Documentary Film Series Inspires Conversations about Migrations: An Interview with Prof. Nicholas Sawicki

Since 2016, The Mellon Digital Humanities Initiative at Lehigh University has offered an annual free film series at the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas that brings community members together to discuss innovative and timely cinematic works. This year’s spring series focuses on the theme of migration and gives attendees the opportunity to engage with important issues like immigration and refugees fleeing violence in Syria. Because of the widespread news coverage and political commentary about migrations over the past year, the organizers designed this film series in response to a public desire to address this topic with greater depth. Their belief that the theme of migrations would be of import to many residents of the Lehigh Valley was confirmed at the screening of After Spring, a film about Syrian refugees, when residents filled every seat in the house.

The visionaries behind the development of the migrations film series are ArtsQuest Programming Director Ryan Hill, Associate Professors Nicholas Sawicki (Art, Architecture, and Design) and Michael Kramp (English), and Lehigh’s leader of the Digital Scholarship team Julia Maserjian.

To reflect on the series as a whole, Southsider editor and Prof. Mary Foltz met with Prof. Sawicki to discuss the organizing team’s vision for the series. In the following interview, Prof. Sawicki discusses the compelling rationale for the series as well as the ways that organizers worked with regional leaders to reflect upon how local communities might respond to challenges facing migrants.

MF: Why did you choose the theme of migration for this year’s film series?  Why is this an important topic to focus on this year or within our local communities?

NS: It was a subject that we had thought about addressing in the early brainstorming sessions for our first film series last spring, and its increasing topicality over the course of the last year made it clear to us that this was where we wanted to go for this year’s series.  Since our ongoing film series is organized under the broader rubric of “communities” and is intended to highlight films that could be meaningful and relevant to local community members here in Bethlehem, we also understood that the themes of migration, exile, and displacement are acutely and intimately woven into the lives of our local community.  Bethlehem is at its core a city of immigrants, and to take just one timely example, the Lehigh Valley, which for some time has had a vibrant Syrian diaspora community, has become one of the places where Syrian refugees displaced by conflict at home settle.  To add to all of this, these same themes have started to feature with increasing prominence in a number of recent documentary films.  This includes After Spring, which we are showing as part of the series; Salam Neighbor, which was shown at Lehigh last semester through the efforts of Katie Morris, an undergraduate here who is president of the club No Lost Generation; and Fire at Sea, an Italian documentary that we were considering showing.

MF: How do you understand the import of documentary as a genre in addressing important issues like migration?

NS: In the broadest sense, both documentaries and narrative cinema, along with other film genres, are in the business of storytelling.  Each genre does this in its own manner and with its own conventions. At the same time, there are places where these genres overlap or parallel one another.  We know, for example, that documentary film, despite its claim to “document,” is still shaped and molded by its authors, and we recognize that the stories it presents are no less mediated than those in fictional films.  That said, there is still something extraordinarily powerful about seeing and hearing first-person accounts from real, living individuals who are communicating with the camera. That is the kind of access that documentary film provides for the viewer; it also provides some level of agency for the documented subject, often deeply complicated and encumbered, but there nonetheless.  This seems particularly relevant when one is thinking about populations that by definition lack that kind of agency, such as exiles, migrants, and displaced individuals, who have limited means and opportunity for sharing their stories, particularly with a broader public.

MF: How have you curated films to address topics of interest to residents of the Lehigh Valley?

NS: After Spring deals with the displacement and migration of Syrian refugees, and this is a population that is now beginning to settle in the Lehigh Valley, and there are important questions here locally regarding how it has been for them integrate and transition to living in the region, particular with respect to already existing Syrian diaspora communities.  The Other Side of Immigration, which we showed as part of this year’s series, is a film that deals with the lives of Mexican migrants to the United States, and although a somewhat less recent film, the topic is extraordinarily timely given recent presidential politics.  Like so many other cities in eastern Pennsylvania, Bethlehem and other towns in the Lehigh Valley have significant numbers of Mexican residents.

MF: How can we expect panelists to facilitate and to foster conversations? How do you hope conversations following the presentation of the films will support community reflection on migrations?

Michael Kramp, co-Director of Community Film Series
Michael Kramp, professor of English at Lehigh University and organizer of the Migrations Series

NS: Last year, when we held the first film series, the conversations were really what set this project apart from a conventional film series.  Michael Kramp had this idea, building on experience he had from organizing similar events in the past.  After each film was shown, 3-4 speakers representing various constituencies and community organizations relevant to the film’s theme were on stage to engage in a conversation with one another and the audience about the film and the issues it brings up.  We are going to follow that model again this year, and what is important about it is that it creates a space and venue for unscripted conversation and dialogue among community members about deeply significant issues that most people don’t get a chance to talk about within a larger group of people. They might have that conversation around the dinner table with close family members or friends, but the context here is different: the conversation is taking place within the community, and there is something very powerful about this.  It helps people and the issues to transcend isolation, and it brings things that aren’t always talked about in public out into the open.  I would add to this that one theme that runs through the selection of film programming both last year and this year is the whole idea of “invisibility” or inadequate visibility. While we know that much of what is addressed in our selection of films plays out on a daily basis in our own community, it doesn’t have the level of visibility or attention that it demands.  Rural poverty, the crisis of our veteran populations, and migration and displacement are all things that remain, in some sense, present but hidden, often forcibly shunted out of discourse and media narratives or simply overlooked because of the perceived burden of confronting them.  By talking about them in a community setting, we’re at least giving these important issues some air, some breathing room.

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