“It’s funny how long it takes for change to happen,” says director Michèle Hozer. We’re talking about her previous film Sugar Coated and Hozer relates the hard fight against sugar tax to similar controversies over the use of tobacco and the benefits of seatbelts. In every case, lobbyists and p.r. firms working for corporations fought long and hard to avoid dealing with legislation that would cost them money—while, of course, saving lives. The long process of enacting change echoes throughout Hozer’s new doc Sponsorland, a feature-length film coming to TVO that chronicles a year in the life of a family of Syrian refugees—Abdel Malek, his wife Sawsen and their 11 children—as well as the lives of their sponsoring family in Picton, Prince Edward County.
Sponsorland shows how the picturesque wine county provides an unexpected refuge for the newly arrived Syrian family as Hozer documents the involved efforts of the sponsors to ease their transition, most notably Carlyn Moulton, a self-described “feminist/lesbian/crazy art dealer” who provides a mild culture shock for the conservative Abdel Malek before getting on with their arrangements. Private sponsorships by individuals and groups like PEC Syria, co-chaired by Moulton, provide an invaluable lifeline for refugees, not simply for the financial support, but primarily for the year-long commitment required to facilitate the process of starting a new life in Canada.
The film takes us inside the homes on both sides of the sponsor/refugee relationship to observe the delicate balance of providing assistance while affording autonomy. Most stories of migration, particularly in recent coverage and films of the civil war in Syria, emphasize conflict and struggle, but don’t expect to find either one here. If war is hell, what comes after? This astutely observed film gives audiences some perspective of the journey of finding oneself and starting anew in a foreign land.
POV spoke with Hozer ahead of the Toronto sneak peek of the film. Hozer chatted about life the process of discovering the story, settling for a year in wine country to shoot the doc, her own experience of growing up in Canada as a young immigrant, and of the long road to change ahead. Sponsorland has its broadcast premiere on TVO on November 15.
POV: Pat Mullen
MH: Michèle Hozer
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
POV: Prince Edward County is an unexpected setting for a story about Syrian refugees. Why take audiences off the beaten track?
MH: We hear stories about refugees in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, and places with a lot of diversity, but to go somewhere like the County, where multiculturalism hasn’t really hit yet, made for a great story. A family of 11 going down there, how does that work? When you don’t have government assistance, when you don’t even have transit, think about it. You need more than one car with a family of 11 kids.
POV: The size of the family comes as a surprise to the sponsors in the film. Were you prepared to be filming a family of 11 or were you also expecting a “North American sized” family of three to four people?
MH: Back in 2016, the government had brought in the 25,000 refugees [and stopped]. “Thank you very much, Canadians, but we’re wrapping up the program!” All these sponsor groups got together, waved their money and said, “What do you mean? We want to bring in more.” John Sewell put together a town hall [meeting on the issue] at the Church here on College and Bathurst and that was where we met Carlyn Moulton. The family had already come in but they were planning to bring in the extended family. I thought it was a great story to follow.
POV: That is strange about the program being difficult to continue even though the sponsors were willing to work on it. Your film does a good job addressing that. What were you hoping to learn through the family’s journey?
MH: TVO did an open call in the fall of 2015 to documentary filmmakers across Canada looking for films that explored the idea of cultural duality. Many Canadians have one foot in two cultures. I remember reading the call and feeling that I understood. I came to Canada when I was six months old. Both my parents were Sephardic Jews, born in Cairo. I have a grandmother who was born in Syria.
When we came to Montreal, I grew up in Laval. A quiet suburb. At the time, it was the Quiet Revolution. Diversity was not big in Laval and I remember trying to fit in during my childhood. I was betrayed by my French accent, by my mother’s cuisine. I remember having a birthday party when I was ten years old and trying to explain to my Canadian friends why we had sambousacs and kibbeh instead of Cheezies and hot dogs. I really responded to this kind of story. Following the sponsorship program was a great way into that theme.
POV: Sponsorland is quite different from your other films in that you really immersed yourself in the world of your subjects by moving to Picton for the year.
MH: I moved my husband and my dog! It’s a great community to live in. As a documentary filmmaker, one of the most important elements is gaining the trust of the people you’re following. I had to gain the trust of the family and the Prince Edward County community—who am I as a Toronto filmmaker to tell their story? I quickly understood that in order to tell the story I wanted to have, I needed to be embedded. I stole a page from the Laura Poitras school of filmmaking.
POV: That’s a good page to steal.
MH: She’s a great hero of mine, so I was inspired to be immersed—a fly on the wall—and picked up a camera and a mic and hung out with the family, eating a bit too much. Part of it was becoming friends with the family and the sponsors, feeling the ebb and flow of what it really means to sponsor a family. You’ve heard the 30-second news story: they were in danger, they came to Canada, sponsors opened their hearts and doors, and they lived happily ever after. Life does not work that way. We wanted to explore the nuances of the relationships between the family and the sponsors. It’s like a marriage in a way.
POV: The family dynamic really extends across borders in the film.
MH: As a sponsor, there is a fine line between care and control. As a refugee, there’s a balance between feeling grateful and searching for your autonomy. As an immigrant, I remember having to consider this: what do you have to sacrifice to fit in? Those are important questions that many Canadians can see themselves. For sponsors, there’s no road map. You need to be patient. You need to be open. In this case, it’s like an arranged marriage.
POV: That’s an interesting comparison. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you do get a sense of that commitment, patience, and effort to build a relationship.
MH: A lot of the sponsors will tell you that the easy part is raising the money. The hard part is the time commitment. You hear Robin [a sponsor] say that her family calls the Al Jasems “the other family.” It’s true when you say that you can’t just pop in for fifteen minutes. Four hours later, you’re still there. It’s a different kind of filmmaking. And with a documentary, you’re always trying to make it quiet and nice, trying to get pristine sound; I was working with a family of eleven kids. You have to embrace that chaos.
