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Far from Home, Young Migrants Learn to Find Their Place in the World with the Help Of a Trusted Teacher
Meet the students in Christian Zingg’s integration class, who arrived in Switzerland via planes, trains and automobiles — even rubber boats. Separated from families and many traumatized by what happened in their home countries, these young émigrés from Afghanistan, Cameroon, Serbia and Venezuela already have long and arduous journeys behind them.
As part of an effort to preserve its national identity, Switzerland — a country with four official languages and a large number of foreign residents — established a policy of integrating asylum seekers into the country by teaching shared values and tolerance. Those receiving government support are required to take language courses and enroll in job training and professional development. While the country encourages foreigners to find their places, Switzerland also wants these new residents to fit into the existing culture and to succeed as good citizens and workers. That’s where an extraordinary teacher, Mr. Zingg, comes in.
Anna Thommen’s Neuland (“New Territory”) has its national broadcast premiere on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015 at 10 p.m. (check local listings) during the 28th season of the PBS series POV (Point of View). POV is American television’s longest-running independent documentary series and the recipient of a 2013 MacArthur Foundation Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.
Neuland follows Mr. Zingg’s adolescent charges as they struggle to learn a new language, prepare for employment and reveal their innermost hopes and dreams. But as the end of school draws near, each student must face the same difficult question: Is there a place for me in this country?
Basel, 2010. On the first day of his integration class, Mr. Zingg introduces himself to a disparate group of young people who have made their way to Switzerland from around the world. He has two years to help these fledglings learn to survive and forge new lives. Part teacher, part life coach, part surrogate father, he gets to know each one, building trust within the group and with each student, and helping them navigate bureaucratic hurdles, family troubles and the difficulties of being a stranger in a strange land.
They’re all escaping something — war, family problems, poverty. There is Ehsanullah Habibi, who has finally made it from Afghanistan to Switzerland after traveling for a year on borrowed money — a staggering $20,000. His anxious family waits back home for him to send the loan payments — or the lender will take their property. He calls his parents regularly on a pay phone. “It doesn’t look good in Afghanistan,” his father says. “Make a life for yourself.” “Pray for me,” Ehsanullah asks his dad.
Suffering from anxiety and homesickness, Ehsanullah begins to harm himself, and makes no attempt to hide the bandages on his arms. “We know how helpless we are with this,” a teacher tells Mr. Zingg, “but if that’s a message, a cry for help, then we must speak to him.”
Brother and sister Ismail and Nazlije Aliji left their home country of Serbia after their mother died. Smart, eager and dedicated, Nazlije longs to be a primary school teacher, but she realizes her dream may be out of reach when she hears how many years of education that would require. “You’re talented; you can do it,” her friends at home tell her on Skype in a poignant moment. Mr. Zingg is more realistic when he meets with Nazlije and her uncle. “At the moment, that’s not the path for you,” he gently explains.
Ehsanullah wants to be a house painter, but is stunned to learn he must first pass a test in mathematics. “Take a deep breath,” Mr. Zingg smiles. “I’m 100 percent sure you can do that. . . . But in Switzerland every job has a theoretical, or school part. And that’s the part which will not be easy for you.”
In preparation for “Taster Week,” when students seek apprenticeships, they practice applying for jobs by role-playing with Mr. Zingg. After multiple rejections from potential employers, Nazlije is finally accepted for a trial position as an aide at a geriatric residence; Ismail is hired in construction; and Ehsanullah lands a job in a food processing plant. But Ehsanullah’s biggest concern remains paying off the loan, the balance of which is due in less than six months. When Taster Week is over, he quits school and takes a job in a restaurant. Three weeks later, he’s back, but Mr. Zingg will only accept him if he signs a pledge that he will attend 100 percent of the remaining school days and work only on the weekends.
In June, the students graduate, and with a bittersweet mixture of hugs and tears they express their gratitude to Mr. Zingg. He asks them all to come back and visit, expressing confidence that they are now on solid footing.
“I got to know Mr. Zingg three years ago during a media-education film project with his class,” said filmmaker Anna Thommen. “I was impressed by the trust the pupils placed in their teacher. When Mr. Zingg told me some of the unbelievable stories about the fates of his pupils, I knew I wanted to make a film about this. We decided to accompany him and his next class over the two years from the beginning through the end of their schooling.
