Hu­man Flow doc­u­men­tary, the Shoe Project put spot­light on mi­grants’ sto­ries amid churn­ing pub­lic dis­course,

Toronto Star - - MOVIES & LIFE - Ju­dith Tim­son

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 ju­dith.tim­son@sym­pa­ 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.

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