Editor’s note: This film is no longer available to view online.
In 2016, Montana opened its doors to refugees for the first time since the 1970s.
Together with local filmmakers four refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), document their new lives in the US – working day jobs, pursuing their hobbies and passions, and sharing memories of home.
Joel Makeci, a singer and musician, films his road trip with a young Montana musician to Ohio state where he participates in an unlikely gathering of African gospel artists.
Bikyeombe Abwe, Joel’s wife, films her children and reflects on growing up as an orphan in the DRC, while also yearning for her sister, who still lives in a refugee camp in Kenya.
America is great, it is a good country which I adore. I don't know how I can be important to Americans through my songs. Through my voice they can love me. My only difficulty is how to communicate with them. It's so different.
Justine Binwa uses her camera to stand up for women, reflecting on her past and the abuses women have endured. She is driven to make a better living for her two daughters, cleaning hotel rooms to earn money and save up for their university education.
And 17-year-old Lavie Celestain contemplates his future. Born in Tanzania, he misses its sun, beaches, and warmth, while in snowy Montana he must navigate an unfamiliar high school and intolerance from his classmates. Through it all, he finds solace in playing football.
Throughout the film, the newcomers’ stories are woven together in a format inspired by a renga, a Japanese poem consisting of several stanzas, each composed by a different author, seeking to find his or her own voice within the work they have together created and shared.
Shot across the rolling landscapes of the American West, their film sends a message of warmth, hope, and understanding:
“Dear viewers who are listening now,” says Bikyeombe, “when you hear this story, it is a prayer from a good and loving heart.”
By Bryan Bello
I am just beginning to understand the dystopian odyssey of Montana’s Congolese refugees. Escaping from their devastated homeland, enduring decades enclosed in a seven square-kilometre Tanzanian encampment only to settle in the conservative hinterlands of the western US.
They have landed here, in snowy, isolated Missoula, less than three hours away from Whitefish, where, until recently, alt-right nationalist Richard Spencer spewed anti-refugee venom to pockets of malcontents across the nation.
As a documentary filmmaker, I am drawn to the idea of telling these refugees’ stories. But as their neighbour, I now realise how inadequate a narrator I would be.
After all, who better to tell the story of America in 2019 than those who yearn to breathe free and live its dream? What better antidote might there be to divisive executive orders and anti-immigrant hostility than visual documentation of displaced, persecuted peoples productively embracing their fresh start and renewing the foundational American narrative?
The media landscape is rife with accounts about and on behalf of refugees, but there are few opportunities for self representation. America’s refugees not only deserve opportunities to direct their own narratives, we desperately need them to. Mutual understanding can only be accomplished when all sides of a discourse are permitted to participate in it for themselves.
The US media consists largely of people who “know” the American dream as received wisdom or lore. But Montana’s Congolese families just arrived. The American dream is not conceptual to them. They can see it, feel it and reveal it for collective reflection.
Spend time with a refugee family and you will begin to feel the American dream. It’s not all roses. It never was. But the dream is still alive.
So, in what we are hoping will lead to a more inclusive dialogue, my colleagues and I turned over our cameras to our refugee neighbours and prepared a venue where they could share their insights with fellow Montanans and now the rest of the world. We simply provided training and assistance as needed.
These accounts, captured through the eyes of refugees and told in their own voices, are true American stories.
Renga for the West is the brave labour of a group of refugee men and women, with some help from their new neighbours. It is an intimate historical document captured not in grandiose political overtures, but in the muted emotional tones of the everyday. Through handheld cameras and personal diaries experience America anew by experiencing its newest Americans.