Calgary sisters who came to Canada as refugees behind NFB’s 19 Days
There is a touching scene near the end of Roda and Asha Siad’s new National Film Board documentary, 19 Days.
It involves a cheerful family who had recently arrived from Burundi and having their first experience with snow. They are among the refugees staying at the Calgary’s Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre when the Siad sisters shot the documentary. The father, Fabien, steps carefully on the snow-covered steps, checking out his footprints as he goes. He warns his excitable son, who is rolling a tire through the winter wonderland, not to venture too far. His teen son throws a giant snowball and remarks about how light it is.
“Is it salt or sugar?” Fabien jokes, shaking snow off of an evergreen. “It’s sugar for sure.”
All in all, it’s about as perfect a scene as any to sum up the wonder of a new immigrant’s early immersion into Canadian life. While the filmmakers keep an observational distance throughout the 27-minute film, this scene had a special resonance for the Siad sisters, who arrived as small children in Calgary as refugees during the early 1990s from Somalia.
“Somalia is a country that has no snow,” says Roda Siad, who will join her sister and representatives from Margaret Chisholm Resettlement Centre for a panel discussion after a screening of the film Monday at the Calgary Public Library. “So even though I was quite young, we still heard stories growing up about the first time our family came to Canada and there was that first experience with snow and seeing snow. So when I was there at the house and saw that family and how they were interacting with the snow, it reminded me of the stories that my aunts and my dad were telling us.”
Still, despite those memories and how closely the experiences of their subjects might reflect their own, Siad said she and her sister took pains not to insert themselves into the documentary.
The film, which is named after the first 19 days the refugees from Sudan, Burundi and Syria spend at the resettlement centre in Bridgeland, unfolds in a pure, cinema-verite style, with no talking heads, narration or even music .
“We really didn’t want to tell these families’ stories, we wanted to show their stories and their lives as we saw them unfolding at that moment, ” said Siad. “That’s why the observational approach made most sense to us. We have these narratives about refugees, and often it’s a single narrative: That they all are fleeing their countries and all experiencing the same thing. That’s just not true.”
But despite this fly-on-the-wall approach, some powerful images emerge. Shot by Patrick McLaughlin, an award-winning Calgary cinematographer known for his work with director Gary Burns, some scenes seem bursting with deeper meaning, or at least accidental symbolism. In one, a young Burundian girl, dressed in a new pink dress, carefully constructs a wall of plastic bricks at the settlement centre. In another, the camera captures an image of children’s shadows on the wall as a Sudanese man talks on the phone about his desperation to find what happened to his extended family back home.
Listening in on the early interviews with workers at the resettlement centre, viewers witness the desperation and struggles of those who end up in Canada. In one scene, a man casually answers ‘yes’ when asked if he was tortured in Syria. A Sudanese man asks how long it will be before he can start sending money to his extended family back home. Another Syrian man says he came to Canada solely to get surgery for his young son and will return home if he can’t.
He is asked to have patience.
“These families want to make an effort to integrate, they really want to settle in this new country and become part of society,” says Siad. “But their lives are in pieces. They’ve lost half their family back home and they are concerned about their safety now. These issues that refugees face are more complex than we sometimes think of them as.”
Roda was five and Asha was two when their family arrived in Calgary after being sponsored by an uncle. Asha has worked as journalist, reporting for CBC among other outlets, while Roda’s work has primarily been in working in community development. The sisters began Borderless Films to make films that promote social change. Living at the Border, a multimedia project about African refugees and migrants living in Italy, won them an Amnesty International Canada Media Award for Best Online Journalism in 2014.
“We’ve always gravitated toward these stories because of our own personal upbringing,” Roda said. “We came quite young but all of our experiences with these integration barriers and struggles were through our parents. We saw them struggle with things like language and we saw how long it took for them to really feel they were a part of Canadian society. All of that informs the people who we are today on a personal level but also the projects we work on.”