Khansaa and her family fled the Syrian war in search of a better life in the United States. As refugees living in Oakland, California, they adapt to an unfamiliar culture with the help of a young American mother. Crossing Borders looks at the migrant story through motherhood and friendship that crosses language and cultural barriers.
Hi Zulfiya thank you for talking to TNC, how are you holding up during these very strange times?
I think I’m holding up alright. It’s unbelievable how the year has just passed with the whole world at a standstill. This time has only helped me hold close what means most in life – family, love and friendship. I’m grateful that my loved ones are healthy and well.
Has this time offered you any new creative inspiration?
Yes! This time has given me the gift of accessing the virtual world that is full of new found inspiration and hope for storytellers. I am finding more opportunities to be plugged into the rest of the world as film festivals, screenings, workshops, panels and discussions have gone online, making it easier to participate internationally. I have watched so many incredible films and continue to use this time to stay inspired and appreciative of the work of artists.
You gained your MFA in Documentary Film and Video Production from Stanford University, how much did your time at Stanford help prepare you for your filmmaking journey?
My experience at Stanford really helped shape me as a documentary filmmaker. Before I had joined the program, I had some experience in India, but it was mostly self-taught and I wanted to expand the scope of my work, learn better storytelling and develop both my technical and aesthetic sensibilities. Stanford gave me all this and more. A beautiful cohort with whom I could learn from and build work together, and professors who helped me find the right balance in making choices as an artist. For me, working on projects in a whole new country (it was my first time in the USA from India) pushed me to the best of my creative abilities and helped me build resilience in tough situations, which I think is so important when you are a filmmaker. I came out of Stanford a lot more confident, with a body of work I am proud of, and feel so much more emotionally equipped to continue my journey as a filmmaker.
Your festival run with Crossing Borders has already been incredible, what do you think it is about your film that has connected with audiences so much?
Thank you! With Crossing Borders, I wanted to tell the larger story of refugee resettlement in the United States and the challenges that come with it, through the more simple, everyday moments that matter. Through the themes of motherhood and friendship, just how two women bond despite coming from completely different cultural backgrounds was fascinating to capture. In the end, it’s simply about human connection. Language no longer becomes a barrier when communication is just about showing compassion. And I think that is what is resonating with the audiences.
Crossing Borders will next be seen at the Barcelona Short Film Festival, what does it mean to you to be part of such an amazing lineup of short films?
I am truly honoured to have my film featured among such an incredible lineup of short films! It means a lot to be recognized among such amazing talent and I’m so excited that it will be screening in Spain! I think the festival has done a great job programming this year’s lineup.
"The very nature of documentaries is quite unpredictable, so I find it easier to work when I have an open mind and take it as it comes. "
Can you tell me a little bit about Crossing Borders, what was the inspiration behind your documentary?
I was stunned when Trump passed the Muslim ban in the United States, and living in California at the time, I wanted to understand the atmosphere around it, looking for stories that broke institutional barriers. Being a migrant myself, I was particularly interested in learning how refugees adjusted to a new culture once they moved from their home countries. What was their everyday life like? How did they cope with the cultural and language differences? I was looking for something that also exuded a certain positivity and hope. When I met the young American mother in my film, who told me she voluntarily helped refugee families, I was fascinated to learn more about this relationship. That’s how I met the Syrian family who is featured in the film, and from there on, their story guided my making of Crossing Borders.
What were the biggest challenges you faced making Crossing Borders?
One of the biggest challenges for me as a filmmaker was not knowing Arabic well enough to chat with the Syrian family. I too had to adopt ways to communicate when I had to plan shoots with them, so I would always make it a point to visit them in person so I could use my phone to translate what I was trying to say, and they would do the same to talk to me, other than us using exaggerated body language. It was hilarious at times, but we managed to get our points across. It was interesting to me to be a part of that challenge and I took it head on because that itself was a key element of my film – surpassing the boundaries of language to communicate. Sometimes things got lost in translation, which added to a certain humour, but the essence of connecting was still strong as it drove more on emotion.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently on this film?
I don’t think so. I did the best I could, the film went through many stages of feedback and cuts, and I was really able to finesse the final result keeping the story at the centre.
When working on a documentary film how flexible are you with how the film/story evolves?
I am pretty flexible. The very nature of documentaries is quite unpredictable, so I find it easier to work when I have an open mind and take it as it comes. I usually have a fair idea of what I can expect from a certain scene, but when the documentary style is more observational and you are in someone’s house filming their life, the story can always evolve differently from what you may have imagined. It’s real life, a lot of it may not be in your complete control. It’s good to be prepared with your best bet, but sometimes you just need to let the story guide you. I learnt this quite early on in my career, when I travelled far to film the story of a woman bodybuilder in India, I thought I knew exactly what to expect and what the responses to my questions would be. But it turned out the opposite and I realized how making documentaries challenge my own preconceived notions and being flexible to accept change is as important as having a clear vision of your film.
Where did this passion for documentary filmmaking come from?
I had a very early interest in the humanities while I was in college, and I studied subjects like psychology and sociology which piqued my interest in the human condition. I wanted to learn about it in my own way though, using a tool that could help me make sense of society. When I got introduced to the camera at university, I started with photography. I would take my camera everywhere with me – holidays, voluntary work, anything that gave me an opportunity to capture a slice of the world. This interest soon transferred into the video camera, and when I understood its possibilities, I got hooked. It was the perfect blend of all my interests – wanting to learn about the world through storytelling, and using the camera to navigate complex socio-cultural situations that became documentary filmmaking.
What would you say was the most valuable lesson you've taken from making Crossing Borders?
Being patient. I am generally a patient person, but in making Crossing Borders, as it was a longer production than my previous films which were shorter, I had to learn to wait for the story to unfold over a period of time. I also learnt that it’s okay not to always have all the answers.
"It’s okay to be vulnerable and it’s important to bring yourself and your experiences with you when crafting a story."
Should filmmakers continue to push the boundaries of the films and stories they want to tell?
Oh yes, absolutely. From my own experience, if I hadn’t put myself in places I felt uncomfortable, I wouldn’t have been able to make the films I did. Filmmaking is hard, and it can be emotionally taxing, but it also comes with a deep sense of satisfaction. So without pushing yourself a little harder the next time, you won’t know your best work yet.
Do you have any tips or advice you would offer someone thinking about entering into documentary filmmaking?
Come with an open heart and an open mind, the rest will fall in place. It’s okay to be vulnerable and it’s important to bring yourself and your experiences with you when crafting a story.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Crossing Borders?
I hope viewers will reflect on how borders are insignificant ways to divide people, that humanity prevails over differences. I hope this story sparks conversations about how it is the small things in intimate spaces that matter when immigrants adapt to a new life, like the everyday moments of motherhood. How sharing, understanding and openness are important to accepting cultural diversity. I'd like my film to be an example of an uplifting story about the often sombre topic of “refugee" or “war”, and be left with a feeling that there is beauty on the bright side.