Steve James (executive producer), Gordon Quinn (executive producer) and Gita Saedi (series producer) of Kartemquin Films discuss the making of The New Americans and the unique challenges they faced in attempting such an ambitious project.
Q: How were the subjects chosen for The New Americans?
A: Gita Saedi (series producer): Once we had initial funding in place (from the MacArthur Foundation, with CPB and PBS following soon after), we began talking to documentary filmmakers across the country with somewhat similar styles to that of Kartemquin and an interest and background in the subject of immigration. Two directing teams are immigrants themselves, and all have made films dealing with the immigrant experience in the past.
We brought the filmmaking team and a group of advisors that included immigrant advocacy workers, scholars and immigrants, together to spend two days meeting in Chicago to decide on which stories we should try to cover. At this meeting, we narrowed our scope to what became the Indian, Nigerian, Dominican, Palestinian and eventually the Mexican stories. This combination seemed a good cross-section of stories that mirror the current migration trends to the U.S.
Finding each of our subjects was rather serendipitous-more or less through contacts and cold calls. Through meeting after meeting with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees we found the Ogonis being resettled in Chicago . Through the L.A. Dodgers we found the Dominican baseball players; and the Palestinian story by getting the word out in the Palestinian community in Chicago . Director Indu Krishnan traveled back to her home state in India to find our Indian subject; and director Renee Tajima-Peña brought us the Floreses, a Mexican family she was following for an existing project on labor for Asian Women United.
Q: It must have been difficult to narrow it down to just five stories.
A: Steve James (executive producer): The immigrant experience is so rich and varied, we could have told 12 different stories and still not captured it in any comprehensive way. We decided in our meeting that we would try and find stories that reflected, as best we could, the racial, geographic and economic diversity of the present immigrant population. We also wanted to find subjects with a range of reasons for coming to America -to flee persecution, to follow a dream, to reunite a family-so that we cast the net as widely as we could around the contemporary American immigrant experience.
And an important aspect of the series was that we find subjects with whom we could start filming before they became immigrants. We did not want to pick up their stories here and look back on their homeland, but rather start there before they made this often tumultuous and life-changing journey.
Q: What was it like, becoming so intimately involved with your subjects for so long a time?
A: Gita Saedi: For a project as long and intimate as this one, a project that allows you to document chapter after chapter in an individual's or a family's life-through births and deaths, graduations and failures-the filmmaking journey likewise goes through many chapters regarding a filmmaker's relationship with the subject. The story I was intimately involved in was the Nigerian story. Personally, I feel extremely fortunate to have been allowed access into the lives of these families. That they trusted us and worked with us through the years is a testament to their own endurance and faith-as people, as a culture, and as refugees in a new land.
Q: What were some of the things you discovered during shooting that surprised you?
A: Gordon Quinn (executive producer): The strong sense of loss and pain that is a part of leaving the place and culture that you know.
Gita Saedi: I agree. The deep histories of every immigrant and refugee, and the pain and complex decision of leaving your homeland. Also, the endless ties to the homeland that, even after many years, will always be with them.
The most common picture painted of the immigrant experience is one of an immigrant or refugee already in a new country, a fish out of water. One of the most powerful aspects of our film is that we really get a sense of who these individuals and families are in their homeland-the relationships they are leaving, the culture and community they know and are a part of. Only after understanding their experiences in their own country, can you begin to understand what they go through as they enter the daunting and complicated role of being an immigrant in the U.S.
Steve James: I was also profoundly moved by the sense of isolation our subjects felt so acutely here. In all our stories, our subjects came from cultures with strong senses of family, culture and religious belief. Once they arrived here, they often felt adrift in a society that-by comparison-seems cold, secular and alienating. It is one of the ways that the series can help American viewers look anew at their own society through our subjects' eyes.
I was also surprised by just how difficult the contemporary immigrant experience remains. We tend to think that the past barriers of racism, insensitivity and xenophobia have been struck down. Our series shows that is not the case.
Q: What do you hope that viewers will take away from the series?
A: Gordon Quinn: I hope they see that today's immigrants are part of this country and part of its future-that their hopes and dreams for their families are like those of families who may have immigrated generations ago. We wanted to put a human face on immigration. In a world in which much attention is paid to the globalization of goods and services, we want viewers to see the human face of globalization.
Gita Saedi: We hope viewers will take from the series a better sense of what it means to be an immigrant in today's world. By telling such disparate stories, a viewer would have a hard time stereotyping the immigrant community at large. We want to humanize the experience to viewers-to see that the hopes, dreams and obstacles that the immigrants in The New Americans face are deeply connected to their own human experience.
Steve James: I think we also wanted to make a series that immigrants here would watch and connect to, a series that tells their stories both intimately and epicly at the same time. By interweaving such a rich variety of immigrant stories, we hope the series will help American viewers understand just what a complicated experience being an immigrant continues to be-that "melting pot" is both true and not true.
We live in a country in which we have long had a love-hate relationship with immigrants. They are viewed with pride, as melting-pot success stories, and feared as people who are so different from us that they will undermine our society. The contemporary immigrants' hopes and dreams are not just like those of immigrants generations ago. As Gordon says, they are basically the same as for Americans today. Yet, as this series shows, immigrants still face the added burden of racism, barriers of language and culture and loneliness.
Read the transcript for the washingtonpost.com chat with series producer
Gita Saedi >
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