POV: It really gives a sense of the dynamic of the household and what it’s like being there. That scene in the kitchen where Sawsen is chopping meat for dinner and the bone goes flying really lets you see how crowded the house is and how much energy there is.
MH: Yes, and there are always voices in the background that you don’t really know where they’re coming from. It was tons of fun.
POV: One thing that really stuck with me is the moment where Sleiman talks about Abdel Malek asking why people are being nice. People in the community also ask what investment the sponsors have. Why do we second-guess doing the right thing?
MH: One might ask what they want in return, which is why we say, “Is there a catch?” That’s how Abdel Malek sees it. Maybe it’s from where he comes from and that he’s not used to that generosity. We also have to ask ourselves if we’re expecting anything in return as Canadians. We really believe in our culture and our values. Are we expecting refugees to give their values up for this land of opportunity?
Someone commented that I should have shown more of the contrast between “the hell they left behind and the heaven that they found.” My point of view, to be honest, is that they didn’t necessarily leave hell. In their minds, heaven was at home. That heaven got interrupted for geopolitical reasons that they had nothing to do with. Bombs fell and they had to flee. If you lived in Lake Simcoe or Toronto and that life was interrupted because of war and you had to move somewhere else, you would be extremely grateful for the generosity and the offer for help, but your heart would still be at home. It’s not that we’re not saviors, but we neglect to think about what they left behind.
POV: Media coverage often emphasizes that there’s a struggle we need to see to validate coming into Canada and, to be honest, I like how the film didn’t have that. It’s about what comes after, which isn’t a story we often get.
MH: We don’t live happily ever after. Do we have our own biases that we think our values are the best? The catch line is that ‘it takes a village,’ and it’s true. It takes all of the sponsors to help integrate the family, but what does that mean for a boy like Slieman who is 20 and is trying to gain his autonomy? I see this with my 19-year-old son. He’s like, “I want to figure this out for myself!” Imagine having five moms saying you should go to school!
POV: And he’s taking the GO-Train an hour or so to Toronto to meet people and learn as well, so there’s a lot going on there.
MH: Maybe for Slieman the best thing is that he gain control over his life because he didn’t have control the past five years. School will always be there. Control over your own destiny is not something we should forget the importance of having.
POV: How did you find the community’s reactions to the presence of the family? In the film, we see some elements of, perhaps, resentment. And the debate about sponsoring refugees always seems to raise the question of what we could be doing to help people here.
MH: Those are real questions. On the one hand, they see the need of the refugees, but there’s need in Picton and Prince Edward County as well. Someone says in the film, “That’s great that the eldest son got a job, but where’s the job for my son? He’s been out of work for six months.” Those resentments are bubbling under the surface. By talking about it, you try and deal with it. You have it all across Canada. In 2015, people didn’t want to bring in the 25,000.
POV: I remember that. Stories of people having things thrown at them upon arrival. It was upsetting.
MH: Kids like Slieman and Ramez might have faced that if they hadn’t been associated with their families. They are the poster children for the people who “we” [people against admitting refugees] don’t want in: male 20-year-olds who’re going to be radicals. But they are like other teenagers. I think of that scene where they are trying to fit in and go to the pizza shop. You don’t have to be a refugee to feel what he feels looking for belonging. On top of it, he has to deal with the language barrier. You look for those universal struggles as a filmmaker. They’re teenagers trying to deal with everyday life issues and having that complicated with language issues and the questions of those people who fear ‘the other.’
POV: That’s a great scene. It was funny to see because I’ve been watching a lot of Degrassi lately for another assignment, and it seemed like a slice of life scene you’d see on the show.
MH: They’re a rambunctious family and they have their ups and downs, but they’re just like you and I.
POV: A lot has been made of Justin Trudeau’s campaign for Syrian refugees and for Canada’s ambitious targets. How do you think we’re holding up to those promises in terms of doing the best we can do?
MH: In 2015, there was a divide: should we let the refugees in or not? Even though we brought in the Liberal government, I don’t think that feeling has disappeared. Just look at Quebec with the new bill—
POV: —and the attack that we see on the news in the film. [ The January 2017 mosque shooting in Quebec. ]
MH: It was interesting how Ramez responded to it. He said, “I don’t judge all Canadians by this one creepy guy who came into a mosque to kill people in prayer. Don’t judge all Syrians by a few terrorists.” He said, “I’m like you. I want my family to have a future and I will stand with Canadians against terrorism.” I think we forget about that. Look at the States. Last week in New York, the guy who ran people over with a truck is called a terrorist but the guy in Texas is labeled in terms of mental health. Why are we so quick to call one a terrorist and the other not? Because of religious divisions. It’s sad. They’re both acts of terrorism, in my sense.
POV: They are. Inciting fear through violence like that. It’s really mind-boggling.
MH: I think a film can open discussions. It can help take away that fear of others. It’s a start. Good on a community like Picton and Prince Edward County for bringing so many people from one family into their community. Right now there’s Abdel Malak and Sawsen with their eleven kids; there’s Anan and Nasser—and they’re bringing in three more families! That’s going to change the face of Prince Edward County.
In my hometown of Laval, there was no diversity. Today, fifty years later, everyone speaks French with their own accents. You can get sambousacs and kibbeh at every grocery store. It took fifty years, but will Picton change? This is the story of immigration in Canada. We’re a multigenerational story. I like what Carlyn says at the end of the film, “This is not a story that we can think about as ‘the year in sponsorship.’” There’s going to be kids down the line. That’s the real story.