Visual arts professor Tanya Hartman knows all too well how refugees suffer. Her grandparents were forced to flee Nazi Europe in the 1940s, and then they made their way down to Mexico to begin a new life. Having heard those stories as a young girl, Hartman has always been a fierce supporter of immigration and refugees’ rights.
“It’s such an important subject in 2018,” Hartman said. “I think the whole country is focused on immigration and the meaning of diversity for our country. And it’s not just America.”
Now, teaming up with photographer and former University student Brian Hawkins, the two are premiering a short documentary that follows the lives of seven Wichita-area teenagers from five countries, navigating the struggles of embracing a new American culture or sticking with the way of life they once had.
The film, titled “Murmurations,” will premiere at the Open Spaces Kansas City Arts Experience next month with several screenings at Jewish Vocational Services in Kansas City, Missouri.
Hartman first became involved in the project in 2016 after receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She initially traveled to Wichita Public Schools to help lead a creative writing and storytelling workshop for refugee students.
“The kids were just so amazing,” Hartman said. “I told Brian about it and we decided that we would make a film together.”
Hawkins, the photographer for the Department of Visual Arts, said that they had initially focused in on filming one student in particular, but talking to the different students involved, they realized that there was potential for a film that chronicled multiple students.
They started interviews in November of 2017 and traveled once a month to Wichita, staying for a week to pull students out of class, interview them and build relationships. From a pool of 40 potential students, they picked seven, representing Mexico, Guatemala, Vietnam, Uganda and Rwanda.
“All of them have to face those challenges of how much of American culture do I want to incorporate in my life and how much of my past do I want to pass down,’” Hawkins said. “That’s one reason we focused on the high school students.”
Hawkins said high school is an interesting age because the parents of the students are firmly rooted in their beliefs of their homeland and the younger siblings have assimilated quickly.
“We didn’t really go in expecting to see that, but it just emerged,” Hawkins said.
The students also have to deal with language barriers, Hartman said. Their younger siblings have excelled in language acquisition faster and the older siblings are struggling to not only learn English, but to help with translation for their parents.
“Some of the kids didn’t really go to school. They were in refugee camps or on the move from dangerous situations,” Hartman said. “They’re struggling learning to read now in a different language. … So, it’s interesting to be older in a family that immigrates to the US.”
Both Hawkins and Hartman hope that this film will help shed a light on the struggles that all refugees and immigrants face, no matter where they come from.
Ruth Carter, who has designed costumes for popular films such as "Black Panther" and "Selma," will speak at the Burge Union on Thursday, Aug. 30.
“People can have prejudices against immigrants,” Hawkins said. "When you see someone walking down the street, you don’t know if they’re from here or from another country. It doesn’t really matter.”
The filmmakers want those who meet with refugees and immigrants to simply sit and listen to them before forming any opinion or acting on any prejudice.
“I always felt like art should be in the service of compassion,” Hartman said. “Just building bridges between people and fostering empathy and compassion and making art is a form of love for humanity. We just want to open people’s hearts to the kids we show.”
Though the current film is only 26 minutes long, the duo is looking to expand it into a full-length documentary after following the students around for at least two more years, diving into the journeys the students face as they continue to settle into a new way of life.
“The more we get to know them I think the more we become interested in their interior lives, too,” Hawkins said. “It doesn’t really matter if they speak another language or if they’re struggling with English. It just becomes about the struggle of being a human no matter what.”