By Guy Lodge
There has been such a massive influx of Syria-themed documentaries in recent years that it could be easy for festival audiences and critics alike to feel, if not jaded, at least a little weary: The war and its ensuing refugee crisis may be the most urgent international humanitarian cause of our age, but hasn’t the message been delivered? The answer, as long as the President of the United States raises barriers or speaks out against incoming citizens of any number of so-called “s—thole countries,” is: not even close. And so one can only welcome a film like Alexandra Shiva’s “This Is Home,” which moves no needles cinematically or politically, but makes a heartening call for open-armed empathy in an America still guarded on that front.
Sure to remain the only film in history with executive producer credits for both Princess Firyal of Jordan and blockbuster horror merchant Jason Blum, “This Is Home” brings warmth and communal spirit to the table as it follows the travails of four Syrian refugee families finding their collective feet in Baltimore over the course of eight months. Largely foregoing mawkish sentimentality and ripped-from-the-headlines rhetoric for practical nuts and bolts, this straightforward heart-tugger casts a deserved spotlight on the work of the International Rescue Committee, foregrounding the everyday tasks and processes — from language lessons to fundraisers to the simple challenge of grocery-shopping — that make refugee resettlement possible. Cable network Epix will broadcast the film following its Sundance premiere; “This Is Home” is likeliest to connect with international viewers, too, via small-screen avenues.
“I am Syria,” says recent immigrant Khaldoun — one of 372 Syrian refugees to be housed in Baltimore — in nervous, halting English, before an aide gently instructs him to add “from” to that sentence. It’s a symbolically telling error on which to open, one that inadvertently alludes to our own limits of understanding: To many a well-meaning onlooker, refugees register as no more than a mass embodiment of the ravaged country they’ve left. “This Is Home” gestures toward a more detailed, heterogeneous understanding of these war victims as human beings, characterizing its four chosen families in detailed, individual terms, and listening attentively to their varied expressions of ambition and concern for
For truck driver Khaldoun, who arrives in Baltimore via the Azeaq refugee camp with his wife Yasmen and their four children, America arrives as a series of culture shocks: He’s especially perturbed when IRC workers advise him that his wife may need to take a job to help the family get by. Mahmoud and Madiha, also parents of four, are equally thrown by this unfamiliar gender parity, though Madiha is quick to embrace its possibilities, eventually putting her expert catering skills to fundraising use in the community. Meanwhile, for career woman Iman, a doctor and World Health Organization worker seeking asylum in the U.S., resettling offers stronger academic and professional prospects for her three grown daughters, though ensuring their right to remain proves a challenge. Slightly less well-defined is father-of-four Mohammad, though what we don’t see of his story is poignant in itself: His wife remains off-camera due to security concerns for her family in Syria.
The eight months that refugees are legally given to become self-sufficient (after which time the IRC can no longer offer them assistance) gives “This Is Home” an essential structural framework, while the announcement of President Trump’s post-inauguration travel ban gives the film a spike of emotional panic and anger. (“We want to be the greatest country in the world, but we don’t treat people like we’re the greatest country in the world,” one IRC worker vents.)
For the most part, however, Shiva — who previously competed at Sundance with her 2015 doc “How to Dance in Ohio” — is content to keep matters loosely observational and character-centered. Laela Kilbourn’s bright, unfussy lensing and Toby Shimin’s similarly efficient, economical editing make few stylistic intrusions on the subject matter: The American Dream, after all, is a pretty no-frills proposition to these new arrivals, and “This Is Home” presents it accordingly.