Photo Credit: Amit Shah

“What happens after the leap across the abyss?”

(Quote taken from Syrian refugees in Tunisia segment, Khedija Lemkecher, director)

The writer is Green Comma’s managing director, Amit Shah, who collaborated with Chandita Mukherjee, executive producer, to provide the following background to the making of this timely documentary.

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The legal definition of a refugee in the modern world was first defined in 1921 by the League of Nations, Commission on Refugees. Then refined after each cataclysmic human disaster (read war). In 1951, in the aftermath of World War II and the onset of migrations from eastern Europe, the United Nations (UN) adopted this:

“. . . owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

In 2011, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) further added:

“. . . who are outside their country of nationality or habitual residence and unable to return there owing to serious and indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from generalized violence or events seriously disturbing public order.”

Today, there are 68.5 million forcibly displaced persons in the world. The breakdown of the various categories is provided in this link.

Of the 68.5 million, 25.4 million are refugees (the rest are internally displaced, without homes) and of the 25.4 million, half are below the age of 18.

And, finally, on the statistical front, a number of agencies count 50 percent of the world’s refugees (displaced and otherwise) to be women and children.

Photo credit: Oxfam Canada

In 2017, the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) put out a call for proposals for an hour-long documentary on any issue related to women, which would be a collaboration with parts shot by their members based in different countries. They call this project the “ Long Documentary,” and they do one every alternate year or so with the guidance of acommittee of experienced film makers from Canada, Norway and India. They had done three till then, on women and climate change, women’s reproductive health as a public health issue, and on women journalists covering war and conflict zones. This was to be the fourth Long Documentary.

Still from documentary

The first call in the Long Documentary process is for proposals from potential executive producers who would, if their idea was approved, direct and coordinate the multi-country production. Chandita Mukherjee, an IAWRT member from India and independent documentary director, sent a proposal
for a film on the experiences of women refugees. Seeing that this was a world-wide crisis emerging from conflicts around the globe, she thought that IAWRT‘s multipart structure would allow the audience to see the parallels in different countries. The proposal was accepted.

Chandita Mukherjee, executive director

Now as the executive producer, Chandita Mukherjee put out the second call to her IAWRT colleagues seeking proposals for the country-based stories for the Long Documentary. These were to be10-minute documentary stories around the theme of Women displaced by conflict: the invisible stories. The brief was to make the invisible visible. The underlying thought was that local
women film makers who speak the language and know the cultural context would be able to tell these stories much more sensitively than international TV news correspondents who drop into conflict zones and report stories through interpreters.

Chandita wrote in the call: ”Seeing the rise of intolerance and the ascendancy of forces of polarisation all over the world, we find that plural societies and ideas of democracy and freedom are threatened. The spiral of decline goes from discrimination against a group to persecution — violence — escape — migration — refugee status — refusal of refuge — inability to settle or
integrate into a new land — this is the spiraling crisis destroying the world.”

“There is a gender aspect to all such stories which becomes invisible in the coverage by the mainstream media. Our focus will be on making the invisible visible. We are looking for visual stories from IAWRT members that bring out the state of the women caught in conflicts. Some suggestions of countries and issues:
 On women resisting invisibilisation: a story could be set in a society such as Iraq or Afghanistan where there has been conflict for many years and women had to ‘disappear’ from view to survive.
 On women seizing their own guardianship: a story on the campaigners against the male guardianship system under Sharia law. The location could be several communities in South Asia, the Middle east and Africa.
 On women making human rights abuses visible. The location could be several countries in South America and Africa, the Philippines, Pakistan and so many others.
 On women fleeing from conflict and how they struggle to normalise their existences. The location could be Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, Syrian refugee camps and settlements in Jordan, Turkey, Greece, Germany.
 On women resisting deportation: a story could be set in the United States, based on a young woman from the generation of “Dreamers,” born in the US, but whose parents came as undocumented immigrants from another country such as Sri Lanka or Mexico.”

The stories selected were centered on women protagonists whose lives told the story:

 A Tibetan woman refugee activist in India works on exposing human rights abuses in present-day Tibet while dreaming of returning home one day, director Afrah Shafiq.

 A Syrian refugee family struggles to put down roots in Tunisia, director Khedija Lemkecher.

 Two women leaders of indigenous communities in the Philippines, both groups evicted from their homelands in the name of development, struggle to get back their lands, director Erika
Rae Cruz.

