Barbara Kopple: Pathfinder

July 1, 2019
A politically engaged filmmaker since her 1976 Oscar winning documentary Harlan County USA, Barbara Kopple's latest, New Homeland, tackles the current refugee crisis through the prism of children at a Canadian summer camp.

The whole idea of the documentary is to follow the real experiences of these refugee children at the camp. With due respect to your highly accomplished career, do you think simply by being there with a camera, and with all participants knowing it’s for a documentary, you have swayed the results and outcomes? And if not, can you explain why you believe that?

Whether the presence of the camera changes the reality is a question going back to the early days of documentary, and to the heart of what we documentary filmmakers do. It remains an unsettled question. From my own point of view, I believe that if you film long enough and often enough with people, they cannot help but show you who they really are. This is probably especially true for children, the subjects of my latest film New Homeland. We spent weeks filming their camp experience, day and night. I did not get the impression that anything that happened in this film was done for the sake of the camera. I do everything I can to keep the size of the crew as minimal as possible and the amount of equipment so limited that it can be carried easily by that small crew. This was essential for this film in particular, where the team had to be mobile to follow what went on at the camp. Once wireless microphones have been put on the film subjects at start of each day, the rest of us disappear to listen and observe from a distance, out of sight. Often the only member of the team these subjects see throughout the day is the camera operator. I find that in these types of situations the subjects become so familiar with the camera operator that they begin thinking of her or him like the trees and the cabins – a part of the scenery. The campers are involved with the experience not the camera team.

Why did you choose these children and this camp? Did you hear about the children and camp prior, or did you bring the two elements together?

One of my in-house producers, Eric Forman, grew up in Rochester, New York, but he spent the summers of his youth coming to Camp Pathfinder, a 17 acre island in the middle of 3,000 square miles of Canadian forests. He loved the experience and remembered it with a lot of nostalgia. Shortly after the election of Donald Trump, I told Eric and the rest of my team at Cabin Creek Films to look for a way to shine a light on the current experience of immigrants and refugees. Eric learned that the American owner of Camp Pathfinder (who was also from Rochester), Mike Sladden, had decided to try an experiment that summer where he would welcome refugee children newly arrived in Canada to join the other attendees of his camp.

Canada has this wonderful private sponsor refugee program. It had its 40th anniversary earlier this year. Its template has seen more than 100 groups in Canada privately sponsor 300,000 refugees in dire need from around the world. The camp owner Mike felt inspired by ordinary Canadians choosing to take in refugees, like Christine, Allison and Jennifer, the three that we get to know in the film. Mike later told us, “The way in which Canada was trying to help in embracing people caught up in this terrible conflict made me want to emulate that gesture in my own tiny way.” He told us he remembered his first time at Pathfinder as “a pageant of delights and terrors” and decided that, for the 104th season of the camp (summer 2017), he had wanted to share that experience with these refugee children.

Mike invited these particular refugee children taken in by Christine, Allison and Jennifer, and we began documenting them and their families ahead of their summer stay at Camp Pathfinder. In that way the children were essentially pre-chosen for us.

What is the real purpose of the documentary? Is it purely to tell these families’ story, or is there something else below the surface?

I chose to focus on the story of refugee children in Canada because I was moved by the generosity of the Canadian private sponsor program, especially in contrast to the way that some Americans had begun talking about refugees and immigrants during the political rise of Trump. That was my interest, but once I found the story of these refugee families in Canada and their sending their kids to Camp Pathfinder, I had no control over where the story would go or what the lessons would be. In many ways, like the audience for the film, I was along for the ride and very interested to learn how the refugee kids would take to the camp, how they and the Canadian and American kids would mesh, and so forth. I learned a lot from how it all played out and at times was hanging on my seat, as I hope and believe viewers of the film will be. It did not go where I would have predicted when I chose the topic to explore.

Do you ever have ethical dilemmas when making a film such as this to present everything we see in the film real and as it happened?

No. It’s not as complicated as people make it seem. I try to just tell the truth, as I saw it and experienced it as we were filming. One reason I chose to become a documentarian is because I felt truth was often more interesting than fiction.

Did you purposely avoid focusing on the war and religion, as there are only minor mentions of it? Or did you perhaps believe focusing on those elements would sway away from the real story you were trying to tell?

I included aspects of war and religion when they naturally came into the story we were filming. These are kids – yes, kids from Syria and Iraq, but at the end of the day, kids – and they were going to summer camp. Whatever their religions and their backgrounds, it turns out that summer camp is summer camp. Kids are kids. One of the refugee kids in the film becomes a bit of a problem for the staff, a bit of a bully, yes – like so many kids who go to summer camp – but some of the other refugee kids seem to grow closer with the other boys and form friendships over dealing with the bully, which was really heartwarming to me. We see these kids from a foreign land react to Camp Pathfinder in ways we all recognise. They become homesick. They have fears of the unknown and a sense of accomplishment when they confront and overcome those fears. They experience rough-housing and camaraderie and bonding. They learn teamwork. They show youthful impatience and exuberance. They test the boundaries of adults and also find mentorship from those same adults. Maybe people really are the same all over?

We have just had an election in Australia where the conservative government won, and lots of people are saying that they want to move to New Zealand, a similar response to Trump getting elected and lots of Americans saying that they will move to Canada. Does your film play in that space and can you expand on that thinking?

Canada seems to be filling the moral and ethical void that the United States has left open during the Trump years. This is no surprise given the wonderful history of Canadians. At some point in 2018, Canada overtook the U.S. to become the world leader in accepting global refugees. We recently marked the first time that the U.S. has slipped behind another country in the history of the United Nations refugee program, which began in 1946 out of the terrible lessons of World War II, led by the United States, in particular one of the great women of all time, Eleanor Roosevelt. As of January, from what I understand, the American levels have dropped to less than one-third of what they had been until Trump. According to the State Department, these are the lowest numbers in any year since 1977. Canada’s generosity toward refugees, meanwhile, has improved significantly as ours has declined. They now resettle refugees at about double what the country took in even earlier this decade. I hope Canada can help remind us in America that for which we once stood.

New Homeland is screening at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, which is on July 19 – 30, 2019

Read our review of New Homeland

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