Unlike a sudden and natural disaster, which elicits sympathy, this is a complicated and protracted crisis, so it’s difficult to capture and sustain public attention. This is why the advert invites you to take some time, out of your no doubt busy life, to watch one of the inhabitants of the Za’atari camp. Perhaps it will inspire you to give to those deserving of dignity, and to give to those host countries providing for them.
Or maybe not. What the campaign leader has learnt though is that figures never really hit hard when trying to convince a viewer like you. They need to engage your sympathies, flatter that weirdly compelling desire of yours to gaze, voyeuristically, at suffering. Like many others, it’s awful to admit how you secretly delight in extremities, or just how much the human condition can challenge itself. Stretched out in your armchair, you lean forwards as the advert appears on your screen. Out of the cozy cushions you reach and present to the sitting room your outward expression of concern. The appeal begins and you sigh sadly under your breath.
The trailer starts with a wide and circling drone shot of dusty Jordanian desert. Another shot, a close up of walking feet, overlays this panorama. The walking feet fade in and out, semi-transparent over a backdrop of sand and sky. Some vague string music is playing. You notice small crusted pale heels, bending and stumbling over lousy flip flop rubber and sharp rock. But you also smell tonight’s dinner wafting in through the kitchen door.
The camera finds the camp. Focusing on the spot of white canvas, it begins to zoom in. From this far off, it looks like a huge white pillow in the desert sun. Very romantic, very exotic. You’re mesmerised and imagine falling through the sky, landing softly on its shuddering, cloud-like canopy. Like a parachute, the tents receive you with ease, a skydiver, like a warm hug or a blossoming safety net. The videographer has done well.
Next, a vignette of a single mother and son smiling outside their trailer home. Stuck to its foundations by shuddering guy ropes, the son is restless and begins swinging off them. Like playframes. You think he probably used to have one. He smiles adorably for the camera and you wonder at how the human spirit endures. The single mother, 44, seeing the camera seeing her, decides to smile as well. She is well acquainted with the habits of survival. While you wouldn’t know this of course, there is no time for the footage, she toys with death every meal time. She cooks a curry, for just the two of them now, out of half a rat-torn bag of lentils- so death lingers constantly in the corner of the trailer. By now she has even grown to like him, at night she hopes he hears her think ‘don’t leave us here’. She says it to the camera too, although that interview is also, eventually, cut. There were translation problems.
As the voiceover gives a basic outline of the small family, the camera follows the son. He is on his way to school:
"This is one recently set up by one of 30 NGOs", the voiceover adds.
There’s hope, you think. But then you never see inside the school. It teaches fifty children for every class of ten chairs and five ball-point pens. We leave Raouf, named by the voiceover for added intimacy, as the camera loses interest outside the school gate:
"Raouf hopes to be a doctor, perhaps with your support he could be?"
The voiceover speaks in practised demands, his voice nondescript. There is a nice framing of Raouf, in his blue shabby beanie, against a brilliant sunrise. The skeletal figure of the gangly ten-year old with the extra large sweatshirt and rucksack. The videographer is proud, the shot is perfect.
Advert aside, (if I could just have a moment) Raouf doesn’t actually go to school. In fact, he hasn’t been to school since he left home- his was one of the ones they bombed. He told his single mother, 44, how the rubble resembled the red velvet biscuits he gets in the camp packed lunches. And yes he still hears bombs most days. The imaginary border is only seven miles away and it isn’t soundproof. When that happens, Raouf gets out his stolen ballpoint pen. He clicks it in time with every bomb he hears, as close as he can to his right ear while he deafens the left with an index finger.
When he’s not at school? Raouf goes to the market. It’s the easiest place to find in the white canvas maze- right in the centre. The market fences off its ten-year old customers with chain-link fencing and barbed wire. Inside, Raouf jostles with his companions for the space to thrust his food coupons into support worker hands. He pushes faces and grips t-shirt necks with the palm of his hand. He kicks smaller boys out of the way. But of course there is no footage of this. On the tv screen instead, a lorry appears with stacks of piled high plastic crates:
"And for just £5 you could provide lunch for a small family. Donate now and save a life."
The appeal finishes. Fading to black, numbers appear on the screen for you to call, or text if that’s easier. It’s your choice. You nod along, staring deeply into the eyes of Raouf in one final close-up shot. Perhaps you even gesture towards your phone on the coffee table desk. But the number flashes away too quickly, you didn’t quite catch the seconds to jot it down.
When they leave the camp, the film crew give the children they’d met playing cards and pencils and promise to write. One even says to Raouf he’ll visit again soon. If that happens, it is not before the adults in uniforms come. He is told he needs identification, he isn’t sure what that is so he turns out his pockets to help his mother- three sweets, a joker card and two folded paper aeroplanes. He places these on the desk and smiles at the adult. The same smile he’d given the cameras, the support workers, and now the man with the power to save his life. The official glances up, unaware, shouts next. He points the single mother, 44, and her boy to the exit.