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Q&A: Alexandra Shiva, director of documentary on Syrian refugees, screening film at McDaniel

Q&A: Alexandra Shiva, director of documentary on Syrian refugees, screening film at McDaniel
Alexandra Shiva, who directed a documentary entitled “This is Home: A Refugee Story," will be at McDaniel College Thursday, March 28 for a screening of the documentary. (Courtesy photo)

Film director Alexandra Shiva “sort of fell into doing documentaries” when she was working on a photo essay in India in the late 1990s.

She said she realized she couldn’t fully tell her stories with photos, so she turned to film.

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Four documentaries and almost two decades later, she’ll be at McDaniel College on Thursday, March 28 for a special screening of her latest documentary, “This is Home: A Refugee Story," which follows the story of four Syrian refugee families in Baltimore.

The screening is at 6:30 p.m. in the Decker Auditorium and will be followed by a Skype discussion featuring Shiva and Batoul Alsabagh, who is featured in the film.

The Times caught up with Shiva to discuss the film:

Q: How did you find out about or become interested in telling the story of refugees?

A: The idea was actually brought to me by someone who was working in refugee resettlement, who’s one of the executive producers of the film: Princess Firyal of Jordan. And she had seen my previous film “How to Dance in Ohio,” and she said she wanted me to do a film that had a similar tone to that.

She basically said to me, “I want you to try to create a film in which people are not looking at the refugees, you’re creating an opportunity for people to really be with the subjects and in their homes and in their lives.” So we started talking about it and we talked about the International Refugee Committee and how they could be involved.

We ended up at the Baltimore office because they suggested the office and I went to visit and it was an incredible office, it sort of felt like the little shop on the corner and it felt very integrated. A third of the caseworkers were former refugees who’d become caseworkers and I just thought it was a very interesting office. So that was how that came about.

Q: What are some of the things that you learned while directing this documentary?

A: The process of making the film was very interesting and very emotional and difficult in many ways. I learned so much about the resettlement process and I learned so much about what people go through when they, it’s the story of just beginning. It seems like “Oh, they’ve found their new home and everything’s fine” and I think that it’s a whole new set of struggles are just beginning when people just arrive.

And it’s herculean to learn a language, to try to find jobs, try to figure out how to parent your children in a completely different culture. It’s very, very, very daunting. I think I was surprised by how much people really wished they could go home. But there wasn’t a sense of happiness to be here. They were happy they were anywhere, that they had not lost family members like many of the people that they knew.

Q: What should people know about refugees that they probably don’t know?

A: Some people ask me, “Are there stories that don’t end as well?” Because I think people feel like everyone does moderately to very well in the film. And there’s a self selection process already, so that the amount of work, the amount of survival instincts and ability to get yourself out of the war zone, get yourself to survive a refugee camp, keep your family together and then go through the process of trying to resettle in another country — I mean in this country it’s 18 months, two years of going to meetings and this entire process — so by the time people get here they’re both weary but they’re also the toughest refugees, in a good way, the strongest survivors are often the people who come.

Most people, most of the refugees we met were here for their children, they’re not actually here for themselves. They’re here because they didn’t have anywhere else to be and they wanted a better life for their children, which is very much the American immigration story.

Q: Would you say language is one of the biggest hurdles?

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A: I think language is by far the biggest hurdle. I think cultural differences is also a huge hurdle. You’re meant to leave your culture behind. You know, shake hands even though you don’t shake hands with women if you’re a man. In the film I think we really try to capture the dignity preservation piece for men. That they’re really told “You’re not allowed to bring any of your cultural heritage with you if you want to make it here” I think is unfortunately a huge piece of trying to acclimate.

I keep thinking about what would happen if all of the sudden I couldn’t live where I lived, home was gone and I had to relocate with my family and I had, in some place eight months, in some places three months, in some places longer than eight months, to learn a completely different language, figure out what the customs and the culture is, adapt with my children and get jobs. And I cannot imagine. I think if I moved from one city in the U.S. to another, I think it would take me two years to acclimate.

Q: Why do you do the film screenings like the upcoming one at McDaniel College?

A: We have a wonderful educational distributor who helps get the word out to colleges and to educational institutions to make sure the film is on their radar. And we also had a very robust impact campaign that we raised money for that we were able to screen the film many, many places in the country that could not afford the film for free. So places that would not have been able to pay screening fees, we were able to raise money to cover.

It’s very important for people, if they have refugees in their community or they don’t, just to see the film. Hopefully it gives them a window into the experiences of other people that they just don’t even know anything about, that they may have assumptions about. But this is a very intimate look into people’s lives.

Q: What has the discussion been like?

A: It’s about the film and the filmmaking process, but also what does it mean to be a refugee, what are the issues facing people at a local level. I think that’s a really important takeaway from the film, what do you take from this film that you can enact in your own community. Is there some way where you can bridge a gap between your life and your community and the refugee community on a local level is a very, very important part of the discussion.

Q: Was there a particular interaction you had with a refugee while you were working on this film that stands out?

A: I had so many. It’s hard to encapsulate into one moment. It was a process. With this particular film it took a long time to explain why we were doing this, why we were interested in the mundane and the exciting moments of their lives and showing up week after week.

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Finally, toward the end of the process (a woman who’s in the film) called me and she said, “I just want to let you know that (her son) is graduating on the 4th” and I said, “Well that’s so exciting, can we film it?” and she said “Well that’s why I’m calling you.” But it had taken a lot of time and explaining.

This article was updated to note that the post-screen discussion with Shiva will be conducted via Skype.

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