PARK CITY — It seemed like a typical Sundance moment: At a post-premiere luncheon in an elegant Park City townhouse, two sisters, Aya, 19, and Maria, 21, were giddy and suddenly shy when a passing celebrity, movie star Ethan Hawke, agreed to join them for a selfie.
But the two excited young women were anything but typical Sundance Film Festival attendees. Just two years ago, they fled civil war in their native Syria and were living on their own in Jordan, hoping against hope to be reunited with their mother, who was in the United States seeking asylum.
The sisters, now both college students in Maryland, are two of the refugees featured in director Alexandra Shiva’s “This Is Home,” a documentary that follows several Syrian refugees as they attempt to build a new life in Baltimore. The women were at Sundance courtesy of a grant providing funds to bring the entire cast to the film’s premiere, and several families in Park City volunteered to host the refugees during their stay.
The lunch, a special Middle East-style meal to welcome the cast on the day after the Jan. 19 premiere, was catered by the Spice Kitchen, a local business incubator that helps refugees start their own food businesses, run by the International Rescue Committee of Utah. The familiar taste and smell of the food was a special pleasure for Aya and Maria, a comfort in a culture so different from their own.
“The film is really important because it shows people how hard it is for refugees not just in our home countries, but once we are resettled in a new country too,” said Aya. She touched on a theme at the heart of several films featured at this year’s Sundance Film Festival: the challenges refugees face as they try to start a new life after resettlement.
Only 1 percent of refugees are ever resettled, and the media’s focus on the plight of refugees in war-torn countries or camps can make resettlement seem like a happy ending. But the stories of the very few who are admitted to a new country do not end when they arrive. Rather, a new story begins, one that presents its own set of hardships.
Two documentaries brought refugee issues to Sundance this year: “This Is Home” and “On Her Shoulders," both of which tell the heartrending, often overlooked stories of refugees struggling to make a new life after escaping unspeakable horrors in their home countries. In the process, the films also raised questions about the role of the world community in aiding these refugees.
Both movies were honored this weekend as the festival wrapped up its 2018 season. "This Is Home" won the Audience Award in the World Cinema Documentary Competition category; Alexandria Bombach earned the Directing Award in the U.S. Documentary Competition category for "On Her Shoulders."
‘Where’s my country?’
“This Is Home" follows Aya, Maria, their mother and three other Syrian refugee families who arrived in Baltimore in 2016.
The film is full of intimate details: scenes of the families struggling to afford enough food at the grocery store or turning their heat off to keep bills low during winter. Fourteen-year-old Muhammad visits a doctor who tries to explain that Muhammad’s constant nightmares are a result of PTSD.
In a meeting with a caseworker about employment, another refugee, Khaldoun, lifts his pant leg to reveal a jagged scar.
“My leg, I lost part of it when I was tortured in prison, because they use a drill on me,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like I want to cut it off because it hurts so much.”
American children shy away at the sight of the women’s headscarves, and bus passengers mutter derogatory comments under their breaths. Madiha, one of the women, covers her hair with an American flag in hopes it will keep her safe.
Like most refugee settlement agencies, Baltimore’s International Rescue Committee had only enough funding to provide eight months of support and assistance — including English classes, employment training and guidance in applying for public assistance.
After that, the refugees were on their own.
“It was important for us not to sugarcoat anything,” Shiva told the Deseret News. “I hope that the intensely personal portrait the film paints of these refugee families will challenge people’s preconceived notions about refugees and what it’s like to come to America and completely start over.”
Indeed, the film highlights the harsh reality that, for many refugees, the promise of the American dream remains unfulfilled.
“No one achieves the American dream on day one,” says Shiva. “The first generation makes a sacrifice so that their children can have a better life.”
Shiva says one of the most surprising things she noticed while making the film was how strongly many of the refugees wanted to return to Syria, despite the hardships they had experienced there.
“It’s a good question, ‘Do you miss Syria?’” says Khaldoun. “It’s like asking a child, ‘do you miss your mother?’ What would the child say? He’d say, ‘Yes, I miss her.’ Like a child asking, ‘Where’s my mother?’ I ask, ‘Where’s my country?’”
A ‘reluctant activist’
Bombach’s “On Her Shoulders” presents a much different, but equally wrenching, portrait of the struggles refugees face in trying to start over.
For 23-year-old refugee Nadia Murad, a new life seems completely out of reach.
After ISIS attacked her village in Iraq, she was imprisoned and raped by the militants who murdered her relatives. After she managed to escape, she dedicated herself to fighting for her people, the Yazidis, a persecuted Kurdish ethnic minority.
“I went to psychotherapy once, and I thought, this wouldn’t help me,” says Murad in the film. “It would be difficult for me to seek treatment just for myself when the fate of thousands is still unknown. So I decided to talk wherever I could, and the opportunity arose for me to tell the world.”
Bombach’s crew follows Murad as she travels across the globe, meeting with world leaders to spread awareness of the plight of her people. In December 2015, she testified before the U.N. Security Council. Based on her testimony, the United Nations unanimously passed a resolution to collect evidence of ISIS’ crimes in Iraq.
Bombach describes Murad as a “reluctant activist,” someone with all the qualities of a great leader — charisma, passion, courage, strength — but who would much prefer a normal life rather than one played out in the spotlight.
“I wish it hadn’t happened so I wouldn’t have to talk about it,” says Murad. “I wish people knew me as an excellent seamstress, an excellent athlete, as an excellent student, an excellent makeup artist, an excellent farmer. I didn’t want people to know me as a victim of ISIS terrorism.”
Rather than depicting a young leader shining on the world stage, Bombach said she wanted to give viewers “a look behind the curtain about what this kind of advocacy is really like.”
The film depicts an exhausting, relentless lifestyle of back-to-back speeches, interviews and talk-show appearances.
“After each of these interviews,” Bombach told the Deseret News, “you could see every single one took a piece out of her.”
The right questions
With the 24-hour news cycle and the public’s limited attention span, Murad had to fight constantly to keep the Yazidi people in the public consciousness.
But even when journalists did express interest, Murad was constantly frustrated and disappointed that they didn’t ask her the right questions.
The films show interview upon interview in which reporters are more interested in sordid details of her sexual violation than in why the international community remained silent in the face of the genocide of her people.
“I’ve been asked many questions like, ‘How did they rape you?’ … ‘You have become famous, what does that mean to you?’" says Murad. “These kinds of questions are not the ones to ask. The things I want to be asked are … ‘What is the situation of refugees who I visit in the camps? What must be done so Yazidis can have their rights? What must be done so a woman cannot be a victim of war?’”
The film paints a picture of a refugee who miraculously escaped sex slavery under ISIS. But while she might be physically free, she is still emotionally imprisoned — chained to her traumatic past. Just as several of the characters in “This Is Home” give up their own happiness for the sake of their children, Nadia Murad, forever trapped by guilt and grief and a powerful sense of duty — fights to give meaning to the lives of her loved ones, lost or left behind.
Both directors say they intend their films to act as a form of critique of the public’s lack of empathy for refugees.
“The welcoming nature of this country, that we are a nation of immigrants and a nation of refugees — that is increasingly being lost in this moment,” says Shiva.
“A lot of people think going into my film that it will be about Nadia,” says Bombach. “But really it’s a film about us.”