Interviews

Barbara Kopple’s “Canadian” Documentary

An interview with the ‘New Homeland’ director

Barbara Kopple’s New Homeland has its Canadian premiere this week as part of Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema’s Doc Soup series


Barbara Kopple brought her camera to Canada for her latest film, New Homeland, but despite shooting on foreign soil, she’s delivered one of her most insightful interrogations of America’s values. New Homeland, directed by Kopple and produced by Cabin Creek Films in partnership with the social media news network Now This, takes audiences to Camp Pathfinder in the wooded hallows of Algonquin Park. Kopple observes five young boys, a mix of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, as they enjoy the Canadian wilderness for the first time in their new nation. Kopple’s refreshing portrait of the boys encourages audiences to adopt a welcoming and forward-thinking perspective on immigration at a time when borders are closing and walls are going up. (Or said to be, anyway.)

While Canada is by no means perfect in its openness to refugees and outsiders, the doc highlights a positive effort that allows ordinary Canadians to do their part. New Homeland draws attention to the act of sponsorship by which a Canadian family raises its own money (roughly $20,000) to help bring a family of refugees to Canada, and then acts as their support network over the first year of said family’s arrival to help them adjust to a foreign land.

Director Barbara Kopple

Kopple returns to Toronto with New Homeland for the Canadian premiere of the film as part of this season’s Doc Soup series at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. It’s a fitting homecoming for Kopple, who was honoured with Hot Docs’ Outstanding Achievement Award retrospective at last year’s festival. While Kopple’s “Canadian film” might seem like an anomaly in her filmography alongside hard-hitting Oscar winners Harlan County, USA (1976) and American Dream (1990) and verité portraiture films like the Woody Allen doc Wild Man Blues (1997), the Dixie Chicks flick Shut Up and Sing (2006), the Mariel Hemingway/mental illness study Running from Crazy (2011) and the toe-tapping audience favourite Miss Sharon Jones! (2015), it unifies her diverse body of work. By simply observing a group of young boys as they discover and new land and new experiences, Kopple’s doc asks the USA to reflect upon its hostility to outsiders in divisive times. Kopple’s films offer some of the richest portraits of American life and the ideals that are essential to a progressive a free society like the USA. By crossing the border to observe how the Canadians do things so differently just a few miles away, her latest film is no exception.

POV recently spoke with Kopple by phone ahead of the Doc Soup screening of New Homeland. It was truly an honour to discuss the master’s latest film and a body of work that has been so influential in this writer’s path on the documentary beat.

POV: Pat Mullen
BK: Barbara Kopple
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity

POV: In your director’s statement, you wrote that your company, Cabin Creek Films, mandated an effort to chronicle of the plight of refugees being frozen out of the United States. Was there a specific incident that led to this decision within your company?

BK: We started more so after, you know…Donald Trump was inaugurated! [Laughs.] I really wanted to do something to show how incredible the Canadians are in helping [refugees] and how beautiful the sponsors were by giving their money and time, just taking over and helping these people with everything from health care to learning English to finding a place to live. I discovered when I was there [in Canada], how much the sponsors are still part of a family even though the year is up for putting in money. Imagine what would happen if they didn’t want to help these people. They’d be lost without them. It just taught me so much about human nature. If this film can do anything at all, maybe other people will see it and stand up and do something, particularly here in the United States. If you help people and you make them part of the community, you’re changing their lives and they, in fact, are changing your life.


POV: How did you choose which kids and families were in the film and your trip to Camp Pathfinder?

BK: They were the only ones that were accepted during the time we were filming, which was in August [2017]. They were the second group. There was a group in July, but we came in August. And so that’s what we had. I’m happy—I loved them.

Mike Sladden, the camp director, decided to bring the two Syrian families and the Iraqi boys to camp. He had been part of this camp since he was 11 years old or something. He’s doing a big screening [at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema], so he’ll be there with a lot of campers. Hot Docs gave him the theater to use. He was so amazing and accepting and patient. One of the things he did that I loved was really introduce the boys to nature: how to camp, how to swim, and how to stay off their cell phones and have some face to face time with people.


POV: How did the behaviour of the boys at camp meet or defy your expectations? Both in terms of the refugees and the Canadian-born/American-born boys?

BK: Personally, I just like to play it out and see what happens in real time, but friendships were made, like Hameed and Andrew. Hameed brought him up to meet Sladden at camp and said, “This is the boy I swim with. This is the boy I do everything with.” And they also made deep friendships with each other because they had never met before they went to camp. You even saw them bonding in the bus where they were all sleeping on each other. Mohammad Zin was rubbing Mohammad Darewish’s head even though they had all just met. An interesting thing, for me, is that the refugee parents were more concerned about the departure of their children to camp than the young people seemed when going to camp away from their parents. They had probably never been away from each other.

