Focus on Canadian status limbo in JHR film fest doc

Nathaniel LaywineSeeking Refuge, the opening film for the Journalists for Human Rights film festival follows the story of five Canadian refugees as they struggle for status. Film expert Nathaniel Laywine reports.

At the Journalists for Human Rights film festival last weekend, the profiled subjects ranged from the domestic (refugee rights and Indigenous sovereignty) to international (democracy in Burma and women’s rights in Afghanistan). Festival director Sophie Langlois explains the curatorial commonality amongst the diverse selections as “a journey [to] allow you to truly follow the paths of persons and communities facing human rights struggles, sharing both their frustrations and hopes.”

It’s an interesting claim that I couldn’t help mulling over in light of a comment made by one of the five profiled subjects in Karen Cho’s first prize-winning film, Seeking Refuge. Najia, an Afghani human rights activist, community organizer and Canadian refugee claimant explained the difficulties of adjusting to her new life in Montreal, without friends, family or status. “The hardest part is no one knows you, no one knows your value or your use for your country. You work all your life and when you leave that place you feel you’ve lost everything.”

Naija’s story is told along with four other doc subjects: Esly, the young Honduran mother whose commonlaw husband was denied asylum in Canada due to the “Safe Third Country Agreement” (which mandates that refugees must apply for refugee status in the first safe country they arrive in). He was killed upon his return to their hometown; Leyla, a young Congolese mother and victim of sexual violence; Kader, a blind and diabetic Algerian forced to plead sanctuary within Montreal’s Saint Gabriel Presbytarian Church for three years after several failed attempts to gain refugee status; and Fouad, a Palestinian separated from his wife and children for nearly eight years while in refugee claimant’s limbo.

The five claimants are not acquainted with one another and share no common background, but Cho follows each individual’s navigation through the frustrating bureaucracy of the Immigrant and Refugee Board’s application and tribunal processes. The violence of their old lives are alluded to plenty of times and snippets of anecdotal stories occasionally reveal some personal details; Kader was a musician, Naija a journalist, Fouad’s first grand child was expected soon after he left the refugee camp he was staying at in Lebanon. But for the most part this documentary noticeably omits both the nostalgia and trauma of the past and focuses in depth on the subjects’ present, which fluctuates from tedium to anxiety as each eagerly awaits to learn the decision of whether or not they’ll be allowed to remain in Canada. Much of the film’s interviews take place in the car on the way to the tribunal, or in the waiting room as the claimants are interrogated by the presiding IRB member.

The lack of detail of the subjects’ pasts doesn’t detract from the depth of these individuals’ experience and it doesn’t make the audience any less hopeful to see these guys succeed. If anything, the omission powerfully demonstrates the limits of reporting stories of loss and trauma to begin with. As Naija and her peers have started over their stories are inaccessible and any attempt to narrate them would be false or skewed.

Ultimately, Cho’s project is critical but hopeful for Canada’s refugee system with the help of some reforms for the positive. “We say that we’re so inclusive and welcoming an multicultural,” she commented after the screening. “But then we act surprised when people show up at our borders and what’s worse is we treat them like they’re trying to steal from us. We need to change the way we promote ourselves to the world or live up to it.”

Nathaniel Laywine currently lives in Toronto where he works at the Toronto International Film Festival and teaches at Ryerson University.