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America’s Family: The immigrant experience

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The film industry in Ethiopia has been buzzing this week owing to the 17th Addis International Film Festival, which currently is on-going at the heart of the Capital.

The curtains of the film festival were raised on May 10, at 5:00 PM at the Italian Cultural Institute with the presence of invited guests and ambassadors making the ceremony memorable. The five-day documentary film festival presents a selection of over 60 local and international films, under the theme of human rights and a free world in their different forms screened at the Italian Cultural Institute, Alliance Ethio-Française, Hager Fiker Theater, and Goethe-Institut Äthiopien. 

One of the documentaries that aim to contribute to the humanitarian efforts with regards to human rights on immigrant families’ is none other than the docudrama film, “America’s Family”. In the film, the Diaz family, a group led by immigrants, face their worst nightmare during America’s most iconic celebration, Thanksgiving. ICE agents, the government agency that deals with immigration issues, arrive at the household and take Marisol and son Koke. The father manages to escape and seeks refuge in a synagogue while the rest of the family desperately watches as the Diaz’s are separated.

Capital’s Groum Abate caught up with Anike Tourse, the filmmaker of “America’s Family” for insights on the illuminative and refreshing film and her approach on this subject. Excerpts;

 

 

Capital: America’s Family is a genre of a docudrama film. Can you explain what it is in a nutshell without giving too much away?

Anike Tourse: A docudrama is a narrative film that’s based on real people and real experiences. For this particular film, we did more than 100 interviews over many years, over two decades, with people sharing with me their emigrational experiences  to the US and leaving behind their home countries with a specific focus from Mexico and in particular, from the coast, and Afro Mexican communities.

The film gives an endearing depiction of immigrants experience in the US, the ups and the downs, families being torn apart with each member of the family eventually finding a way through the crisis, and discovering unexpected reserves of love and faith along the way.

The docudrama is captured in a story format, but there are conversations that are lifted directly from the interviews in the film.

Capital: How did you approach telling the story of migrants in your film, and what was your primary goal in doing so?

Anike Tourse:  America’s Family was done in partnership with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA); and part of the mission of the film is to serve as a resource to educate immigrant communities in the US and different parts of the world about what to expect if they’re coming to the US. More importantly, this specific film provides an inside scoop on what to expect in terms of navigating deportation, and the effect it brings to the family cluster in the pursuit of a successful life.

The film highlights: What happens when the blow of deportation knocks on the door? What life is like on survival mode? How emotions that run through the families feel like and the decisions they’ll need to make to protect themselves and protect each other in the immigration system?

Answering these questions in the real world gives tangible evidence and aids to help educate the greater community, and the people unfamiliar with the struggle of immigrants to understand and learn on how to best support immigrants and gain empathy for them.

Capital: What challenges did you face in accurately depicting the complexities of the migrant experience, and how did you navigate these challenges?

(Photo: Anteneh Aklilu)

Anike Tourse: As a film maker, there are a few different challenges that come with regards to bringing this film to life. As I mentioned earlier, the film was done in partnership with CHIRLA and the people that acted on set were a combination of professional actors, community members and activists. So bringing all of these groups of people together to have one focus and vision of executing the story as artistically sound as possible was no easy feat.

Channeling what was going to be useful and a helpful resource equally was not easy. Similarly, making a movie that is interesting, emotionally engaging and compelling whilst also trying to be educational and trying not to depict an image of talking down on others is not a walk in the park. Nobody really wants to go pay money and go to the movie theatre to just be told what to do. They want to have an emotional and artistic intellectual experience. So I think those were some of the challenges.

Of course there were hurdles too in raising money to complete the budget, and in making sure that we had enough to make the film look well since we filmed between two different countries with different cultures.

Capital: What do you hope audiences take away from your film, particularly in terms of their understanding of the migrant experience and its significance in contemporary society?

Anike Tourse: I really want people to think about their experiences from both a domestic perspective and global perspective, and how migration really touches us in so many areas of our lives. People have been crossing borders for hundreds and hundreds of years. And you can think about immigration in terms of all of the stuff that you hear about on the news, or you can think about how it’s really affecting you in a very personal way.

In the US it is very obvious that we’re an immigrant nation, and we have such a mix of cultures, but in many countries, including Ethiopia, you have immigrants coming here, from Yemen, Syria, Sudan, and so on. On the flip side, you have Ethiopians going to the United States and other countries and so there is a constant influx and this affects the culture. This also affects our language and the way we see the world.

The film was purposed to create a sense of empathy, and that’s why it’s told from the lens of a family because we can all really relate to the experiences of having a family, whether it’s families that we’re born into, or families that we choose. In the film you will actually be drawn to see that this is a family that’s really struggling and at the same time longs to stay together and support each other and be their best selves like we all want in the world. When you can see that first and then kind of see all of these immigration issues, perhaps secondarily, you can kind of understand the issues in a broader way

Capital: How did your personal experiences or perspectives influence your approach to telling this story, if at all?

