Review: ‘New Homeland’

Young Syrian and Iraqi refugees experience the Canadian wilderness in Barbara Kopple’s poignant new doc

8 mins read

New Homeland
(USA, 93 min.)
Dir. Barbara Kopple

Check the Twitter feed for stories about migration and the USA, and the results are dire. Sensationalized and politicized accounts of a caravan rising up from Latin America to the USA border, for example, portray immigrants as a faceless tidal wave threatening the homeland. Ditto stories of refugees fleeing violence in the Middle East: to Trump and company, they’re all agents of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or the Taliban. These deeply troubling accounts miss the greater story that behind each person arriving to a new homeland is a tale of courage, survival, and resilience.

Thankfully, director Barbara Kopple didn’t receive the memo and is here to tell the deeper story. The two-time Oscar winner (Harlan County, USA American Dream) brings her camera to Canada for her latest documentary, New Homeland, produced in collaboration with social news publisher NowThis. Kopple presents the Canadian practice of sponsorship, which might seem both alien and inspiring to Americans, in which Canadian citizens put up their own money ($20,000ish) to help settle families of refugees to the country, and then provide guidance and support as they adapt to their new home.

New Homeland follows the young boys of three families—two from Syria and one from Iraq—as they discover their country through the quintessentially Canadian pastime of camping. The doc heads up to Camp Pathfinder in Algonquin Park as five boys—brothers Hameed and Omer Majeed from Baghdad, Iraq; brothers Mohammad and Kasem Zin from Amuda, Syria; and Mohammad Darewish from Aleppo, Syria—experience the Canadian wilderness for the first time. Camp Pathfinder offers a welcoming space for the boys to meet friends, experience their new environment, and gain confidence in this unfamiliar place. Kopple lets the families tell their stories of the conflicts they escaped: Hameed and Omer, for example, have been missing their father for years, while the other parents speak of witnessing brutal violence. The film looks to the future, rather than to the past, as the upbeat portrait gives the boys the fresh start they deserve.

Pathfinder, while independent of the sponsorship program, essentially serves as an extension of its philosophy by providing open arms to refugees. The film chronicles the boys’ immersion in the camp life as they learn the basics of summer fun, like canoeing, and each activity provides a joy that the other campers take for granted—that of recreational pleasure—while the boys get a long overdue retreat. The centrepiece of the film is a portage trip in which the boys traverse the lakes and wilderness, alone in the open surrounded by new sights, sounds, and smells without the comfort of their parents. The effects of the experience are remarkable as the young campers eagerly assume the responsibilities of setting up camp and chopping veggies, contributing to the maintenance of the camp while relishing the fun of building, gathering, providing, and playing. In most cases, the boys display new confidence as they meet friends and master new tasks on the water.

The leaders at Camp Pathfinder provide strong role models and guides for all the campers as they ask questions about the experiences of the refugees to help the other campers better understand them. Omer, for example, has notable behavioural issues. He is aggressive and provocative, often seeking confrontations when no conflicts exist. (A fellow camper even admits to sleeping with a knife because he doesn’t feel safe around Omer.) However, the camp leaders take the time to learn about what life was like for Omer back in Baghdad, where boys often stayed together in groups for security reasons, rather than social ones. His edginess in this peaceful environment is a stark reminder of traumatic experiences that people may escape in coming to Canada. At the same time, the benefits of the Pathfinder experience are at risk of being lost on Hameed, who is protective of his younger brother and becomes anxious when they are separated, further emphasizing the strong bonds between the boys as well as the lingering effects of living in constant survival mode.

Camp Pathfinder extends the conversation beyond the refugees. The camp counsellors ask the other boys, a mix of Canadians and Americans, what they think of their new friends from Iraq and Syria. The campers generally agree that they really get along well with most of the boys except for Omer. Their leaders follow up and get the campers to speculate about why Omer might act the way he does and what significance the new environment might have for him. This thoughtful conversation inspires the campers to reflect upon the different roads that bring people to Camp Pathfinder and to understand that there is a lot more to people than we know upon first impression.

By using the stories of these five young boys and their families, New Homeland offers a fair and positive study of just a handful of new Canadians among many. The film encourages viewers to ask the questions that the counsellors at Camp Pathfinder present to the young campers. It sees refugees as people, rather than as faceless statistics or tools for political agendas.

New Homeland offers a fine companion to Michèle Hozer’s recent doc Sponsorland, which explored the stories of Syrian refugees settling in Prince Edward County’s wine country. Both docs get out of the city and look at the journeys ahead for these families, not only at the problems that brought them to Canada. New Homeland is a poignant story of new beginnings and of the challenges of creating a home after being displaced by violence. It’s also a tale of open-mindedness, empathy, and understanding as Kopple’s camera finds an exchange between a diverse group of Canadians. Kopple’s doc offers an impassioned tale for Americans old and new to remember that the USA is a nation founded upon immigration. There’s a lesson to be learned by Canada’s choice to put out a welcome mat instead of putting up a wall.

New Homeland premiered at DOC NYC on November 13 and screens at IDFA next week.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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