Brandon Gulis and Beau Rosario instantly knew there was something special about Shamira Muhammad when they first met her at a refugee camp in Uganda.
Gulish, a 2007 film and media arts alumnus, and Rosario, a 2014 film and media arts alumnus, spent the past four years working on “The Elephants and The Grass,” an independently-financed film that follows a young refugee, Shamira Muhammad and her mother, Yasmin, as they attempt to flee South Sudan.
The country gained independence in 2011 but dealt with a civil war until 2018. The conflict has created 2.27 million refugee and asylum seekers, according to The Council on Foreign Relations, an independent organization that studies the United State’s role in foreign policy.
Gulish and Rosario first learned about the issues in South Sudan when they were connected with Water Is Basic, a non-profit in Philadelphia that works to provide safe drinking water to villages around the world that do not have access to it.
The filmmakers were originally asked to produce a short film for Water is Basic about digging wells for villages in Africa.
They initially wanted to visit South Sudan, but the violence had escalated significantly so they ended up at Rhino Refugee Camp in Uganda.
While in Uganda, they met 12 year-old Shamira and her mother and were instantly enamored with her and their journey of fleeing South Sudan. Shamira and Yasmin traveled hundreds of miles, facing the threat of sexual abuse and failed murder attempts.
Gulish and Rosario were drawn to Shamira for her unwavering hope for a better future for her and her mother, Rosario said.
“One of the most jarring things is she’s talking about the most horrendous, trauamtizing, stories and talking about everything from rape to murder to canablism, all these things that are so shocking and she’s able to talk about them in such a calm, matter of fact way,” Gulish said.
The duo kept in contact with Shamira and Yasmin through WhatsApp and have returned to visit Shamira and Yasmin multiple times over the past four years.
Gulish and Rosario are dedicated to using their story as a way to raise awareness to the refugee crisis in South Sudan.
To better understand the trauma and emotional impact war had on Sudanese people, the filmmakers spoke to neuroscientists in the U.S. who work with war veterans and refugees, Rosario said.
“Our biggest takeaway was realizing this isn’t an African issue and it’s not a South Sudanese issue, it’s a trauma issue,” Gulich said.
Steve Roese, the founder and president of Water Is Basic, has been involved in outreach work in South Sudan since 2005. A few years ago, Shawn Small, a filmmaker, highlighted some of the work the organization was doing in “Ru: Water is Life,” a short documentary that was shown to the United Nations in 2015.
The screening caused people to take an interest in some of the work Water Is Basic does. When Gulich mentioned wanting to make a film for Water Is Basic, Roese automatically said yes in hopes that the film would have similar results.
“It’s incredibly important when artists are encouraged to use their gifts to tell a complicated story in a way that reaches people’s hearts and minds,” Roses said. “I’m not sure that we would ever get as much done as we can without artists stepping in and doing that and I think that’s what these guys have done.”
The filmmakers are currently working to get the film into festivals and hope it will make its way to policymakers who can help pass legislation to improve the circumstances in South Sudan.
“We really do believe that, if people can understand exactly what’s going on over there, that they will get involved and commit to helping make a change,” Rosario said.
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