“Dalya’s Other Country”: a Syrian refugee family assimilates well in Los Angeles

On Monday, June 26, 2017, PBS POV aired the documentary “Dalya’s Other Country” (74 min), directed by Julia Meltzer (Journeyman Pictures).

In 2012, Dalya, as a teenage girl, came to Los Angeles from Aleppo with an older brother and mother Rudayna.

The family assimilates rather well, and the director afterward says that is one of the main points of the film, to show a family that makes it.

Dalya struggles to get into college.  Her older brother adapts as a technology person, speaking perfect English and assimilating as a westernized young man while practicing prayers and diet a home. Rydayna resents her husband’s polygamy.  Her husband comes to visit and live in LA for a while, before going back to Turkey.  At one point, the husband gives an interesting account of the Muslim account of the afterlife (which happens at the end of time).

There is discussion of the wearing of the hijab, and the increasing hostility being stirred up by Donald Trump’s populist campaign.  Dayla turns 18 on Nov. 7, 2017 and votes on Nov. 8 (I guess having become a citizen).

The feature was followed by the short film “From Damascus to Chicago” (12 min), by Colleen Cassingham and Alex Lederman.   A Syrian refugee family, with DHS supervision and a faith-based group assisting, accommodates to life in Chicago.  The daughters learn ballet.  But the father develops a lymphoma and has total-body radiation but goes into remission and seems to be doing well at the end.

Name:  “Dayla’s Other Country
Director, writer:  Julia Meltzer
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  PBS POV 2017/6/26
Length:  74
Rating:  NA
Companies:  PBS POV, Journeyman Pictures
Link:  PBS


(Posted: Monday, June 26, 2017 at 11:15 PM EDT)

“Fire at Sea”: documentary of mass migration to Italy from Africa at a Mediterranean island, Lampedusa

Fire at Sea” (“Fuoco Ammare”, directed by Gianfranco Rosi) is a compelling is somewhat loosely structured two-hour docudrama portraying life on the Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, actually closer to Africa than to Italy, of which it is legally a part – as the military, medical people, and ordinary townspeople deal with the nightly arrival of migrants from Africa.

Many of the migrants arrive seriously ill from exposure to diesel fuel on the boats, which mixed with sea water and can produce disfiguring chemical burns.  Most of the burn victims are women (and children), because they tend to sit in the lower portions of the boats as the men surround them to “protect” them.

The migrants describe having come from as far away as Nigeria (through Niger), fleeing Boko Haram, and then being chased out of Libya.

The Italian Navy patrols the waters and does take their distress calls.  The townspeople are used to being expected to help them.

A major subplot of the film concerns the 12 year old boy Samuele, who enjoys playing with his slingshot.  His dad wants him to learn to be more helpful to other people, including the migrants.  For example, Samuele gets seasick when he walks on the pontoon, but his father lectures him about toughening his stomach.  At one point he has an exam with a doctor who simply finds hypochondria and anxiety, as well as a “lazy eye” which is slowly improving. In a climactic scene near the end, Samuele goes out into the woods alone at night to encounter a bluebird in the bush.

The DVD contains a brief commentary by the director in English, a QA at the New York Film Festival, and a 30-minute interview with Dr. Pietro Bartolo, who describes some changes to the film before the Berlin Silver Bear festival (to make the people seem more sympathetic), and then describes the medical horrors of the boatlift.  One pregnant woman’s water broke, and she could not deliver the baby for two days, but the baby girl turned out OK. Bartolo says that Europe needs migrants, and he believes these migrants pose no security threat and take the jobs White Europeans don’t want or can’t do.  He comments on white Europe’s low birthrate and aging population, and economic need for immigrants.

Lampedusa picture, wiki.

Name:  “Fire at Sea”
Director, writer:  Gianfranco Rosi
Released:  2016/2
Format:  1.85:1, in Italian with subtitles
When and how viewed:  Netflix DVD, 2017/4/12
Length:  116; extras 46
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Kino Lorber
Link:  official

(Posted: Wednesday, April 12, 2017 at 9 PM EDT)

“All of Me”: Women feed migrants leaning from a train in Mexico, strictly out of faith

All of Me” (“Llevate mis amores” or “Take my Love”), by Arturo Gonzales Villasenor (Mexico, 2014, in Spanish), pretty much inverts the parable of the Rich Young Ruler.

