An Interview with David Henry Gerson

“This is not just about art. As an American, I have taken for granted that I have always had freedom of expression. I can make posters and march in front of the White House, whereas Syrians, if they make a post on Facebook, can be tortured or arrested or their family can be killed.”
—David Henry Gerson

Mhd Sabboura aka BBoy Shadow in Lesvos, in a still from The Story Won’t Die

Q. Your film, The Story Won’t Die, tells the gripping history of a group of Syrian artists who fled Syria during the Syrian Civil War and are now practicing in various European and U.S. cities, grappling with the loss of their homeland, and coming to terms with what it means to be a ‘refugee artist.’ What prompted you to make the film?

A. My short film All These Voices, which was in a way also about refugee artists, but at the end of WWII, won the Student Academy Award in 2016 and that same year I saw a short documentary that also won that award. It brought my attention to the refugee crisis.

The current refugee crisis globally is the largest ever, with approximately 83 million people displaced. The Syrian Civil War caused the greatest single displacement of people since WWII. My parents and grandparents were refugees after that war. My father helped his father chisel in stone a monument to those who died, “Never Forget, and Never Forgive.” He later worked for the Justice Department in the Office of Special Investigations as a Nazi hunter. I grew up with the idea of accountability and that actions must be taken when something is morally unjust.

So as I started doing research for The Story Won’t Die, I remember reading about this band, handing out their own CDs on a beach in Lesvos. They were not the standard image of refugees that I had learned from U.S. media. They were rock stars, musicians, artists. I met the producer Odessa Rae, and we shared a mutual interest in art as a means of processing crisis, and we went from there.

Q. Your father was Allan Gerson, a lawyer, writer, and the son of Jewish refugees from Poland.

A. I was thinking about his legacy as I was making the film. The final shooting took place in September 2019, and he died in December of 2019. I moved to Washington, D.C. to take care of him. I took over editing and was weaving these stories together while my father was dying upstairs. That changes you. Everyone in the film was comforting me. They have been through grief, and the things they said and the kindness they showed to me after he died were some of the most comforting during those days. While filming, I spoke with them about his journey, often, as a way to talk with them about their own experiences, asking them questions and having them open up about their past.

Abu Hajar and Medhat Aldaabal in a still from The Story Won’t Die

Q. The film tells the story of artists: a Syrian rapper, tortured by Bashar Al-Assad for his lyrics, who uses his music to survive one of our century’s deadliest wars, along with other creative personalities of the uprising, a musician, a breakdancer, and visual artists.

A. The people in the film have been through literal hell. They are incredible, inspiring, and resilient creative people who in the face of despair and destruction have found a way to put to paper or sing or look boldly at the past, which the average human being maybe cannot do. That is the role of the artist in society: to look into the corners that the average human being does not have time for, like for example choreographer Medhat Aldaabal. In the midst of running from hell, sleeping on the streets of Greece, he realized he had the power to transform the darkness. You look at your situation and think, I can use this, I am not a victim. Medhat really examines the price of what it means to not turn away.

The inciting incident of the film starts in Syria, the uprising, but we continue with these artists on their journeys after they have fled. It is not just talking about the processing, but it is an examination into the act of making amazing, bold art. I find these Syrians made a choice, to turn darkness into light or some form of  expression, rather than to let the darkness fester intergenerationally. I think this is how we need to process, in all forms of art, including filmmaking. Art all over the world has the power to get people to look at themselves and at the challenges of life that we do not ordinarily have the time or wherewithal to process.

Q. And what was your own experience making The Story Won’t Die?

A. The process of making a film is one of edifying. I came to realize how little I knew at the start, and frankly how little I still know, well, it’s impossible to really grasp it all. When someone is looking you in the eyes, telling you about how their friend or loved one died because of their lyrics or some sort of a meme on Facebook … it really made me realize that the freedom I enjoy in the United States is mind boggling. I realized I can say whatever I want, and that truly is a beautiful thing.

The film was a journey for me, and I would say the strongest thing I realized was that freedom of expression is something I took for granted. I was acutely aware of this during the Trump administration, and as I was studying Assad it was making me very nervous to see how a dictator can erode those freedoms. They can be whittled away. I have become more cautious that I could lose that. That is a reason to make a film.

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David Henry Gerson’s critically lauded film of Syrian artists in exile, The Story Won’t Die, premieres this month via the American Film Institute’s Virtual Film Festival across the United States on June 26 and 27 and live at the organization’s Silver Theater in Washington, DC on June 27th. For more information and to buy tickets,