Human Flow documentary, the Shoe Project put spotlight on migrants’ stories amid churning public discourse,
The woman next to me at a screening of Human Flow, a wrenching documentary by the Chinese contemporary artist and dissident Ai Weiwei, about the global plight of 65 million migrants and refugees currently on the move, gestured to her glass of wine.
“A friend told me I would need this,” she said. I soon knew what she meant.
Using both drone photography and close-ups, shot across one year in 23 countries, Ai Weiwei’s movie is awash in often startlingly beautiful images of desperate adults and children surviving harrowing water journeys or long marches, arriving with almost nothing, living in crowded refugee camps, bringing home the notion, as New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis put it, “that ours is an age of ceaseless churn with no calm in sight.”
“Ceaseless churn” also describes our current public discourse about immigrants and refugees, from the dispiriting nativist rhetoric in the U.S. and proposed travel bans to the Trudeau government’s recent declaration that it will open our doors even wider to new immigrants.
We have new statistics that show Toronto is now “majority visible minority”— such a mouthful. Can we find a more engaging way to say this?
We have recently debated Quebec’s Bill 62 that bans women in full face-coverings from riding a city bus. There’s already a court challenge to it.
All of these conversations feel freshly urgent about what is essentially a timeless and universal experience.
My American grandmother was an English-speaking immigrant. I still love to read an excerpt from her diary, when as a young woman in 1910, she crossed the ocean from Liverpool to New York with her mother and siblings.
They were miserably seasick, but my grandmother, Miriam, was exhilarated enough to write as they approached New York: “We had a perfect Yankee sunset tonight. The sky was one mass of red and gold and orange. It was glorious.”
Her long-ago words always move me. She was barely 19 and had no idea how her new life would unfold, with marriage to an educator, four children and a lifespan of 96 years.
I thought of her this week amidst the emotional riches of two cultural offerings — Human Flow; and the Shoe Project’s Where is Peace?, a deeply intimate performance at the Arts and Letters Club of stories by immigrant women, now in its fifth year.
The Shoe Project is one of the most delightful events in the city. “There is nothing like it,” said a friend sitting next to me, also holding a glass of wine.
The Shoe Project is the brainchild of Toronto novelist Katherine Govier, who in 2011, after being offered a small donation, decided to work with immigrant and refugee women to enhance their writ- ing skills, not to give them basic English but as she said in her opening remarks, to help them acquire “more depth, subtlety, breadth and the habit of sharing in English.”
“We can witness women fully come to fluency and live in their new language — being themselves, expressing themselves, show us who they are,” said Govier, who pointed out that immigrant women are still under-represented in English language classes.
The 12 women who told their stories were part of a group of “journalists, television broadcasters, psychologists, a puppeteer, nannies, nurses, cleaners, students, stay-at-home mothers, filmmakers, a musician, an artist, several engineers. And . . . some psychologists who are nannies, librarians who work at Home Depot and editors who are working in daycare — because that is the way it is for immigrants,” Govier said.
The main metaphor of each story is shoes. The Bata Shoe Museum offered space for workshops if the women would write about “the shoes that brought me to Canada.”
Who can resist shoes? Not I. This year, those shoe tales morphing in many directions were poignant, funny and fearlessly honest.
In “Ice Tracks,” Sheida Shahramian, a former university art professor in Iran who came to Canada in 2003, wrote about the very real problem of freezing rain, of immigrant friends who had no idea what that was, and who ended up falling on the slippery sidewalk, with horrific injuries, including for one, the loss of a pregnancy.
Why can’t ice tracks, those grippy things you strap to your shoes, be issued to newcomers by every immigration officer at Pearson airport, Shahramian whimsically asked.
In “To Abbu,” Samia Hossain, currently studying furniture design at OCAD, told the unbearably sad story of her father’s murder. He was a doctor in the Bangladesh army, and as a little girl, she used to proudly try on his combat boots. In 2009, he was shot to death by terrorists in a compound in the capital city of Dhaka.
His murder shattered their “fairy-tale family,” who always laughed around the dinner table. “When I was a child, these boots made me feel rebellious and strong. Now even when I hug my daughter, instead of feeling warmth, I imagine how I am going to lose everybody one day.”
In “Back-Up Slippers,” minority advocate Kiden Jonathan, from South Sudan, demanded “Where is Peace?” about her country, which she says has 64 ethnic groups and has been constantly at war. “The spirit of hopelessness runs deep.”
Jonathan nonetheless described a hopeful community dance in Ontario at which all different factions of the South Sudanese community were “singing each other’s songs.” That day, she told the audience, “I saw unity. I was filled with joy.”
The Shoe Project has held residencies in Toronto, Calgary and Canmore, and is going to Vancouver.
Both Human Flow and the Shoe Project helped me go deep into that “ceaseless churn” with images and stories I will never forget. Judith Timson writes weekly about cultural, social and political issues. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @judithtimson
Human Flow, a documentary by Ai Weiwei, uses drone photography and close-ups, shot across one year in 23 countries.