A group of women at Patronas, Mexico, labor on homemade woodstoves to cook meals and gather water for migrants, who reach for it from the traveling freight train called “The Beast”. They’ve done it since 1995.   Most of the migrants come all the way from Central America. Some have stopped out of fear of getting in trouble with the law, but the group still goes on, 7 days a week.

Most of the film, besides showing the harrowing food pickup, comprises interviews with the women.  At the film’s midpoint, one of them relates an incident where a boy mangled his foot falling under a wheel. Although they stopped his bleeding, the women found no one would treat him until someone paid for his care. (Sound familiar?)  Eventually, the Red Cross took him to a hospital where the foot was amputated and a prosthesis provided.

The women, and a few men, describe the limited economic opportunities of agricultural and manual labor.  One of the men got a factory job, hazardous work welding inside pipes, and was still always in debt. One of the women is shown cleaning a pig sty, in front of farm animals who (like “Babe”) don’t yet know they will be eaten.

One woman’s daughter was about to go to college and wanted to become a journalist, but had to face the idea that if the local gangs didn’t like what she wrote, they would come after her and her family.

There are some night scenes, toward the end, in stark black and white, almost recalling the Holocaust.

This is a real food bank.  I’m reminded, of course, of Community Assistance (like at Mount Olivet Methodist Church in Arlington VA or the Arlington Food Assistance Center near Shirlington).  Volunteering in these activities is safe.  Volunteering along an illegal migrant rail route is only for men and women “of faith”, which others don’t have a right to define for them.  There is no debate.

All of this, of course, Donald Trump wants to stop.  So why can’t Mexico get its own house in order?  It’s the rich and the poor, as always.

Much of the film is within sight of Mount Popocapetel, the highest volcano in the country.  A high school friend climbed it in 1962 and almost dies on it.

Name:  “All of Me
Director, writer:  Arturo Gonzales Villasenor
Released:  2014; 2016 US theatrical; DVD pre-book 2017/3/14, DVD street date 2017/4/11
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Complimentary Vimeo Screener from Strand
Length:  90
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Strand Releasing
Link:  official

(Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2017 at 10:30 PM EDT)

Oscar nominated documentary shorts for 2017: 3 of the films deal with refugees

The Oscar Nominated Documentary Shorts is playing right now at Landmark West End Cinema in Washington D.C. I attended the 1:30 PM showing and it’s a good thing I bought the ticket online because it sold out. The theater has installed rocking chairs, so seating capacity is lower.

The presentation started with “Joe’s Violin” (directed Kahane Cooperman, 24 minutes). The film is a biography of 91-year-old Holocaust survivor Joseph Feingold. When he is 8, his family is moved to western Poland as the Nazis invade. He managed to “escape” with the Russians but some other family members went to Nazi camps and did not survive. But, at 17, after World War II, he was taken to one of Stalin’s labor camps after leaving his violin behind. Somehow he was able to buy the violin back for cigarettes. Years later he donated it to a school for girls in the Bronx, NY. A student named Brianna Perez would be able to play it. The film shows her playing Solveig’s song from Grieg’s Pier Gynt. But somehow the film title and subject matter remind me of John Madden’s “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” (2001).

“Extremis” was reviewed here Sept. 17, 2016.

4.1 Miles” (directed by Daphne Matziaraki, 24 minutes, New York Times Op-Doc) follows Greek Coast Guard captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos as he rescues refugees fleeing Turkey for the island of Lesbos (for which lesbianism is named) in a vessel that shipwrecks. He says he has no training in CPR. Once the refugees land, the townspeople have no practical choice but to take care of and house them.

There was an intermission before the remaining two films, dealing with Aleppo.

Watani: My Homeland” (directed by Marcel Mettelsiefen, 39 minutes) seems to be almost the same film as “Children of Syria” shown on PBS in April 2016 and reviewed here on a legacy blog. I’ll note that the children mention that their new town Goslar is losing population due to not enough kids and too many old people.

