An animated film about a bright-eyed little girl is coming to the New York International Children’s Film Festival this weekend. Dounia and the Princess of Aleppo (2022) follows the story of a fragmented but resilient family forced to migrate from the city of Aleppo in Syria due to the ongoing civil war. Told through the lens of Dounia, an optimistic five-year-old with a special connection to magic, the film depicts her family’s journey across land and sea to find safety.

Quebec-based Syrian filmmaker Marya Zarif originally debuted Dounia’s story in 2020 through an animated web series that she later released as an illustrated storybook. Over the next two weekends, the film will be screened in New York to benefit the Syrian Association for Relief and Development (SARD), a grassroots organization that is currently building shelters for Syrian citizens after the recent string of deadly earthquakes that struck the area last month.

A film still from Dounia and the Princess of Aleppo (2022)

In the film, Dounia, whose name means “the world” in Arabic, is being raised by her grandparents after her mother passed away and her father was arrested at a young age. Her grandmother, Téta Mouné, and her grandfather, Jeddo Darwich, imbue Dounia’s life with their cultural knowledge of Syria’s cuisine and music.

As Dounia’s story unfolds, she leaves Syria with only a bird made from carved Aleppo soap from her grandfather and a handful of baraka (black cumin) seeds, known for their magical properties in Syrian folklore. Zarif infuses Dounia’s story with tons of cultural references to Syria, helping her find comfort in the connection to her heritage throughout the family’s daunting trek to an unfamiliar land. Through the seeds, Dounia is able to connect with the Princess of Aleppo, an entity that Zarif describes as “the light at the end of the tunnel.”

“The Princess exists in Dounia’s heart, and the bond between them is very very ancient and at the core of Dounia’s character,” Zarif explained to Hyperallergic, careful to avoid any spoilers. “It’s possible that she could be the moon, as she enlightens the dark nights for Dounia.”

Dounia’s bold spirit coupled with the magic embedded in her story helps to navigate conversations with children about difficult topics like war and cruelty toward migrants in an age-appropriate manner.

A film still from Dounia and the Princess of Aleppo (2022)

Dounia and the Princess of Aleppo (2022) will screen this Sunday, March 5, at the SVA Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood followed by a virtual Q&A with Zarif. Another screening session will take place the following Sunday, March 12, at the Film Forum in Downtown Manhattan. The French-language film has English subtitles and is suitable for children eight and up. Hyperallergic readers can get $2 off their ticket purchases using the code HYA2023 at checkout.

Rhea Nayyar (she/her) is a New York-based teaching artist who is passionate about elevating minority perspectives within the academic and editorial spheres of the art world. Rhea received her BFA in Visual...