POV: Sort of like letting your kid off to school for the first day, I guess.

BK: Of course, yes. But some of it was pretty funny, like the Zin family sitting around and telling them everything like, “Be clean, take care of yourself, go to bed early, and exercise.” It was hysterical. I was laughing so hard inside trying not to let my giggles come out and get on the soundtrack.


POV: The film features some very important conversations about inclusion between the camp guides and the campers, especially when Omer is struggling to fit in. Did you work with the camp to guide these conversations?

BK: Nope. We were watching things unfold. It wasn’t our place to do that and they’re probably far wiser than we would ever be, like Oren Karp, who was the counselor who was putting the most effort into trying to help Omer. Just watching him, it was funny and frustrating seeing him trying to discipline [Omer] but also be his friend. He just did really beautiful things. He took him aside and asked him what life was like and if he had gone through a lot. Omer said yes, that when they left Baghdad and went to Turkey, he had to be with a gang of people to protect each other so that none of them would be murdered. I just thought that he was an incredible counselor with the way that he dealt with Omer.

POV: The film mentions the conflicts that the families escaped, but you don’t dwell on it too much. Can you sort of talk about that decision?

BK: It’s there. Omer and Hameed’s father was a policeman in Baghdad. He was taken and, I think, murdered. Hameed saw an explosion in a nightclub in Baghdad and saw people bringing dead bodies out. The parents saw so much murder that they just left everything to protect their kids. Mariam Zin, Mohammad and Kasem’s mother, talks about leaving her mother and how sad it was. She said something like, “I had to leave everything beautiful. It just stayed there.” Her mother had said to her, “You have to go, this is your fate.” And she said, “Will I ever see you again?” And her mother said to her, “Just take care of your husband and your sons.” She just had a baby, another boy.

At the end of the film, I was with Mohammad Darewish, the short one with all the sisters—the women in his life—asking what his experience is in Canada. He said, “It’s bittersweet.” And you know why? He said, “I haven’t seen my grandparents in three years and I don’t know if I’ll ever see them again.” So, you see how they’re torn from their roots and that people they love are left behind.

POV: What was moment you’re proudest of the boys?

BK: I think that each one of them did things on their own and did things that they never did before. Whether it was for Hameed passing his canoe test and getting the t-shirt from the guy who was in the Canadian Olympics, how proud he felt that he got that, or Mohammad Darewish jumping into the water and not knowing how to swim. [Laughs.] But trying, struggling. And I think the most incredible thing though is friendship and having friends and caring about each other. I think that’s probably the thing I’m proudest of.

POV: You’ve observed some very famous people in your work: Woody Allen, Gregory Peck, the Dixie Chicks, Sharon Jones. Is it any different documenting a group of kids who aren’t accustomed to the camera as opposed to people who are more used to the spotlight and maybe self-aware of their behavior?

BK: Nope. Not really, because each one of those people that you mentioned were going through something in their lives and the last thing they’re thinking about is the camera. Woody Allen’s trying to figure out how to survive in Europe. He’s going to all those places [on a tour with his jazz band]. Sharon Jones is going through cancer and then wondering who she’s going to be when she steps on stage at the Beacon Theater after her operations. Gregory Peck was doing his one man show and realizing that he can’t pull out now. These kids being lumped together in nature was no different. It was very rustic there. I mean, we had little tents and sleeping bags and you bathe, and there’s no electricity, you bathe in the lake, and you go to the bathroom in outhouses, that kind of thing. It’s all a different kind of life and survival.

POV: Were you much of a camper as a kid or was this a new experience?

BK: Oh, yeah. I love the outdoors, so I had a great time. It was so invigorating to be able to jump into the lake. It was wonderful. I mean, I could have done with that some of the bugs, ’cause we all were eaten alive by mosquitoes.

POV: It comes with the job.

BK: It does, it comes with the summer and the territory. But, how many times do you get to go into beautiful rustic nature like that? It was like a vacation. A working vacation.

POV: How did the partnership between Cabin Creek and Now This come about? Were they on board before the shoot?