“White Helmets” was reviewed here Oct. 6, 2016

(Posted: Sunday, February 12, 2017 at 9 PM EST)

Oscar nominations for 2017, short films, live action: focus on social solidarity, also on immigration in 2 films

The Oscar nominated short films “live action” did tend to emphasize social solidarity and generosity.  I saw the program at Landmark E Street in Washington DC (as distributed by Magnolia Pictures).

Sing” (no connection to the animated feature) or “Mindenki” (Hungary, directed and written by Kristof Deak and Anna Udvardy, 25 minutes) centers around a children’s choir intending to tour the world. Young Zsofi (Dorka Gasparfalvi) is pulled aside by the teacher Miss Erika (Zsofia Szamosi) and asked to mime in concerts because her singing just isn’t good enough.  Now, many people who are talented in instruments (like piano) don’ t have good singing voices. But Zsofi shares her shame in whispers.  Eventually, at a big concert, the kids show solidarity (at personal risk for their own futures) by miming, to keep some kids from being excluded.  It turns out well, but what if it hadn’t.  Radical solidarity matters most when it costs you something.

Silent Nights” (Denmark, by Aske Bang, 30 minutes) is the meatiest film of the set, exploring the quandaries of helping and even hosting refugees.  Inger (Marlene Beltoft Olsen) takes care of her mother (with dementia and incontinence) at home and still volunteers in a Copenhagen homeless shelter, many of whose clients are migrants from Africa and the Middle East.  Kwame (Prince Yaw A[[iah), from Ghana, after being turned out in the cold when the shelter is full, returns.  The film shows Kwame making cell calls home, talking to his family needing money sent for grandfather’s operation, but Kwame needs a job first.  When Kwame gets assaulted and robbed by some Middle Eastern men uttering racist and Islamist slurs, Inger takes an interest in him.  She maintains that interest even after Kwame gets caught with petty theft from the shelter (to find money to send home) on security cameras.  They fall in love, and eventually Inger proposes marriage so he can stay.  But then she learns he is already married with kids in Ghana.  This film needed to be a feature, as the shift in attitudes by Inger are too choppy to be credible.  But the film makes you think about the risks involved in helping refugees and asylum seekers.

Timecode” (Spain, 15 min., by Juanjo Gimenez Pena”) is a comedy set in a Madrid parking garage, where attendants find excuses to practice their dance moves (almost break dancing), reminding me of “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004).

Enemies Within” (France, 27 min., “Ennemis Interieurs”, by Selim Azzazi), presents an immigration interrogation, or “extreme vetting” (as per Donald Trump, who will like this film) by a young security officer in the 1990s of an Algerian national trying to move back to France.  The history of “The Battle of Algiers” gets reviewed.  The point that Algeria used to be part of the actual land mass of France is well made.  Nevertheless, the young officer starts to find evidence of possible terror associations.  In the end, this turns out to be an exercise of “naming names”.  But of course people already in the country (like people with overstayed visas in the US) can complicate the security threats.

La femme et le TGV” (Switzerland, 30 min, by Timo von Gunten) is a substantial comedy.  A lonely woman Elise (Jane Birkin), who runs a chocolate shop (like the film “Chocolat”) lives near a high-speed rail line (the TGV)  In an inversion of the plot of “The Girl on the Train”, she keeps finding handwritten notes in her yard from Bruno (Gilles Tschudi) the train engineer, who waves. She is stuck and time and says she will never “send an Internet”.   In the meantime, a somewhat charismatic and attractive young man (Nicolas Heini) offers to help her modernize her business.  When the train route changes, the young man takes her to meet Bruno in Zurich.  This is supposed to be a true story, about modernization.  There is a twist.

Wikipedia link for panorama of Copenhagen which I visited in 1972.

(Posted: Friday, February 10, 2017 at 9:45 PM EST)

“Haven”: 2001 miniseries about Ruth Gruber provides a parallel to today’s immigration debate


Name: Haven
Director, writer:  John Gray, Souzette Couture
Released:  2001
Format:  1.85:1, and TV
When and how viewed:  Netflix DVD
Length 183
Rating PG-13
Companies: Miramax, CBS Films
Link: documentary

Haven”, directed by John Gray and written by Souzette Couture (2001), is a 3-hour two-part miniseries for CBS, packaged as a film by Miramax, which provides a fitting parallel for today’s debate on immigration.

