By C.J. Hirschfield
What if health providers and practitioners prescribed ceremonies, rituals, festivals and other community activities as medicine to treat trauma? The excellent new documentary A Place To Breathe would argue that distressed refugees, in particular, would benefit greatly, and the film effectively argues this route as a way to foster resilience.
Michelle Grace Steinberg directed and co-produced it with Robyn Byofsky, the film had its (streaming) premiere as a selection of the SF DocFest and it will be available for viewing until September 20.
Cambodian refugees enjoy the Southeast Asian Water Festival in Lowell, MA — just one of the community gatherings that fosters health and resilience.
The film tells the stories of immigrant and refugee health care practitioners and patients at two refugee-focused clinics; one in Lowell, Massachusetts, and the other in Oakland, California. War, murder and rape are some of the reasons the film’s subjects fled from Guatemala, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cambodia, Uruguay and Mexico to seek refuge in America. In a time when our current president continues to vilify refugees, dramatically cut their numbers, and curtail their rights and access to healthcare, the film’s portrayal of those who’ve uprooted their lives to protect themselves and their families serves to humanize immigrants, and underscore the value they bring to our country.
It seemed to me that the cities of Lowell and Oakland were characters in the film, and director Steinberg says that was definitely part of her vision. Steinberg herself has worked as an herbalist/nutritionist at Oakland’s Street Level Health Project for 11 years, and she recognized that Lowell’s Metta Center (part of the Lowell Community Health Center) was aspiring to the same high level of cultural responsiveness, albeit serving refugees from different countries. Both Massachusetts and California have some of the most progressive health systems, she notes, appreciating that mental, physical and spiritual paths to wellbeing can include meditation, health and nutrition, and most importantly, community connection. And although Metta is well-funded and offers primary care, the scrappy Street Level operation is just that—grassroots and nonprofit, offering free access to healthcare and employment regardless of socioeconomic or immigrant status. “Whole person care,” however, is the clear focus of both facilities.
Bicoastal filmmaking isn’t easy though; Steinberg and her team made nine trips back east to shoot.
Another huge challenge? COVID-19 hit right before the completion of the film, which particularly impacted the production of the film’s glorious animated sequences. In addition to a tight deadline tied to an arts center residency requirement, the two animators, Héloïse Dorsan Rachet and Anna Benner were working from France and Germany, respectively. Steinberg and Bykofsky developed a 4-way, remote conversation that resulted in an impressive and seamless product.
Designed to be viewed over the very personal—and painful—narration of the refugees’ traumatic experiences in their home countries, the animated sequences were all approved by the people telling their stories. “Our model of filmmaking involves a collaborative process in which we feel deeply accountable to those who share their stories,” says Steinberg. The effective use of split screen for these sequences adds much to the telling.
Award-winning composer E.E. Bradman succeeds in interweaving various international musical themes that beautifully compliment the visuals.
One of the film’s stories focuses on the Congolese Kalambayi family, whose members had tried for years to obtain a visa to bring a daughter/sister to America. After seeing a clip of the film at an early project fundraiser, a Cambodian refugee and regional director for a Congresswoman offered to assist the family’s case when all other avenues seemed to be stalled.
Recently arrived from the Congo, Rodrigue Kalambayi at Middlesex Community College, Lowell, MA
What does it mean when documentary filmmakers influence the outcome of their film’s subjects? Without revealing the end of the film, Steinberg says that she feels conflicted about this; “It brings up important considerations for us as filmmakers as to how we may impact the stories we tell and the responsibility that can come with that.”
Now home in Oakland’s Fruitvale district, where much of the film was shot, Steinberg notes that the zip code is the hardest-hit by COVID in all of Alameda County. The provision of Street Level Health’s service has “morphed,” now serving the mostly Latinx patients by phone, with free delivery of remedies, food handouts, funding to help day laborers, and mental health services.
COVID has also shattered the team’s dream of a live theatrical premiere experience in San Francisco, after four years of hard work. As a health care provider, she applauds the decision of SF DocFest to go virtual, but admits to being “extremely disappointed” as well.
A Place to Breathe is ultimately about resilience, and the team is demonstrating that important quality itself. “At the end of the day, we are using the film as a tool to spark discussion for change in healthcare, education and policy,” says Steinberg.
The message she’d like viewers to walk away with?
The complete SF DocFest schedule can be explored here with info on how to watch on the biggest home screens.
For more tips on DocFest films to see read Frako Loden’s “Sometimes Truth is Stranger Than Fiction.”
For more details on the clinics featured in the project see:
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C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry where she produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and advocated on behalf of the industry. A former writer for Film Month, she also penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years and now writes features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. C.J. holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield currently serves on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free documentaries in Oakland and Piedmont, as well as on the advisory board of Youth Beat, a youth media training program that provides low-income Oakland students with the tools and opportunities they need to thrive in today’s workforce.
C.J. says, “A good documentary takes us places we never could never have imagined, and changes the way we see the world.”