BK: We told them about it. Eric Forman, who one of the producers, had spent summers of his youth at Camp Pathfinder. He went back to Rochester for a high school reunion and one of the people at his reunion said, “You know, that camp we went to, Camp Pathfinder, they’re taking Syrians and Iraqis this summer.” Eric came running back because he knew I wanted to do something on it. So we called the camp director. Mike first raised his eyebrows and didn’t want to have a camera there ruining the kids’ summer, but then he came around and I think he’s really glad he did. The other producer, Dave Cassidy, one of his best friends, who’s also a godmother to his son, he went and he told her about it and they said, “We’re thinking of doing long form too. So let’s partner.” So we all partnered together and it happened quickly.

POV: You’ve also worked with YouTube for This is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous. When you’re making the film, is it any different when you’re shooting for something you know will be a theatrical or streaming?

BK: Nope. I shoot it the same way as if it’s going to be in a theater or it’s going to be streamed or it’s going to be on cable or wherever it’s going to be. I just try to tell the story, follow the characters, and edit it that way. When I did the Mike Tyson film [1993’s Fallen Champ, which aired on NBC], I just made it seamless and then at the end, we had to go back to figure out where the breaks were going to be. I always do it that way. It’s much more fun and it’s much more cohesive to do it that way and let the material guide you.

POV: Now that you’ve had the chance to show the film internationally, including at IDFA, how have people responded to the film and the idea of sponsorship country by country?

BK: I didn’t get to go to Amsterdam because we had a big snowstorm here on the day that I was supposed to go. They told us that people loved it and it was sold out, but I wasn’t actually there. And I hate to miss it because I always sit through my films. Most filmmakers come and say hello, and then they leave and come back for the Q and A. I sit through because I want to know where people laugh or where people get bored or whatever. I just really like seeing how people react.

POV: When I was looking through your work again for the retrospective at Hot Docs last year, I was really struck by the clip from back when you won the Oscar for American Dream. Your producer, Arthur Cohen, said upon accepting the award with you, “Only in America, in a free democracy like America, would it have been possible to make a film like American Dream … I feel today, more than ever, the free world owes the United States of America deep respect and everlasting gratitude.” Does that sentiment ring true to you today? It’s a very interesting thing to watch in the current political context.

BK: I feel that you can still do that and do that even more with documentaries because people are loving documentaries. They call it the golden age of documentary. And that’s also why I like doing them because you just go out there and you tell stories that mean something to you and that you have a great passion about. [Laughs] I didn’t really concur with him when he said that. He was not out in the trenches! I always felt that as a documentarian you’re always able to do what you want to do. That’s the magic of doing this kind of thing.

POV: You mentioned the golden age of documentary. What do you think accounts for this explosion in popularity? You’ve been making films for over 40 years. Why has it exploded now?

BK: It’s always been exploding for me, even though not for the rest of the population! I just think that people want that sense of truthfulness and understand that if you’re going to be looking at documentaries. They’re entertaining, they make you laugh, they make you cry, they make you feel, they take you somewhere you’ve never been before and people want to go. And so I think that’s the popularity of them. They’re so well done and they tell such great stories.

POV: I liked New Homeland as a companion to both Harlan County and American Dream as a call for unity in divisive times. What do Harlan County and American Dream teach us about the present if someone were to watch them today? Harlan County plays here pretty much every year and it’s always well attended.

BK: I think that it’s about people fighting for the things that they believe in and caring about each other and struggling through very difficult times to survive. I think that maybe that’s what makes it timeless. Unfortunately, that never ends. And if you’re able to do that and come out the other side, you’re that much stronger.

POV: How do you feel about America’s future as the gears are in motion for the next election? Are you optimistic heading into 2020?

BK: I’m hoping beyond hope that whoever is running will win on the Democratic side. I think that we’ve had a tough time and the things that are good and the things that we believe in are getting terribly hurt by this administration. I want to see things turn around.

POV: And when are we getting the Hillary Clinton documentary? I’ve read that you’ve mentioned her as an ideal subject.

BK: She would be, but someone else doing one. I’m sure it’s going to be great. She’s a student of mine and it’s going to be wonderful. I look forward to it. She was a great [student] and a great friend today.

POV: At least it’s one of your students! That’s bittersweet, I guess. And while we’re on the subject of the future, how have US audiences responded to the idea of sponsorship in the screenings so far? What’s the hope for the situation?

BK: We need to see. I hope that they will [respond], but I don’t know of any organized situation where that’s happening. I mean, our president is trying to build a wall so that people can’t come in. I think Canada for the first time is number one in accepting refugees from around the world. And so that’s pretty incredible—not this country, anymore. We used to be number one. I hope it really opens up people’s eyes to the potential.

New Homeland screens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday with director Barbara Kopple in attendance.