ON THE MEDIA: A Twin Cities documentary filmmaking project helps local Iraqi refugees tell their stories

Jameelah Hassoon and Jamal Ali came to the U.S. in 2009.

In Baghdad, Jamal Ali was a U.S.-trained engineer who worked as a UPS manager. In Minnesota, he has reinvented himself as an interpreter — and, in recent years, a fledgling documentary filmmaker.

Ali is part of an annual project launched in 2012 that enlists Iraqi refugees to tell their stories on film. This year, he led a team that set out to highlight success stories in the small local Iraqi community and examine the idea of Muslim refugees as a threat. St. Paul’s Landmark Center will host a screening of the documentary and a discussion with the filmmakers later this month.

 “We just want to pass a ­message that [the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant] is not representing Islam,” Ali, the movie’s co-director, said. ISIL “has been denied and refused by all Iraqis.”

Funded with a state Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund grant, the “Iraqi Voices” project is the brainchild of a local nonprofit called Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project. Since 2007, the nonprofit has brought in visiting Iraqi professionals and supported clean water projects at Iraqi schools.

Ali says he and his family discovered the documentary project at just the right time. He was resettled in Minnesota with his wife and two adult children in 2009 after a stint in Jordan, among the first ­refugees from the Iraq war to arrive in the state.

It was a challenging transition at first. Ali’s wife, Jameelah Hassoon, an anesthesiologist in Baghdad, struggled to come to terms with the realization she would not be able to restart her career because of education and licensing requirements. Getting involved with the project provided a good outlet.

Nathan Fisher, a Twin Cities filmmaker who had shot a documentary about Iraqi refugees in the Middle East, recruited the family to the project. They and other participants — a largely middle class bunch that included a former veterinarian, teacher and entrepreneur — shot three- to eight-minute documentary shorts about their lives. A middle-aged woman dreams of reuniting with her adult children, who couldn’t accompany her to Minnesota. A young man recounts narrowly avoiding a terrorist attack in an Iraqi barbershop during a visit to a barber in ­Columbia Heights.

 Ali’s son, Naser, in his early 30s, created a movie about realizing that not all Americans are rich and happy. The movies have been screened at the Walker Art Museum, on the Macalester College campus in St. Paul and in churches across the metro.

“We wanted to express our feelings to the Americans,” Ali said. “It helped us release some of the stress we had.”

This year, the group of 10 amateur filmmakers decided to collaborate on one longer film.

“This year’s film was about debunking myths about Iraqis: ‘We are here. We are not that scary,’ ” Fisher said.

The film features a family that runs a St. Paul neighborhood grocery with a diverse clientele, where they serve Middle Eastern food and cheesesteak sandwiches. It also highlights Hala Asamarai, an Iraqi-American who won election to the Columbia Heights school board earlier this year.

The Landmark screening Oct. 29 will include a Q&A led by Joseph Farag, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. The free event runs from 2 to 4 p.m.

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