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I met Syawal (12) three years after the Tsunami in Sumatra. I was offering Yoga and meditation workshops at the schools in Banda Aceh as a contribution to the rebuilding of banda Aceh. Besides being a film director for 20 years, I am also a Children’s yoga teacher (www. When Syawal was entering my yoga class I liked him instantly. An open child, free-spirited, different from the other children at the schools. After the meditation classes I often ask the children to draw their personal experiences on paper. Although Syawal was highly energetic during the yoga, when he was drawing he was always very quiet and concentrated.

Making drawings after the meditation class

On my return to Holland the story of Syawal kept my thoughts occupied. The broadcast stations weren’t interested “ Too long ago “ they commented. But I really wanted to make a documentary about Syawal even tough the tsunami was more than 3 years ago. From my own experience (I once had a severe train accident in Indonesia) I knew that directly after a disaster there’s plenty of attention from the outside world, but after a while the interest is gone.

That is exactly the moment when the trauma starts to develop. I thought it was important to show how Syawal survived the tsunami, and to hear how he deals with the grief of loosing his mother and two sisters, years after the disaster. It took me two years to get the film financed. In May 2009 I started the filming with a tiny budget, an excellent interpreter, and a very inspired Indonesian crew. Since it had been more than two years that Syawal and I had met I was naturally a bit nervous.

Syawal and director Wilma Ligthart eating his favourite dish, nasi goreng,in a Banda Aceh restaurant


Luckily Syawal had not changed a lot, we were both very happy to reconnect. And most important, he was still open to tell his personal story in front of the camera. Of course it was hard for Syawal to go back in time. Mainly because he never talked about it with other people, and also because Syawal was only seven years old at the time of the disaster. As a way to reach his feelings I asked him to draw his personal story on paper. Syawal agreed immediately. Most of the time he was drawing in my hotel room instead of home; it was quiet and his father could not comment on his drawings.

Syawal after the drawing, talking at my hotel room.

Syawal was so tired, he felt asleep during the shooting

Back home in Holland we animated Syawal’s drawings to make his very own take on what has happened. During the filming he told me ” I had only one thought; I was so worried I would never see my parents again ” Syawal is still very scared of losing his father, the only one he loves and who survived. After the filming it was hard to say goodbye to Syawal. We shared many emotional moments during the filming. I am very grateful for Syawal ‘s openness and courage to share his most intimate feelings with me. Because of this capacity you can experience as a spectator a little bit how it is for a child to survive an disaster.

As a filmmaker I am very proud and happy I could make the documentary of SYAWAL WAS VERY SCARED. I think that the combination of Syawal's personal story with his drawings makes it very unique and different from other documentaries. The film has been premiered at the IDFA 2009 in Amsterdam and very well received by the audience. SYAWAL has been broadcasted at the Dutch Public Television on the 26 th of december 2009, exactly five years after the tsunami.

The film had it’s ASIAN PREMIERE January 2010 in Banda Aceh. The sharia did something exceptional, giving permission to screen SYAWAL WAS VERY SCARED in the cinema of Banda Aceh! As a rule men a women are not allowed to see movies together. It was great to see Syawal again, when we arrived he was playing with his friends at the river near the wharf of his father.

He was happy to see us, and I saw that he was doing well. After a lot of chips and coca cola he confessed “ you know Wilma…because of the talking and the drawings a big burden fell of my shoulders”. When I told Syawal about the Premiere in his hometown Banda Aceh, he reacted superexcited. We bought him a traditional Acehnese costume for the premiere. Syawal agreed, but only when he could wear his soccer-shoes under it!

Syawal and his father at the Premiere
In Banda Aceh

Syawal is reading the revieuws about
his film at the kiosk

Syawal was so proud that he asked “ Wilma, Could you buy all papers for me !? “ The film is broadcasted in Indonesia at TVRI (National Indonesian Broadcast station) and Aceh Net.

‘ SYAWAL WAS VERY SCARED ‘has been awarded and selected for the film festivals of Taipei, New York, Prague, Mill Valley, Skopje, Bratislava, Lisbon, Washington, Copenhagen, Seoul, and MOntevideo.

Wilma Ligthart

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