Michèle Hozer is an Emmy-nominated and Gemini-winning Canadian documentary filmmaker, known for films including Sugar Coated, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, and Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire. Her newest documentary, SponsorLand, follows the relationship between a Syrian refugee family and their sponsor group in Picton, Ontario. The film explores themes of belonging, diversity, and community.
The Varsity spoke to Hozer before the film’s premiere on November 8 to discuss the importance of gaining the family’s trust and authentically documenting their collective and individual stories while maintaining respect for their privacy.
The Varsity (TV): What inspired you to create this documentary?
Michèle Hozer (MH): In 2015, at this time exactly, TVO threw a national callout to filmmakers across the country, looking for films for Canada’s 150th birthday. They were looking for films that explore the theme of Canadians having one foot in one culture and one foot in the other. And I totally responded to that.
At the time of the TVO call, the Syrian refugee crisis was in full force. Canadians were responding. We were bringing in 25,000 refugees. I thought [it was] great to sort of see how refugees deal with coming into Canada.
I wanted to move away from the 30-second, feel-good news items and TV items. What really goes on? What happens to the refugees? They are very grateful for being in Canada, but they really miss their home country. Is there a line between care and control when it comes to sponsors, even the well-intentioned?
That’s the basis of the documentary. How much, as refugees, do they have to sort of give up in order to fit in? I was trying to stay [out] of the politics of the war, and I wanted to go beyond ‘they left hell and came to heaven and we lived happily ever.’ No. There are issues. Do we have, as Canadians, ingrained biases in terms of refugees and in terms of ‘we’re the best country in the world?’
We don’t use [the family’s] last name because they asked us not to use it — they fear retribution back in Syria. In fact, we geo-blocked the film, and our Facebook page and everything else, so it doesn’t appear in either Syria, Lebanon, or Turkey. That’s why we don’t use their last name. But I thought, ‘What a great story.’
Picton, like my hometown of Laval, is kind of immune from diversity. Multiculturalism hasn’t come to Picton. We thought that was a great story to follow, but in order to do it properly, I had to be embedded in the community. My husband and my dog, we were there from January to July. I set up my edit room there. I needed to get the trust of the community. I needed to get the trust of the family.
TV: While you were filming the documentary, what were some of the setbacks or obstacles you had to overcome to depict the right kind of story and tone?
MH: I couldn’t really bring my team in all the time. It was very invasive. So I got my DOP [director of photography], John Tran, one of the best in the country. I got a camera from him, got a mic, got Camera 101 course. I got two sessions from him — school of filmmaking. I started filming myself with my supervising producer.
It was much easier to do it that way, much less intrusive. We had spent many hours around [family members] Abdel Malek and Sawsen’s kitchen. That way we were able to take out the camera when the time was right. It was always in my car, always in a bag in the corner of my house. At one point, we gained so much of their trust that Sawsen, one of the evenings, said, “Michèle, take out your camera.”
The other challenge, too, is that I had to wait to see who wanted to share their story, and that took time. Sawsen was interested, [sons] Slieman and Ramez were interested. They were really interested in speaking English with me. Some of the interviews were in English. But to really get the nuance of what they were feeling, and the struggles that they had, we had to do the interviews in Arabic. I had two really good, trusted counsellors and translators with me, Rasha Elendari, who’s a PhD in Toronto at U of T. She runs the NMC-CESI Language and Cultural Exchange group — it’s very big in the Syrian community. She helped with those interviews, especially with Slieman, who really gets a lot in that interview.
I think Slieman is really an interesting guy because he’s really quite charming and tons of fun, but he carries a lot from the war. And to show that duality was really, really important. It took a long time to get him to trust us, to get him to open up to us, and I think it was just spending time with him, just hanging out, listening to him, going out with him. So, that was the big challenge.
Also, the nuances with the sponsors and the family. It’s very easy to sometimes want to sit back and have a critical eye, but it’s not easy to sponsor a family. It’s almost like an arranged marriage, right? They don’t know each other, and then they’re in this intense relationship that’s only supposed to be a year.
The nuance was really important and a challenge in terms of getting it right with the camera and with the perspective. It’s not an easy relationship; there’s no road map. It just takes time and patience and effort to make that relationship work.
TV: Are you still in contact with the family?
MH: Oh yeah! I haven’t been there in a while because we’re just finishing the film. They keep saying, ‘Where are you?’ They kept calling me ‘okhti,’ which means sister. I became very close to them. I hope to go back. Actually, we loved it so much that we hope to get a place there — not leave Toronto completely. I mean, eventually. It’s a great community. It’s really, really great.
TV: What are you hoping this documentary will achieve on a grander scale?
MH: There are two answers to that question.
There is this fear of others. We did elect the Liberal government, and we got them in, but there are still a portion of Canadians who are worried and weary. The first thing we wanted to do is to really get people to understand who Abdel Malek and Sawsen are — they’re like you and me. They’re a normal family, a bit larger, bit more rambunctious, but they have the same kind of needs and concerns that we do.
Now, they lived through a civil war and hardships that we didn’t live through, but I think our goal was to get a sense that they’re not a family we need to fear, especially the boys. Ramez and Slieman are of the age, those young men, who we’re the most fearful of. If they didn’t belong in the family, maybe they wouldn’t have been able to be accepted as refugees. Meanwhile, they are so loving. They’re like normal teenagers, and even that scene when, in January 2017 I guess it was, the killings in the mosque in Québec City, Ramez’s response: ‘I’m not going to judge all Canadians based on this one guy who killed in the mosque. Don’t judge all of us based on a few terrorists.’ He wants to stand like Canadians, he cares about his family. He wants their safety and he will stand with Canadians against global terrorism. I think that’s one answer.
The second answer is, what does it mean to be a refugee? What is the relationship between the refugees and the sponsors? When we give help for free, is there this inherent sort of expectation in return? As a refugee, how do you be grateful but at the same time, give agency to your needs? How much do we have to give up as a refugee or immigrant to fit in? I think these are all important questions. We don’t pretend to answer all of them, but it’s something to explore, so that there’s a greater understanding of different culture and acceptance.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.