The film tells the true story of Ruth Gruber (Natasha Richardson) who travels to Italy in 1944 to escort 1000 Jewish refugees back home by sea.  Once they arrive in the United States (at the end of Part 1), they are interred in a detention camp in Oswego New York.

Gruber fights for her people all the way.  At the beginning, her father asks, “Are you willing to risk your life?” and she answers that her brother is already fighting.

Once the refugees are on a boat, the typical scares from planes erupt, and they behave like savages to the to the heads of food lines.  The film establishes a somewhat melodramatic tone throughout.

The film also has flashbacks to Nazi Germany, in black and white, with a quote “Let’s get rid of the Jews and maybe mediocre Germans can rise to the top.”  Indeed, a parallel to today’s xenophohia and “politics of resentment”.

In the second half, she fights to get them gradually released, and eventually refugees go to work at a plant near Oswego.  At the end of the war, Truman finally signs an executive order allowing the refugees in Oswego to apply for permanent status without returning to Europe first.  Gruber gets to meet Truman, and there is a scene where immigrants from all over Europe do sham volunteering to be deported.

Gruber very recently passed away at the age of 105.

This film has also been produced as a stage play.

There is a documentary “Ahead of Time: The Extraordinary Journey of Ruth Richman” (2009) by Robert Richman from Vitagraph, not on Netflix yet and only available now as a collector’s item on Amazon.

Wikipedia attribution of image, By Dirk Ingo FrankeOwn work, CC BY 3.0, Link

(Posted: Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016 at 12:30 PM EST)

“Salam Neighbor”: the “Living on One Dollar” filmmakers now experience a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan



Name: Salam Neighbor
Director, writer:  Chris Temple, Zach Ingrasci
Released:  2015
Format:  HD video
When and how viewed:  2016/9/22, Netflix instant
Length 75
Rating NA (PG-13?)
Companies: Living on One, Ryot
Link: official 

In “Salam Neighbor” (2015, “Salam Akaykum”, or “Peace Be With You”). Filmmakers Chris Temple and Zach Ingrasci follow up on work they did with “Living on One Dollar” (in Guatemala) now by spending a month in a Syrian refugee camp, Za’atari, less than ten miles from the Syrian border, in Jordan.

The young men (whose filmmaking style reminds me of Andrew Jenks) process through Jordanian authorities as if they were quasi-refugees themselves.  They set up their tent (with two or three other men).  But soon camp security advises them to spend the nights in Maifraq, where they are barely able to rent an office storage room to sleep in.

By day, the camp is one enormous, flat expanse of tents and white buildings in the desert, rather like an Army post. There’s one shot of a brief, intense haboob.

This particular camp has built up an underground “free market” economy of retail shops, so the standard of living for some people has slowly risen.  Lives are limited by the lack of more infrastructure, as with the resources of Jordan and UNHCR.

Women often work (sometimes their husbands died), which is novel for them since Syrian families had been patriarchal.  One woman makes about 200 headdresses a month, enough to make a living.

As the film progresses, the young American men start to bond with the kids, to an extent unusual in documentary film (I’m reminded of “The Mission in Belize”).  There is a complicated arrangement to provide some school, and Save the Children is active in providing support for teaching. The personal connections that the filmmakers make with the people could become significant if the US ever allows private sponsorship of refugees.

Toward the end, the film provides a retrospect of the ruins in Syria, from whom the refugees have fled. Many ruins are shown, yet some cities had been beautiful before, with canals and gardens.

Toward the end, the film provides some statistics, particularly on the volume of refugees that Jordan has absorbed.  One woman cannot support her kids and has applied for admission to the US as a refugee.  Canada has a private refugee sponsorship program but the US does not (for the most part), a subject covered in detail on my news commentary blog.

(Posted: Thursday, September 22, 2016 at 10 PM EDT)

DC Shorts: Immigration: “Boat People” and “Doris” pose some dilemmas


Tuesday night, September 13, 2106, DC Short held another “Tackling the Issues” session, this one being “Immigration”.

