In Conversation with Maya Sanbar, director of Footsteps on the Wind

‘Footsteps on the Wind’ is a 2021 animated short film that tackles the harsh realities faced by refugees around the world. Following two children, Noor and her brother Joseph, as they separate from their family due to an earthquake, it is a story about resilience and strength. Furthermore, the animated short is accompanied by Sting’s hauntingly beautiful song ‘Inshallah’ (an Arabic expression meaning ‘God willing’), which was written in 2016 as a hopeful response to the migrant crisis.

Strand had the pleasure of speaking with director Maya Sanbar about the medium of animation, how the film was received by audiences, as well as subjects pertaining to the short itself, such as the worldwide refugee and climate crises.


Credit- Maya Sanbar


Kristyna Jelinkova: Considering your previous work has been mainly outside the realm of animation, why did you choose to tell the story through this medium? How did the experience differ from your usual filming experience?

Maya Sanbar: I have been wanting to make a film about refugees for a while and for this particular project, it was really important for me that the film was quite global and could touch hearts and minds and be a kind of torchlight for the refugee story and experience for both adults and children.


Animation is interesting in that different people will take different things from it. It is about having double meanings and animation was very useful for the double meanings we wanted to put in. Also, there is a lot of symbolism – for example, the symbols of the red scarf and the orange tree. These objects are used throughout the film to show that our roots and our experiences can give us strength when we need them, and later on, we plant seeds without even knowing it and then new things come out of the ground. Animation has that way of allowing this other level of symbolism.


When we did our workshops with refugees, I arrived with a lot of colours and sparkles and things. We asked them to draw their footsteps on newspapers, and one day, when they made these footsteps and decorated them, they told us a little bit about their stories through music actually. Music was a way to relax the workshop. Each one of them shared their music from their own country so there was Ethiopia, Kurdistan, Iran, and that was the way to unblock. A lot of them did not know who Sting was, and so it was more about the meaning of the song itself rather than who wrote it. I thought that was really nice because it was about the work itself rather than who any of us were.


I feel like with animation you can touch the emotional and you can do storytelling at different levels. That is why we chose it.


KJ: I imagine that animation requires a lot of teamwork. How has the pandemic affected the production of your film, especially as the production team is from various parts of the world?

MS: We worked remotely on the film during lockdown, and even though the film was conceived two years before lockdown, it took time to write the story, do the research, get the right input, find some money... I found it really frustrating to work remotely because we could not be in the same room drawing things. The good thing was that I found the co-directors in Brazil [Faga Melo and Gustavo Leal] during lockdown. We never physically met, but we immediately related to each other online and we had this big warmth. They were amazing co-directors because they had lots more experience with animation than me as I had only done one animation myself before.

Credit- Maya Sanbar


KJ: Were there any major changes or modifications due to the film’s limited runtime?

MS: One of the big changes that I miss is the walk. I wanted to have a scene with a long walk with more and more people joining this walk and making a long walk because that is part of the whole story. But we just didn’t have time in the film to do that, so we swapped the walk with an earthquake. That ended up being quite a helpful shortcut because the earthquake also became a wing to the climate issues and climate change as people are refugees for many reasons; for conflict as well as climate.


KJ: You also had the opportunity to curate the exhibition “Voices on the Wind” for the 70th anniversary of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Could you tell us more about the experience?

MS: I was originally approached for the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, but then I focused more on the anniversary of the UNHCR. I was going to participate in it, and then I was heading it up and curating it. It was a beautiful experience because I felt like they [Melissa Fleming and Oreli Maloba – of the UN exhibits team] really trusted me. They were really open to do something new and fresh for the experience.


When curating the photography (for the ‘SEE’ part of the exhibition), I approached Steve McCurry, an amazing, established photographer and the other photographers were refugees, actually, and I really enjoyed the process of putting well-known photographers next to unknown photographers. That is why I called it ‘Voices On the Wind’ because it is all about the wind crossing borders and boundaries, and these voices are sometimes unheard, so I was bringing them to the United Nations as a platform.


KJ: I assume that the movie was shown to the refugees. What were their reactions? Did they find it therapeutic since you related the film to a therapy tool?

MS: We showed it in Lesbos, for example, with kids. We would show the film, have a talk about it, watch it again, and make artwork around the film. Through that they could talk about their own stories. There were a couple of kids that I was told didn’t speak much when I first got there, but this exercise gave them a way of expressing themselves and communicating their thoughts.


KJ: What was it like presenting the film at festivals?

MS: It has been really touching for me showing it in different places. What I was nervous about was showing it to refugees – I thought “Does it sing true?”, “Is it okay?” because it is a story by refugees for refugees.


I was happy when we screened it for the Serpentine Film Committee opening, as it is quite rare to use an animation for something like that. It was such a nice thing because it happened in the Sumayya Vally Pavilion, and the architecture is about moving around, so it was perfect that it was screened there. At the event, Hans-Ulrich Obrist [creative director of the Serpentine Gallery] gave a speech and in it he mentioned that “tonight is how film, art and architecture come together and how these different mediums talk about displacement and refugees in such a relevant way”. It is really nice to show it at film festivals and every festival is precious with a local audience, which is great to reach out to.


KJ: I interpreted the title, ‘Footsteps on the Wind’, as referring to the marks we leave behind on our journeys carried out by the wind. What steps do you think the audience can take to help with the crisis and consequently leave a mark on this world?

MS: I would say find your local refugee organisation and offer your help, whether it is at a food kitchen, supplying clothes or otherwise. Definitely look up our website ‘footstepsonthewind.com’ - we have partner charities that we donate to, and you can go directly to those charities as well. On Instagram, it is @footstepsonthewind or @chasingthelight, and you can always contact me @mayasanbar and ask questions.


I think it is also about kindness and compassion. When you meet people – do not judge, be open and share what you have or what you are able to share. Shift attitudes as much as possible, I would say, in your own way. Sometimes you don’t have to go far from home. It can be just down the street or next door.


‘Footsteps on the Wind’ has received numerous accolades for its powerful portrayal of refugee children who remain hopeful in the face of adversity, including the Oscar-qualifying Best Animated Short Film award at Cinequest Film Festival.


Edited by Saffron Brown Davis, Film Editor

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