Documentary filmmaker Alexandra Shiva’s latest film This Is Home: A Refugee Story, which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, couldn’t be more timely. Addressing the process of refugees attempting to integrate and assimilate into life here in the United States, Shiva captures the day-to-day struggles of four Syrian families. This candid and poignant story allows you to almost walk in their shoes, understanding the heartbreaking resilience of these people attempting to not just survive, but thrive. I had the opportunity to discuss Shiva’s background and the inspiration behind telling this important story.
Pamela Powell (PP): Can you tell me about your background and how you got into filmmaking?
Alexandra Shiva (AS): I got into it by accident. I was in India [and] I had done a lot of photography work and gender studies [there]. I wanted to do a photo essay on the eunuchs in India but realized I needed a moving image to tell my story. So, I was in Bombay (now Mumbai) and I learned how to make a documentary… my first documentary, Bombay Eunuch.
PP: What prompted you to make this film?
AS: Princess Firyal, one of our EPs, has done a lot of work in refugee settlement. She was talking to someone at the International Rescue Committee who said have you seen the film How to Dance in Ohio, my last film, and the person said they wanted a similar tone in a film about refugees. She already knew me so she reached out to me and we discussed how to humanize people and how to create a film where we are with the subjects instead of watching the subject. Our goal was to showcase a shared humanity… We spent a year filming in the Baltimore office filming people as they arrived and then found our stories through them.
PP: The film has a beautiful narrative arc which, from my perspective, is a difficult thing to do in a documentary.
AS: I think it was always important for us to focus on the intimacy and the small moments while elevating the drama of everyday life because that allows for commonality, empathy and connection. We were always focusing in on the smaller details which took shape in the edit. We had 250 hours of footage and a large number of those hours were in Arabic so our editor and I decided it was important to transcribe every single hour of footage and then though that we were able to hone in on the intimacy and the small moments, the ways in which people change over eight months… There is a way to flesh that out and create arc where the viewer can be on a journey with someone and experience the drama of everyday life.
PP: Were there any surprises to you about what these families went through in the transitioning process of living in the US?
AS: I think the biggest surprise for me was how much they wanted to go home. How much they felt ripped from home and what that means. It would take me two full years to adapt to living in Baltimore from New York City and I can only imagine what it took for them. I was also very aware of yet surprised by the cultural issues. There was a tremendous dignity piece for the men and a tremendous upset to be here and have to adapt quickly and what that does to a family and an intimate relationship. I was not aware of those nuances before I began.
PP: One of the most poignant parts of the film, to me, was how Leah stepped in with her church to help. One person truly can make a difference in someone’s life! What part of this story was most impactful to you?
AS: I agree and I think that was the most impactful piece to me. People can help and refugee resettlement agencies can help and do their part but the next stage of resettlement really begins when people step in and help integrate. It was so beautiful how Leah stepped in to help. The idea that everyone can make a difference in some way is very inspiring to me.
PP: What do you hope viewers will take away from this film?
AS: I hope that they will take away that they can make a difference and get involved. There are lots of skills that refugees come with that they may never use again and we should try and utilize those skills. People have never had this level of intimate exposure to refugees and if they can connect with these four families then maybe they can connect with more refugees. Our country has a very long tradition of this kind of immigration and refugee culture.
PP: With all of your films, do you find that there is a common thread?
AS: I have always been interested in stories about people trying to find community. The most interesting stories take place in the margins. Where there is struggle there is a lot of humanity. There is also a strong identity theme that goes through all my work.
PP: As a female filmmaker, do you have any words of advice for those coming into the industry?
AS: I always say to find female mentors that you really can learn from. Intern or befriend or connect with people whose work you admire. Also trust your own instincts [and] let the driving force be your unanswered questions.
This Is Home can be seen on the EPIX channel beginning Friday, June 22 at 8 pm. Read FF2 Media’s review HERE.
© Pamela Powell (6/21/18) FF2 Media
Photos courtesy of Sundance Film Festival