Saleem teaches families and children how to heal trauma through stories

It’s not often that children’s stories depict the realities of being a refugee and healing from trauma. Saleem, an animated feature film from Jordan directed by Cynthia Madanat Sharaiha, tackles this difficult yet important story. The film will make its Canadian debut at the 26th annual Reel 2 Real International Film Festival For Youth this April.

Saleem follows the story of its titular protagonist, a young boy who is forced to move after the traumatic loss of his father during a conflict in his hometown. As he struggles to adjust to his new school and changed family life, Saleem discovers a treasure map and a quest ensues. In a journey filled with emotional stories and beautiful songs where he forges friendships, connects with his culture and begins to heal.

Saleem tells the story of its titular protagonist, a young boy navigating traumatic experiences and new adventures. | Photo courtesy of Reel 2 Real Film Festival.

Madanat Sharaiha and her team at DigiTales started thinking about the movie five years ago. She says there is a huge need for a story about a child, from a child’s perspective, about the effects of war, displacement, trauma and mental health. In doing so, they aimed to create a sensitive and accessible story, one that reflected various cultural aspects of Jordan while doing justice to the themes at hand.

“We wanted a story that is redemptive… not just a story that tells what happens, but gives hope as well and highlights the resilience of those children,” says Madanat Sharaiha. “Whether it is stories of refugees, those who have been displaced, victims of conflicts and war or even victims of neglect or bullying…these stories are important now, and have always been important, and will always be.”

Expert input

Since Saleem handles sensitive topics, Madanat Sharaiha says the team worked with a child psychologist to understand how Saleem might think and feel, and to understand what coping skills for young refugees and victims of conflict or abuse to include in the film. The creators drew upon narrative exposure therapy, a methodology to help those dealing with trauma, toxic stress and PTSD.

“They can use the story of Saleem as a kind of art therapy or cinema therapy,” she says. “Saleem finds healing and regains his narrative, his story, his life by being empowered to tell his story at the end, and see all his life from a wider lens than just the trauma.”

The creative inclusion of stories and folk songs reflects the Jordanian culture of storytelling as well, in addition to reflecting Saleem’s healing journey.

“We used stories and songs because they help us heal,” she adds. “They demonstrate that we are not alone, that others went through this and they made it.”

“A beautiful collaboration”

The themes of grief and trauma ring especially true for Madanat Sharaiha herself, whose brother died while the film was in its production stage.

“It was a very difficult time for my family and me,” she says. “We still navigate the journey of grief and loss.”

She says that more than 100 artists, animators and scriptwriters from around the globe made up the team behind Saleem. Creating the film involved much personal reflection and emotion for all involved.

“We all had to travel down memory lane and each of us had stories to share from our childhood. As a team, we all have our share of grief and trauma,” she says. “We have also, as a nation, witnessed many conflicts and wars around us… Jordan has been a safe haven for many refugees for decades, we know the stories of those children and we understand their grief. We feel with them.”

In addition to being the first feature-length animated film to come out of Jordan, the show has seen success in winning awards at festivals like the Annecy International Film Festival. Madanat Sharaiha says that making and releasing Saleem and seeing the great reaction thus far have stirred emotions of pride and accomplishment for her and the team.

For children and families watching the film, the director hopes they walk away with more empathy and a greater awareness of what children who’ve experienced trauma deal with.

“For children themselves who identify with Saleem or who are living some sort of Saleem’s reality, hold on to hope… look for people who can help and accept people who can help in the community that we live in,” says Madanat Sharaiha.

Watch Saleem at the Reel 2 Real Festival on April 13th by registering at: