreams of going back started diminishing.
Leaving was not easy for Kazkaz, who was haunted by the feeling of guilt for not participating in the protests and for leaving her husband behind. As time passed by, she said the conflict had its toll on her relationship with her family. “The phones were tapped …. our family was falling apart,” she added.
But Kazkaz saw an opportunity in her plight. “We couldn’t talk about seeing one another but we could talk about making a movie,” she said. “Figuring out what kind of story we want to tell allowed us to be able to communicate again,” which inspired her to make The Translator.
Kazkaz began writing the film script but soon faced the challenge of finding a central theme that captures reality on the ground. “I was really lost; there were a lot of subthemes,” said Kazkaz. “At first, I thought I would talk about a man who finds his courage and then tried to focus on the slogans of the protests: freedom and dignity.”
Two years went by, and Kazkaz was still working on the script. But during her short film Mare Nostrum’s screening at Sundance, she met with a screenwriter who helped her find the missing piece. “He said there is one subtheme here that is really interesting, which is ultimately about a man who goes to Syria to find his missing brother, but what he needs is to find his voice,” said Kazkaz. “It was that articulation that then allowed me to continue to write and start filming.”
As Kazkaz screens her film around the world, she is reminded of the violence in Syria and the fear that has been instilled in people. “The reality is that the Syrian government has to do nothing to keep the fear alive,” said Kazkaz, hoping the film brings conversations about shared humanity and morality.
Rana Kazkaz, an assistant professor at Northwestern Qatar, is an award-winning filmmaker focusing on Syrian stories. In fall 2021, she was the Roberta Buffett Visiting Professor of International Studies in the Program of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at Northwestern’s campus in Evanston.