The biggest film was the last, “Boat People”, 28 minutes, directed by Paul Meschuh.  An attractive, fit couple from Germany (each about 40) sail in the Mediterranean in a luxury catamaran.  Moussa (Eugene Boateng), a Somali fighter, has fled through Africa and tried to cross the Sea from Libya in a raft.  When shipwrecked, he swims to the couple’s boat and collapses.

When he awakens, a moral dilemma develops.  The wife wants to call the Coast Guard, but Moussa insists on being taken to Italy and allowed to sneak in the country illegally.  He claims he will never see his daughters again if he has to go to a refugee camp and “follow the law”.  The wife (Jule Ronstedt) fears the couple could go to jail, and shows the wisdom of an introvert;  the husband (Thomas Clemens) wants to do the “right” thing and help Moussa escape and actually find work in Europe of possible.  Or is this the right thing?

When do we need to “break the rules” to help others?  The film indeed confronts the audience with a moral paradox, although some of us would see that as a canard. The audience clapped for this one.

The next most important film was “Doris” (17 min), by Oscar Rodriquez Gorriz, part of his Master’s program in film at UCLA.  A spoiled family in the San Fernando Valley employs Doris, who is trying to get a green card.  The middle aged husband is secretly helping her, but the wife is hostile.  When they go to work, Doris has to take care of his misbehaving, racist, senile, diabetic father.  I don’t think that, as a matter of law, she could get a green card if undocumented (typical link https://www.quora.com/Can-an-illegal-immigrant-in-the-US-become-legal ).  I do remember that back in 1997, I cosigned for a caregiver for my mother after a hip fracture, through an agency, and she got her green card that summer.

The film “Frankie (Italian Roulette)”, by Francesco Malta, also 17 minutes, is a rather sicko comedy about young adult male Italian immigrant, saying he wants to find the American dream in Trump City – New York – and blowing off his girl friend and then his menial waiting job in a lower Manhattan restaurant. Then he falls into a Russian roulette game with the Mafia, which could leave him rich, or dead.  I was reminded of the second part of “The Deer Hunter”.  The actor had shaved his forearms (this was obvious), rather like the Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth.

Jungle” (13 min), by Asantewaa Premph, presents two street vendors from Senegal bargain with “capitalists” for space in the City – again, homage to Trump., who used to call New York City (or “The City”) a jungle.

El Coyote” (7 min.), by Javier Barboza, is an animated documentary blatantly showing how illegals are smuggled from Mexico into southern California.

(Published: Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016 at 11 AM EDT)

“Those Who Jump”: a young migrant documents those trying to leave Morocco for a colony of Spain


Name: “Those Who Jump”
Director, writer:  Abou Bakar Sidibe, et al
Released:  2016
Format:  digital video
When and how viewed:  AFI Docs, 2016/6/24 at Landmark E St
Length 80
Rating n.a. (in French and Bambara)
Companies: Danish Film Institute
Link: H.R.


Those Who Jump” (“Les Sauteurs”), directed by Moritz Siebert, Estephan Wagner, and Abou Bakar Sidibe, presents Abou’s camera work in a migrant camp on Mount Gurubu outside Melilla, a Spanish autonomous city on the north coast of Morocco.

Abou has traveled from Mali in an attempt to migrate to Europe my climbing the wall and barbed wire into “Europe”. The film opens with a black-and-white shot from a security camera focused on the fence, with an abstract look that seems otherworldly.  The film producers (Heidi Elsie Christisen and Estephan Wagner, from the Danish Film Institute) “hired” Abou to film the life in the camp and attempts to enter “Spain”.

The men (no women are there) form a ragtag community in the brush on the mountain, making prongs to put into their shoes for climbing.  There’s a bit of a social hierarchy in the community that focuses on loyalty and belonging, sometimes edging into combativeness.

During the QA, it was pointed out that “migrants”, who simply want jobs and a better life and opportunity, don’t qualify for asylum the way political refugees (as from Syria) would.

The film compares the squalor of the camp with the pristine, stucco beauty of the Spanish port town (which I did not know existed as Spanish sovereign territory).

Wikipedia attribution link for picture of the fence by Ongayo

QA clips






(Published: Friday, June 24, 2016 at 8:30 PM EDT)