Philadelphians originally hailing from Bhutan, Belarus and beyond have created a new collaborative film project hinging on the meaning of home.
Produced by Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Porch Light Program, a collaboration with the city Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services, “Making Home Movies” highlights the stories of six English-as-a-second-language classrooms across the city.
From Northeast to South Philadelphia, the experiences of recently arrived immigrant and refugee communities are conveyed through six five- to 10-minute films, which will premiere on Sept. 21 at 1 p.m. at the Philadelphia Film Center, 1412 Chestnut St.
On Wednesday, some of the film’s storytellers and project managers convened at one of the featured sites, Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Southeast by Southeast, 2106 S. 8th St., to preview cuts of the projects that were filmed over the past year.
“We want the communities that created the movies to really feel like their stories are out there,” said Shira Walinksky, artist, filmmaker and “Making Home Movies” co-organizer. “There’s so many communities that are sort of not visible in the city. Immigrant communities, refugee communities, and so to feel, after having gone through so much, to feel pride in your story.”
In Northeast Philly, storytellers, students and teachers were native to Ukraine, Belarus, Iraq, Syria, to name a few, while the Southwest Philly community focused on the Liberian community.
Though neighborhoods from around the city were spotlighted, the projects managers say it was crucial to encompass the shifting demographics of South Philadelphia, particularly residents living east of Broad Street, as the films focus on local Burmese and Bhutanese adults as well as the multicultural student body of Horace Howard Furness High School in Pennsport.
“The roots of the project are (in South Philly,) but this project has expanded beyond South Philly,” said Corin Wilson, project manager, Mural Arts Philadelphia and “Making Home Movies.” “We’re in Northeast Philadelphia. We’re in Southeast. It’s really just a global Philadelphia perspective, which is pretty amazing and really rare in a lot of projects.”
For close to the past decade, Southeast by Southeast in the Lower Moyamensing neighborhood has served as an emotional, social and creative sanctuary for arriving populations.
Along with art and language classes, the community center specifically focuses on the mental health of immigrants and refugees.
“People don’t want to be perceived as a burden and bothering you with problems,” said Melissa Fogg, one of Southeast by Southeast founders and Porch Light Program manager. “The language around mental health is not the same as it is, say, for someone who is born and raised in Philadelphia…It’s almost, like, a double burden people carry because they come from overseas where they’ve been told their whole life that, in a lot of cases, their ethnic community is not real. They’ve been victims of genocide, had their families murdered and traveled across countries and on these really dangerous trips to get to safety. And then, when you come to Philadelphia, there’s a whole host of problems, too.”
Some of these conflicts, Foggs says, can include racism, poverty, crime and lack of opportunity.
The film featuring Southeast by Southeast specifically centers upon an adult poetry class taught by Ujjwala Maharjan, a poet and art educator from Kathmandu, Nepal.
The class was intended to teach English through the art of illustrative verses. The challenge, Maharjan says, was translating Nepali nuances into the English language.
“Even though we had these six different stories coming in, we weaved them together to form this narrative of the experience of the Burmese refugees who come here to Philly and how they make this their home,” she said. “So, it all comes together. It’s cohesive. It’s now a group poem.”
Localizing national and even international issues, “Making Home Movies” focuses heavily on the idea of citizenship, discussing countries where these statuses are threatened as well as the obstacles faced in becoming a citizen in the United States amidst unsteady immigration laws.
The project hopes to elevate the importance of Philadelphia serving not only as a place where immigrants and refugees are welcomed but unconditionally supported.
In protecting the rights of newly arrived residents, the work filmed in these six classes speaks to the larger efforts made throughout communities and the city.
“It’s a project about the stories of people making home in Philadelphia, and what it means to make home both within the walls of your residence but also in your community, with your neighbors,” said Paul Farber, independent curator and Making Home Movies co-organizer. “It’s a project that grows out of many years of collaboration between Mural Arts and DBH – really thinking about this intersection of public art and public health in the context of making sure that we’re a welcoming city for immigrants, refugees and really understanding both the pride that comes with becoming a Philadelphian and also the necessity for resources that are part of that.”