Duolingo film looks at language and lives of refugees
People are most familiar with Duolingo on small screens.
Millions of people use the company’s free language learning apps on smartphones and tablets.
But the company’s latest project was made for the big screen.
And small screens too.
Duolingo premiered its first film, “Something Like Home,” on Tuesday at Pittsburgh’s Kelly Strayhorn Theater, up the street from the company’s East Liberty headquarters. The half-hour documentary explores the role and importance language plays in the lives of four Syrian refugees.
“These stories just really stopped us in our tracks,” said Laura Nestler, head of community for Duolingo and a producer of the film. “They were touching on what makes us human.”
The film will be available to watch, for free, at www.duolingomovie.com starting Wednesday, the United Nation’s World Refugee Day.
The four refugees, Alaa, Ahmed, Mahmoud and Noor, use Duolingo to learn new languages. Duolingo withheld their last names for privacy and safety. The four are just a fraction of the users who write to Duolingo to share their stories.
“We get emails every day,” Luis von Ahn, co-founder and CEO of Duolingo, said during the premiere.
Von Ahn wanted to do something with the stories but didn’t know what. He hired Justin Merriman, a local photojournalist, to take pictures of some of Duolingo’s users. Merriman and his team ended up producing the film.
Duolingo didn’t want an advertisement or marketing materials, Nestler said. Merriman, skeptical at first that this was going to be an elaborate ad, said he was convinced when von Ahn told him he didn’t care if the people interviewed even mentioned Duolingo. Only one person does in the entire film. Clips of people saying how much they love Duolingo were edited out. The company’s logo appears once during the film, on a certificate given to people who complete free language learning courses inside the Azraq Refugee Camp in Jordan, and flashes briefly in photos at the end of the film. The company’s signature owl mascot does make a brief appearance.
“We knew, if we told these stories, it couldn’t be about us,” Nestler said. “That’s not our goal here. Our goal is to tell their story.”
The film, instead, focuses on the lives of the four characters and what learning a new language has done for them. It attempts to illustrate Duolingo’s mission of free education that is accessible to all.
“It’s breaking down a barrier for them,” Merriman said of language. “It’s building a life for them.”
Merriman, whose work with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review took him into war zones in Iraq, to Eqypt in the thick of its revolution and along the border between Mexico and the United States, teamed up with Mickey Miller, a Pittsburgh filmmaker, and Cem Kasnu, a senior product manager at Duolingo, and traveled to Turkey, where the team spent two weeks filming. Merriman later traveled to Jordan to spend time in the Azraq Refugee Camp. The team interviewed more than a dozen people for the film but decided to focus on four.
Alaa was arrested in Syria and held in a small, crowded cell below ground for a year, before fleeing to Turkey, where he works as a computer programmer and volunteers to teach coding to refugee children. The first word he learned was the Turkish word for water.
Ahmed is a father of five who wants his children to have the freedom to decide where they live. A middle class engineer, he fled Syria in 2012 and brought his family to Turkey with nearly nothing.
Noor was a successful software engineer in Syria but fled, first to Iraq, then Dubai and finally Turkey.
All three used Duolingo to learn Turkish.
“You can survive with languages,” Noor, who came to Pittsburgh for the film’s premiere, says in the film.
Mahmoud is using Duolingo to learn English inside a refugee camp. He has moved to 29 different towns since his family fled Syria.
“For him, education is his weapon,” Merriman said. “At some point, this kid will be something. He will rise out of this situation.”
Both Merriman and Nestler said they hope the film helps people see refugees as having more in common with Americans. Merriman said he saw himself in Alaa and his sons in Ahmed’s children.
“The world isn’t as big as we think it is,” Merriman said.
Nestler recognized the Thomas the Tank Engine coloring books Ahmed’s children played with in one scene. Her sons have the same books, only in English instead of Turkish. The scene hit her hard and stuck with her.
“We think of them as ‘them,’ not as ‘us,'” Nestler said. “Everything that he wants for his children is the same thing that I want for my children, and everything that he is striving to provide for them, I am striving to provide for my children.
“We all have that same heart and that same language.”
Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected], 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.