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Refugees, Settled in Montana, to Tell Their Stories in Film

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On his way to see the badlands of Eastern Montana, Congolese musician Joel Makeci explored some wide-open spaces near the Montana-North Dakota state line—quite a change from the crowded refugee camp where he spent 20 years. Photo courtesy of New Neighbors Project.

Much has been written about the African and Middle Eastern refugees who have resettled in Missoula in the past year, welcomed by many and looked at with fear and disdain by many others.

Now, some of those refugees will be using video cameras to tell their own stories of what it means to resettle so far from home, and to share with the rest of us their perceptions of their new surroundings.

The goal of the New Neighbors Project—billed as the nation’s first refugee filmmaking cooperative—is to complete 10 short films by refugees from Iraq, Syria, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Parts of those films will then be used to create a 40-minute documentary that also incorporates the perspectives of the team of Montanans working on the project.

The larger goal, according to a press release from the group, is to “initiate a bridging dialogue that helps new and established Montanans erase misperceptions, allay fears, and build trust and understanding.”

Ryan Seitz, a Billings Senior High graduate who is a co-producer and director of the project, said the origins of the project go back to early last fall. He had already made a couple of documentaries, “Freeload” and “Skips Stones for Fudge,” and he was, he said, “really itching to start a new project.”

Seitz lives in Missoula and had recently met another filmmaker, Bryan Bello, who had moved back to Missoula from Washington, D.C., where he had run a filmmaking co-op that encouraged homeless people to document their lives on the streets. Some of the films created by the co-op were screened at the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of the American Indian.

They discussed starting a community film center in Missoula and trying to create a similar project. In talking with a friend who worked for Soft Landing Missoula, an organization that helps refugees get settled in the area, Seitz realized that it was, as he said, “a great population to pilot our new model with.”

Seitz had worked as operations manager for the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival this past February, and alumni of the festival were offered the chance to pitch prospective films at a session hosted by the Tribeca Film Institute. By that time, he and Bello had begun assembling a team, and their pitch about making a documentary based on short films by refugees ended up winning the pitch session.

Tribeca, with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, awarded the New Neighbors Project a $20,000 grant.

The project has already been working with 10 refugee families, all of whom arrived in Missoula within the past year, several in the past two months. Participants in a media production workshop included a single mother and her 9-year-old daughter, a Congolese musician who built a following during his 20 years—yes, 20 years—in a Tanzanian refugee camp, and an Iraqi barber who worked as an interpreter for U.S. armed forces.

Now, the New Neighbors Project has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise an additional $30,000 to buy cameras, hard drives and microphones for the refugee filmmakers, and stipends for translators. The Kickstarter page has more information about the project, as well as a film trailer.

One portion of the description reads: “Follow refugees as they venture into dramatic western terrains (both physical and social) and glimpse the spirit of our changing state.  Hunters from Central-Africa teach ones from Middle-America new ways to slaughter a goat and stylists from the Middle East give a fresh look to conservative mountain fashions.”

Seitz said the workshops are still in the early stages but are going well. He and his associates teach three sections a week, men’s and women’s classes in Swahili for the Congolese refugees and a class in Arabic for the Middle Eastern refugees.

He said the short films will be shown in Missoula and around Montana. The filmmakers will retain the copyright to their work and will keep all proceeds from the screening of their films.

The 40-minute documentary is scheduled to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City in April 2018, after which it will tour nationally.

In addition to the film work, the project has a musical component.

Seitz said his friend Gabe Sweeney, a musician and audio engineer, has been working with Makeci, the Congolese musician, to record original music. They have already produced one digital album and are working on another one now. Sweeney and Makeci are also producing the music for the documentary.

Seitz said the team of people working on the project “came together quite organically—friends of friends, fellow film enthusiasts that we were acquainted with around town and members from Soft Landing Missoula.”

This piece first appeared in Last Best News.

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Ed Kemmick lives in Billings, Montana and edits LastBestNews.com

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