“When we started filming, I was initially just curious about all of the young people who gathered in the schoolyard during breaks and the stories they had to tell. In retrospect, I admit that I had my ideas and prejudices about the various nationalities of the young people. But the longer the filming lasted, the less I was able to think in stereotypes and the more complex the individual stories and destinies became. What followed was the admission of my prejudices, and I started to see just the people, with all their contradictions and far from their homes. I genuinely hope that it will touch the viewers and sensitize them to the fates of these young migrants and others like them who are stranded on our shores every day.”
About the Filmmaker:
Anna Thommen, Writer/Director
Anna Thommen was born in Basel, Switzerland, in 1980. After working for two years as a primary school teacher, she decided to study film at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts in 2005. Her graduation film, Second Me, won numerous awards and was shown at more than 20 festivals around the world. Thommen received her master’s degree in film directing in 2013 from the Zurich University of the Arts. Neuland was her graduation film, and it has won a dozen international film prizes, including Best German Language Documentary at the 2013 Zurich Film Festival and the First Steps Award at the 2013 Berlinale and continues to be shown around the world.
Writer/Director: Anna Thommen
Director of Photography: Gabriela Betschart
Second Camera: Severin Kuhn, Anna Thommen, Milan Büttner, Luc Gross
Sound: David Rehorek
Second Sound: Manaledi La Roche, Luc Gross
Editors: Andreas Arnheiter, Anna Thommen
Running Time: 86:46
POV Series Credits:
Executive Producers: Chris White, Simon Kilmurry
Associate Producer: Nicole Tsien
Coordinating Producer: Nikki Heyman
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Produced by American Documentary, Inc., POV is public television’s premier showcase for nonfiction films. The series airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on PBS from June to September, with primetime specials during the year. Since 1988, POV has been the home for the world’s boldest contemporary filmmakers, celebrating intriguing personal stories that spark conversation and inspire action. Always an innovator, POV discovers fresh new voices and creates interactive experiences that shine a light on social issues and elevate the art of storytelling. With our documentary broadcasts, original online programming and dynamic community engagement campaigns, we are committed to supporting films that capture the imagination and present diverse perspectives.
POV films have won 32 Emmy® Awards, 18 George Foster Peabody Awards, 12 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, three Academy Awards®, the first-ever George Polk Documentary Film Award and the Prix Italia. The POV series has been honored with a Special News & Documentary Emmy Award for Excellence in Television Documentary Filmmaking, two IDA Awards for Best Continuing Series and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) Award for Corporate Commitment to Diversity. More information is available at www.pbs.org/pov.
POV Community Engagement and Education (www.pbs.org/pov/engage)
POV’s Community Engagement and Education team works with educators, community organizations and PBS stations to present more than 650 free screenings every year. In addition, we distribute free discussion guides and standards-aligned lesson plans for each of our films. With our community partners, we inspire dialogue around the most important social issues of our time.
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Since 1994, POV Digital has driven new storytelling initiatives and interactive production for POV. The department created PBS’s first program website and its first web-based documentary (POV’s Borders) and has won major awards, including a Webby Award (and six nominations) and an Online News Association Award. POV Digital continues to explore the future of independent nonfiction media through its digital productions and the POV Hackathon lab, where media makers and technologists collaborate to reinvent storytelling forms. @povdocs on Twitter.
American Documentary, Inc. (www.amdoc.org/)
American Documentary, Inc. (AmDoc) is a multimedia company dedicated to creating, identifying and presenting contemporary stories that express opinions and perspectives rarely featured in mainstream media outlets. AmDoc is a catalyst for public culture, developing collaborative strategic engagement activities around socially relevant content on television, online and in community settings. These activities are designed to trigger action, from dialogue and feedback to educational opportunities and community participation.
Major funding for POV is provided by PBS, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Bertha Foundation, Wyncote Foundation, The Educational Foundation of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, Ann Tenenbaum and Thomas H. Lee, and public television viewers. POV is presented by a consortium of public television stations, including KQED San Francisco, WGBH Boston and THIRTEEN in association with WNET.ORG.