Life on Hold
Credit: Image from Al Jazeera press office

Al Jazeera is producing a new web doc to mark the fourth anniversary of the conflict in Syria, using interactive features to "look beyond the numbers".

More than 100,000 people have lost their lives since the crisis began, while millions of others have been displaced from their homes amid the destruction of towns and cities.

The two-part documentary Life on Hold highlights the struggles of 10 Syrian refugees dispersed around Lebanon, Syria’s smallest neighbour, which now hosts almost 2 million refugees.

"I think we make it personal," senior Al Jazeera producer Reem Haddad, who is heading up the project.

"These are people with lives, they had lives, they're different, they're varied. They just happen to be refugees... but they're no different from you or I."

The youngest of the refugees featured in the documentary is seven, the oldest is 70 years old. Their living conditions range from affluent apartments in downtown Beirut to informal tented settlements and shanty towns in the northern Lebanese town of Tripoli. But the one thing they have in common is their label as refugees.

There are a lot of small parts to put together. It's kind of like a giant puzzleReem Haddad, Al Jazeera
Each character has their own page in the documentary, featuring various video modules which users can click on and explore.

In addition to that person's "main story", which is on average seven minutes long, these include shorter clips such as 'The Journey', which explains how they became a refugee and travelled to Lebanon.

Doing it this way allows "the user to decide what parts of the story they wish to explore," said Haddad, in contrast to more traditional documentaries where "you get to showcase maybe one or two characters, you weave a sort of narrative".

The documentary has been enabled for tablets although, perhaps surprisingly, not for mobile, although Haddad notes this function "might come out a little later".

Al Jazeera partnered with a company called Kung Fu based in Montreal, Canada, to produce the documentary. They chose a Canadian company, explained Haddad, because they believe the country is "kind of at the forefront [of] creating and producing some of the best web docs out there".

As an example she pointed to Out My Window, one of the world's first 360 degree interactive documentaries, which features footage of urban highrise buildings around the world.

The team of ten have been working on Life on Hold since pitching the idea in April last year. Filming in Lebanon took place in August and the documentary has been in post-production since around September last year.

"It's very labour intensive," said Haddad. "There are a lot of small parts to put together. It's kind of like a giant puzzle."

This "puzzle" is partly the reason the documentary will be released in two parts, with Haddad admitting the team were "a bit behind" with post-production and deciding to "take our time and phase it out" rather than rush to get it finished.

The first half will be launched on March 15 – the four year anniversary of the Syrian conflict – while phase two will roll out on April 15.

The video theme has also been extended to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, where Al Jazeera are encouraging people to show support and solidarity for those affected by the crisis by posting short clips and photos using the hashtag #iRefugee.

The tactic of using social media to drum up discussion and debate was also played by Al Jazeera's off-shoot AJ+, which built up a combined following of 105,000 on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube prior to its launch in September 2014 and has an engagement team larger than its editorial team.

Likewise, Life on Hold focuses heavily on engagement. The documentary itself will feature a section dedicated to user-generated content (UGC), where people will be able to post "thoughts, ideas or messages of support".

The Life on Hold team have also partnered with Syrian artist called Tammam Azzam, best known for his take on Gustav Klimt's iconic work The Kiss, which he Photoshopped onto a destroyed Syrian building.

A key theme throughout documentary is memories, explained Haddad, as refugees share what they miss most about their home country.

Azzam will produce illustrations based on the memories shared within the documentary and on social media "so your messages will become integrated or part of the artwork".

There have been a number of other documentaries made on the Syrian civil war over the last year or so.

In February 2014 David Axe released a 30-minute documentary on Medium which focused on Syrian rebel fighters, refugees and humanitarians, while Vice News and PBS have both made documentaries on Islamic State and extremism in Syria.

So how is Life on Hold different?

"Our focus is definitely on the human stories," explained Haddad. "We're not going into any of the politics.

"We didn't ask our characters about affiliations. It's strictly about the human side of war... and what life is like once you've lost everything, including your identity."

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