Melbourne director Roger Ungers on making The Wheels of Wonder

Cinema Australia original content:

The Wheels of Wonder.

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The Wheels of Wonder follows a team of ambitious social impact creators as they enter Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, with a curious project. Their mission: to trial and test an unusual prototype play cart with the hope of improving the lives of refugee children through “loose parts” play.

Ahead of the film’s screening during the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, The Wheels of Wonder director Roger Ungers writes exclusively for Cinema Australia about the making of his film.

Roger Ungers.

The confounding side to this is that within a few days, Hamra felt like home. I felt so comfortable; amongst the rough exterior there was a big heart and I found myself just going with the flow and taking in as much as I possibly could. 

Article by Roger Ungers (Director)

I never really planned to make this film! 

The things which are explored in the documentary – children’s development through play and the refugee situation in Beirut – just weren’t really on my radar… until they were! And then, a little spark very quickly became a flame until it burnt within me to the final cut of the film.

So – how did I end up making my first feature-length documentary? As a videographer, video editor and photographer I was invited by one of my clients, Playground Ideas, to go to Beirut to film and create promotional material. Playground Ideas are a not-for-profit social enterprise providing open-source playground building resources which benefit children all over the world.

This was known as the “Loose Parts Play Cart” project, with the blueprint being to construct, trial and test a portable playground innovation that would combine aspects of a solid-state playground with that of loose parts play. The ultimate objective was to improve the lives of refugee children, quite simply through playing. All very intriguing, I know!

When I arrived in Beirut I was somewhat overcome by the social disparities in this fascinating city. Currently, there are an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees living in Beirut, with about 75% of them living below the poverty line. I didn’t know a lot about everyday life and the living situations of the displaced people that reside in Beirut, but it was about to become my home for the next two and a half weeks. On the flipside, I have always loved travelling to new and interesting places, so I was excited to immerse myself in this project and jump in with both feet.

As I took a taxi from Beirut-Rafic Hariri International Airport to Hamra, where the team was staying, I couldn’t help but feel like I was surrounded by chaos with no sense of uniformity whatsoever. Cars drove unpredictably through the streets, there were army check points on the roads with soldiers clutching semi-automatic weapons looking over vehicles, and abandoned buildings with what looked like gun shot holes in the side of them. I was nervous, to say the least. 

The Wheels of Wonder.

The confounding side to this is that within a few days, Hamra felt like home. I felt so comfortable; amongst the rough exterior there was a big heart and I found myself just going with the flow and taking in as much as I possibly could. 

As a part of the Loose Parts Play Cart team (my role being the “video and photography guy”), I worked intimately with everyone. As a result, I had incredible insight into the practicalities of the cart, as I was recording dialogue between everyone from the construction to the implementation of the cart in areas where refugee families lived. I was witnessing something amazing happening, which sparked up the idea to make a documentary – right here, right now – with no real game plan, just an ambitious mind and a passion to see where this story might go!

The Playground Ideas team were very much on board and supportive of the idea for a documentary, which made it that much easier to make… however Emma Ribbens (the team’s Product Designer) was not a huge fan being in front of the camera! 

I had taken on two roles here – creating material for Playground Ideas and shooting my documentary – but I felt sure that in most instances, the footage could be repurposed to satisfy the needs of both projects.

I went into making this film with an open mind and followed my instincts. There were times when I was a little unsure of how it would all pan out, but optimism was the key to it being a success and I knew that. As I was filming, certain themes emerged: the stark realities of the refugee experience, the importance of play for children’s development, the benefits and challenges of innovation and the instinctual compassion that human beings possess. These themes scaffolded around the story as the team constructed, trialled and finally tested the play cart in the refugee areas, and my director’s flame was burning bright at this stage! 

The Wheels of Wonder.

Filming every day surrounded by highly energised children was exhausting; they loved coming up to the camera, wanting to look through the viewfinder to take a photo (as children do!) and I was very happy to accommodate their requests. However, I do remember being so overwhelmed by the environment at one stage, that Catherine Sewell (the team’s Play Specialist) had to pull me aside to take a breath. I was trying to stay cool but she knew I needed that time to chill. Thank you, Catherine!

This project made me realise that being in a play environment with stimulating objects (and cameras) really lights up and energises what is so inherent in kids – the desire to play and be curious and learn about things. It’s all part of childhood and this project made me realise that play absolutely contributes to a human’s development. Playing is what kids have always done, and even though it’s simple, it’s so important! The children’s excitement about the cart is palpable, and I think that’s a big part of what gives the film its magic. 

Coming home to Melbourne, Australia and finishing the film has been interesting. When showing the early edits to people and asking for feedback, I received some polarising comments. But whether they were positive or negative, they were certainly all constructive. During the editing process, I didn’t really get a sense or know if my documentary was any good! But I feel like feedback is such an important exercise to go though even though it can be painful! I was happy to take on much of the feedback, and make certain changes, but I tried to stay true to the vision. 

I became very invested in the project and the people involved, and I think The Wheels of Wonder has many interesting and poignant layers. I’ve learnt so much though this process – about the subject matter, about myself and about the documentary filmmaking process (I’m already working on my next long-form documentary!) 

I truly feel so privileged to have had the opportunity to be part of this project and make this documentary, and I hope it will give the audience a lot to think about.  

Melbourne Documentary Film Festival runs 30 June – 15 July. More details here

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