 A Syrian refugee group with asylum status in Canada form a food collective, a means of income and of integrating into a new society, but with the challenges of running a business, director Eva Anandi Brownstein.

Credit: UNHCR

The combined segments were edited by Puloma Pal, a well-known independent editor with Chandita Mukherjee. As they proceeded with the complex process of finding parallels and juxtaposing them, Chandita felt that a story of present-day genocide was missing from the film. She sought out stories on Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh and Myanmar but it was not possible to get these done within the budget constraints.

A breakthrough came when Archana Kapoor of India found a Rohingya contact in a rural area some 50 miles out of New Delhi. Chandita Mukherjee worked out another story with the UNHCR office in New Delhi. Thus, Archana and Chandita co-directed a fifth segment on Rohingya women
refugees in India.

Titled Displacement & Resilience: Women Live for a New Day, the documentary was recently shown at the 15th IAWRT Asian Women’s Film Festival in Delhi, India. It has also been selected for the South Asia Short Films Festival in Kolkata, India, from March 18–31, 2019.

In an extensive online review and I cite in full: “The film narrates the ordeals of conflict, migration and exile in the lives of women refugees from five locations: the Rohingyas in Haryana and Delhi, the Tibetans in Dharamshala, the Lumad and Matigsalug communities in Philippines, the Syrians in Tunisia and in Vancouver, Canada. Combining interviews with title cards, archival footage and mix-media with principal photography, the film presents an extensive overview of the similarities and variations in the life of female refugees, exiled and displaced for several reasons. Due to the extensive scope of the subject covered, the film has been divided into separate thematic sections for primary differentiation and interlayered with segments of different regions and communities across these sections.

Commenting on the editing, Chandita Mukherjee said, “To bring the collaboration together, all the filmmakers involved made their individual films. It was a real challenge to slice up all these segments and stitch them together into a coherent narrative.”

“The sections in the film look at the following conditions/circumstances: living in displacement, humanitarian response, ‘development’ and internal displacement, war and genocide, war and diaspora, community cohesion in long term exile, and dreams of the future. The commentary runs through title cards coupled with archival footage, that adds an analytical and informative layer to the emotionally charged narratives of the film’s subjects.
The film recounts a series of issues faced by women in exile through several interviews of victims/survivors and social workers. Issues like human trafficking, assault, violence, genocide, poverty and diseases, familial separation, identity crisis, isolation, depression and PTSD affect
many of the women currently living as refugees.”

Still from documentary

“However, the focus of the film is not simply on displacement and trauma, but also the spirit of resilience within the communities. It claims that it is the women who are responsible for much of the rehabilitation and resilience seen in the refugee communities. In the protests of the Lumad and the Matisalug led by elderly women leaders, the defance of the spirit of indigenous women against the encroachment of state-sponsored capitalist industries, and military harassment is a testament to the enduring spirit of womanhood. “

“Decades of exile and shifting forms of resilience are explored in the Tibetan segment. Filmmaker Afrah Shafiq explains, “This segment is more about the memory of exile rather than the actual happening, because it has been 60 years of the struggle for Tibet. The memories have been inherited from generation to generation and are a part of their psyche, but we also see that some of the youth is moving on. Others, like the protagonist Namgyal are in a dilemma. They respect the sacrifices of their elders but have different political beliefs, of active resistance.” The making of a documentary is always a challenging task. Speaking truth to power and narrating the stories of the oppressed and the victimized often require strategic interventions from filmmakers. “

Still from documentary

“Archana Kapoor explains, “The Rohingyas in Mewat and Vikaspuri live in extreme poverty,illiteracy, lacking sanitation and health facilities, and with great uncertainty about their future. When Chandita and I shot this segment together, while one of us was doing the interviews of a refugee
woman, the other was busy talking to the police and almost distracting them from stopping us. There is great distrust and xenophobia in India and the authorities against the Rohingya refugees.”

“IAWRT’s production is a timely and topical documentary that is as intelligent as it is poignant, which does not lose the edge of facts and stats while bringing to the forefront the emotionally charged traumas of its subjects.”

“In the current xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiment brimming over the surface across developed and developing nations, Displacement and Resilience is an urgent reminder and call to action. The film is an extensive sketch of the historical and the present, a sharp indictment of the lack of humanity within the state and the people, while doubling up as a celebration of the enduring spirit of resistance and an effective demand of reformative practices.”

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The wide release of such a documentary is an uphill task. Green Comma would like to assist in bringing the documentary to viewers in the US through a variety of venues and welcome your suggestions and interest.