A trio of this year's contenders grapple with the trials of immigrants around the world, from rebuilding a home after tragedy to finding a new sense of belonging abroad.
There may be no place like home, but three of this year's short docs endeavor to redefine the idea of starting over.
When editing Out of Many, One, it was not lost on co-director John Hoffman that the students of the New York Historical Society's Citizenship Project were leaving one world behind to join another. "Changing cultures is such a significant decision because you're coming in and you're starting from scratch," he says.
We Became Fragments takes a look at finding one's footing again after a tragedy, as Ibraheem Sarhan moves to Canada with his father after the deaths of his mother and four siblings in the Syrian civil war. "Thinking about how Ibraheem's teachers continually ask him to describe his family is so painful for me, just how often these kids are re-traumatized even after they get to safety," says co-director Luisa Conlon.
When one of their own is killed, emergency medical unit Los Comandos de Salvamento must rebuild their sanctuary amidst terrifying police and gang violence in El Salvador. "When you think about how literally young people are under attack from both sides, this place becomes like a home away from home for them where they can laugh, bond and connect while they're running at the drop of a hat to save lives," says Los Comandos co-director Joshua Bennett.
Luisa Conlon, Hanna Miller and Lacy Roberts, three journalism grad school best friends turned directors of We Became Fragments, first discovered Ibraheem Sarhan's story in 2016 when they were in Jordan making a different doc about mental health access for Syrian refugees. After the death of his mother and four siblings in Syria, Ibraheem was living at a center in Jordan that aided children injured in the Syrian civil war, and was soon moving to Canada.
"We felt like we were seeing a lot of films that focus on migrants' journeys from their countries to their new host countries, but not a lot of follow-up on what happened once they got there," says Conlon. Fifteen-year-old Ibraheem narrates the story (which follows him as he moves to Winnipeg, Manitoba, with his father and attends a new school where 28 percent of the students are refugees) through his personal writings, which he shared with the directors before filming started. "He handed us seven pages just about his experience," says Conlon. "He told us that when he left Jordan, he wanted to write down all his memories so that he didn't forget them."
For the film's flashback footage, Ibraheem found videos on YouTube of himself injured and bloodied. "At our first meeting with him, he pulled out his phone and said, 'This is me after the accident. I want to become a war journalist. I want to be as brave as the people who took this video of me.'" The filmmakers (Conlon, 29, has several IMDb credits, but Miller, 27, and Roberts, 31, are first-timers) hope that Ibraheem's timely story might help dispel misrepresentations of Syrians in the media. "In America, there's this really hateful rhetoric about what immigrants want from us," says Conlon. "The truth is, these are people who didn't want to leave their country in the first place. They were forced to leave."
"When we started this process, we were in the time when President Trump was a nominee, saying comments like, 'There's a lot of bad hombres,'" recalls Joshua Bennett, 40, co-director of Los Comandos. He and Juliana Schatz-Preston, 33, originally developed the heroic story of 16-year-old Mimi and her work with an emergency medical unit (Los Comandos de Salvamento) in violence-ridden El Salvador as part of a larger documentary series called Humanity on the Move, which examines the issue of migration around the world.
"We wanted to flip migration on its head and really think about the push factors for why unaccompanied minors were coming to the United States," Schatz-Preston says. "What would it have to be like for a kid or anybody to leave it all behind?"
The key "push factor" is the very real danger in their community, not only from gang violence but from police brutality as well. One officer concedes on camera that sometimes law enforcement cannot distinguish if a teenager is a gang member or not. Says Schatz-Preston: "It's not only coming from the gangs who are forcefully recruiting and threatening, but it's also from the police who profile them."
Despite the neutral stance of Los Comandos, production was rocked when a comando was killed, a devastating first for the group. "That changed everything. This was an institution everybody respected and didn't touch," Bennett says. "It was unprecedented and showed the extent to which things were breaking down." The narrative follows Mimi as she questions whether she should start anew abroad.
The film couldn't be more timely, given Attorney General Jeff Sessions' June move to make it all but impossible for refugees to cite gang violence as an asylum claim (the ACLU has sued the Trump administration over this change). "Having been there and having seen what it's like there, I can't imagine a more valid reason for seeking asylum," Schatz-Preston says.
On Oct. 25, 2017, John Hoffman read an article in The New York Times highlighting the New-York Historical Society's Citizenship Project, a free educational program — started in response to President Donald Trump's proposed travel ban — to help green card holders pass their naturalization exams. The next day, Hoffman was in the museum's offices getting approval to make a documentary about the class, which teaches U.S. history and civics through art and artifacts.
"It immediately appealed to me as a way of seizing back the narrative about who wants to become an American," says Hoffman, 59. "Immigrants for the most part are not rapists, murderers or drug dealers. I'm the son of an immigrant. We are a country of immigrants. It's one of our most defining qualities, next to democracy."
But he was also informed that there was another party interested in the story — none other than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "She'd sent a handwritten note saying she'd read the article. She was going to be in New York on April 10 and wanted to conduct a naturalization ceremony. I just thought this was all too good to be true," Hoffman recalls.
The Supreme Court justice indeed conducted such a ceremony, for a group of about 201 people, which is featured during the climax of the Netflix doc. Hoffman and his 33-year-old co-director, Nanfu Wang, herself a Chinese immigrant, wanted to bring the film to Netflix specifically for the universality of its viewership. "That was crucial," he says. "This is a film that is rousing in its patriotism and should be seen."
Filming the class over four Saturday sessions, Hoffman sought to portray the parallels between the past and present immigrant experience. "They're learning about the dark aspects of our past, but it's clear that the respect they all have for the U.S. is unwavering," he says. "They are not discouraged from becoming American."
Many of the students are still waiting to take their exams. "It's this 'second wall,'" says Hoffman. "The length of time between application and being scheduled for your exam just keeps getting longer. It's another way in which things are getting tougher for people."
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.