Anike Tourse: I grew up in a very diverse household in the US. My father is a black American while my mother is a white Jewish American. I also have down the root, origins from the Russian and Polish side on my mum’s end and Cuban, Spanish, and, of course, Africa going back, on father’s side. So I think the way that I was raised and the way that I see the world is in a very diverse perspective. That’s just me personally.

So naturally, the stories that I tell tend to have diversity in them, and that was something that was very important to me, and I was very lucky enough to work with the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in terms of creating a story and creating a view of Los Angeles.

Despite the diversification, there are limitations when it comes to the understanding of the immigrant life. I really have a very American way of doing things and understanding things and trying to understand the immigrant experience for me, it’s not a direct experience that I personally have around the dinner table with my parents or my siblings or my niece and nephews. This for me, it’s something that goes further back. So just trying to understand that and really get that back kind of had to contend with my own blinders about that.

Capital: What’s your view on the audience in terms of raising awareness and creating an attraction around the film?

Anike Tourse: When the film reaches a wider audience both online and the theatre it is my hope that it will resonate with a lot of the viewers. I hope the audiences will raise a sense of empathy for immigrants that are really just trying to live their lives.

(Photo: Anteneh Aklilu)

I remember very early on in my research, something like 20 years ago, I read quote that cited, ‘immigrants are horrifying their grandmothers’.  The simple meaning of that is that most immigrants do not really want to leave their home countries as well as their cultures. And when they tell their families that they’re going, their grandmothers are not happy. They’re like, why are you leaving us? And through the film, I wanted people to understand that for someone to leave their country and start over again and create a new home and a new experience by navigating their own culture with a blend of a new culture is incredibly difficult and challenging regardless of whether someone wants to go or not.

I really just want the audience to understand that and to try to experience a little bit of it. In addition, I want the audience to be drawn to the core elements of what a family is and the reality of what people go through to stay together and live their lives and have children.

As the audience will note on the film, the youngest daughter struggles with epilepsy and I want the viewers to also have a grasp on what access to health care looks like under the migrant world.

I want the audience to also resonate with the artists in the movie too who are also underrepresented culturally in the film industry. There are actors and musicians and people from different parts of the world whose artistic work may go unnoticed and I really want people to have to sort of look at these new faces and accept these new faces too as drivers of storytelling in the industry.

Capital: What did you learn from making this film, and how has it impacted your understanding of the migrant experience and the wider issues surrounding migration?

Anike Tourse: I will say as a filmmaker, and as an artist it’s my first feature film. So I would say that I’ve made short films before this, and that movies take more money and more time than you think they’re going to take like most artistic endeavors. I have learned it takes tremendous commitment to maintain the vision all the way through to distribution.

It has also been a learning curve in terms of breaking the industry to get attention on the film. Of course it is from such challenges that we get to grow.

Although I come from a diverse background with numerous global travels, I have had the pleasure of expanding my horizon with regards to migration. I’ve learned so much about what so many people are going through and what they have to deal with within their own families and within their own economic difficulties and challenges with limited work opportunities.

I have learned what hope and pain means through the lives of those told in the story such as for example of a mothers that had to overstay her visa because she had children that needed medical care and really had no choice which led to the families being separated for decades. Similarly, I empathized with many of the experiences particularly black Mexicans. One particular story in the movie sees an afro Mexican guy talking about how he was in the US and was deported back to Mexico and was later stopped by authorities who didn’t believe he was Mexican because he’s black.

So for these kinds of interesting stories I have gained a lot in my perspectives on life and I am grateful for this.

Capital: What is the significance of the film being showcased at the 17th Addis International Film Festival?

Anike Tourse: Well this year’s theme is centered on human rights and world action for peace, security, and reconciliation and our film is synonymous with the theme. So this is an opportune time for filmmakers who are from different countries to showcase their work, and I am very excited to be part of this.

Seldom as filmmakers do we get the time to interact with each other and share our experiences under a particular theme because we are busy working. Therefore, this is a great time to be able to share and just to see what other folks are doing in the realm of human rights and social justice.

Capital: How do you think the film festival will help the audience to develop some empathy on migration and human rights?

(Photo: Anteneh Aklilu)

Anike Tourse: I think what’s exciting is that this festival in particular is committed with a focus on human rights and also in showcasing films from all over the world on social justice and human rights work.

It really gives audiences an opportunity to really learn about what’s going on and what people are going through and a variety of areas and issues and also just to see movies that they couldn’t otherwise see on Netflix or Amazon or YouTube. This is really the only place they’re going to get to see these kinds of movies and in the 17 years there’s only I think about 30 or 35 films that are being shown on the topic thus it’s pretty exclusive.

So the high production films I believe will serve as a case of inspiration for better activism and make people go, oh, is there something that I can do? You know, how can I help my community? How do I relate to this? How does the story relate to me? And if it can spark some kind of activism on some level, then the film festival is a success.

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