“I am Syria.”
“I am from Syria,” prompts an off-camera voice.
It takes three or four tries to get that sentence out, but the first iteration is, if unintentionally, kind of deep.
Hey: Let’s actually take stuff like xenophobia and racism and white supremacy off the table for a second. Let’s say your concerns are 100% devoid of those ideations. Let’s say your anxieties are around things like the economy, the school system, the highways, the water supply—our human and non-human resources and the plain fact that a given piece of dirt has a finite number of beings it can sustain, because that is most definitely a thing. Let’s assume you are afraid your quality of life is under threat not because you harbor a distrust of people who practice a different religion, speak a language you don’t speak, or have a particular hair follicle shape or melanin count. Let’s assume your concerns are genuinely 100% pragmatic. Yes?
OK: If you happen to be one of the people who think criminalizing immigration is an effective “deterrent” that will help keep everyone-and-their-dog from overwhelming our infrastructure and crashing the system? If you’ve ever said anything remotely like, “Yeah, well, if people don’t want to be separated from their children, maybe they shouldn’t attempt to cross the border?” Or if you’re operating under the assumption that everyone on Earth would move to the United States if we allowed them to Because Obviously It Is the Greatest Nation on Earth? Would you do me a solid and watch This Is Home before opening your mouth on the subject again? If it does not modify or revise your assumptions in any way, so be it. But I suspect it might be a good reality check.
There has been genocide in Syria since 2011. Hundreds of thousands of people have died at the hands of their own government. Of the roughly five million people who have fled the country, fewer than 25,000 have “flooded” the United States. This data has been verified by multiple sources. Alexandra Shiva’s This is Home, which made its debut at Sundance, follows four of those families through the process of seeking asylum and assimilating into the States (specifically, Baltimore). It’s simple, straightforward, and shot in intimate, casually-framed vignettes. It’s a conventional documentary in terms of its structure. It cuts between the families and between their homes, schools, workplaces. There are interviews in which subjects are speaking to the camera and there are “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” sequences where they go about their business.
These people are individuals with unique personalities, hopes and dreams, fears and anxieties, plans and goals. Two things unite them: They had to leave Syria, and they didn’t want to. One of the subjects, a man named Mohammed, has a wife you never see on camera because there are still safety concerns around her remaining family in Syria. And these people are the lucky ones, the ones who did get aid, the ones who haven’t been subjected to criminal prosecution. Trust me, you don’t want to be in their shoes.
This film is a heartstring-puller, yes. Not in a melodramatic or manipulative way; it’s really unadorned. These people have eight months of aid available to them, and in that time they must find work, navigate endless bureaucracy, try to become proficient English speakers, learn how to buy groceries, deal with basic health care for their children—everything is different, and they are understandably afraid of getting it wrong or being treated contemptuously. They’re homesick, they’re baffled, they’re frustrated. They’re people. Over the course of the documentary you do see them all on some kind of trajectory toward feeling assimilated, and more confident at the end of those eight months than they were at the beginning. But one thing is clear: No one here is gloating because they successfully infiltrated the system. No one is saying “Hah! Now, finally, I am an American! Now for my own reality show!” Each of them is an example of why you’re frankly bonkers if you think repatriation is usually done on a whim and that people emigrate to the United States out of a desire to be socioeconomic parasites. These guys are not comfortable. People who are eloquent in Arabic are hamstrung in English. People who are skilled find their skill doesn’t translate, either. People who are educated discover their educations don’t count. People who might have enjoyed a fairly decent standard of living in their country of origin before war broke out find themselves confronting poverty. It’s a lonely way to exist. But at least they still exist, and so do their children.
This Is Home is a character-centered, portrait, homey, intimate in scale, and utterly non-groundbreaking; indeed, we’ve seen countless hours of documentary footage on the Syrian crisis and this film does not cover new ground politically any more than it does artistically. However, given the current climate on the subject of immigration, it remains pertinent and perhaps even necessary. Because apparently a large number of people have not yet internalized the idea that these people aren’t “trying to sneak in.”
They’re trying to stay alive.
This Is Home premieres Friday, June 22 at 8 p.m. on Epix.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.