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Urgent Cinema: Mahmoud Ibrahim and Nathan Fisher on Bureaucracy and Statelessness

In 2014, Mahmoud Ibrahim—a Lebanon-born Palestinian and an Iraqi refugee—and documentary filmmaker Nathan Fisher began work on Travel Documents, a short cinematic retelling of Ibrahim’s journey to the United States. Completed amidst a global refugee crisis, the film links Ibrahim’s personal experience to the behemoth, bureaucratic mechanisms that determine statehood, citizenship, and mobility. The film was produced in conjunction […]

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Still from Mahmoud Ibrahim (at right) and Nathan Fisher’s Travel Documents, 2016. Image courtesy the artists

In 2014, Mahmoud Ibrahim—a Lebanon-born Palestinian and an Iraqi refugee—and documentary filmmaker Nathan Fisher began work on Travel Documents, a short cinematic retelling of Ibrahim’s journey to the United States. Completed amidst a global refugee crisis, the film links Ibrahim’s personal experience to the behemoth, bureaucratic mechanisms that determine statehood, citizenship, and mobility.

The film was produced in conjunction with Iraqi Voices, a mentorship program that supports the production of documentary shorts by Iraqi-Americans living in Minnesota. Screened at the Walker on Thursday September 15, 2016, Travel Documents is part of Cinema of Urgency: Local Voices, a showcase of contemporary works by Minnesota filmmakers who connect national debates to specific districts, funding, and infrastructure. In advance of the screening, I connected with Ibrahim and Fisher to discuss the film. This is the third interview with each of the filmmakers featured in Thursday’s program: Remy Auberjonois, E.G. Bailey, D.A. Bullock, Karl Jacob, Dawn Mikkelson, Keri Pickett, and Norah Shapiro.

Travel Documents is the result of collaboration. How did you meet and decide to work together on the film?

Mahmoud Ibrahim: I knew of the Iraqi Voices project from an Iraqi friend who was also making a film. He introduced me to Nathan, and I started working on telling my own story. I had only been in the US for a couple of months when I started this project with Nathan.

Nathan Fisher: Since 2012, I have co-produced fourteen short documentaries with Twin Cities–based Iraqi refugees as part of an ongoing collaborative filmmaking lab called Iraqi Voices. I worked with Mahmoud from March to October of 2014 to transform his story into a short documentary. Mahmoud wrote the story he wanted to tell down on paper and we took it from there.

The film tells the story of having your passport replaced after your home was raided by police officers. Because you are a Palestinian citizen and were a resident of Baghdad, the process was complex, requiring you to grant power of attorney to your sister. Why did you decide to focus on the documentation necessary to travel to the United States? 

Fisher: Mahmoud was born in Lebanon, and his children were born in Iraq. Yet because they had a grandparent or great-grandparent who was born in what was Palestine, they are not nationals of anywhere. There are at least 10 million stateless people living in the world today, including at least 3.5 million Palestinians. For me, Travel Documents is not just about a family trying to move from Iraq to the United States, but an illustration of the bureaucratic ordeal that stateless people have to endure when they want to do things that many of us would consider routine, even banal.

On the eve of a US presidential election, the documentation necessary for international travel, immigration, asylum, to attain refugee status and to vote has featured prominently in the news and has been central in conversations regarding borders, national security, citizenship, and discrimination. Do you feel connected to other stories of advocacy on issues such as voter ID Laws? How do you hope this film will connect to other stories?

Ibrahim: I hope Americans, especially politicians and people of power, will watch this film and see the suffering and struggles of displaced Arabs, especially the Palestinians who fled between 1948 and 1967. We as Palestinians have been stateless for almost 70 years. My family became refugees in Iraq in 1967, and in 2010 were still considered refugees by the Iraqi government. I hope the film makes people listen to those who are asking for asylum and refuge.

Fisher: Concepts like national borders and voting rights are only really legible when you are dealing with citizens of somewhere—citizens who “belong” on one side of some line. Our modern understanding of civil rights is based on the fiction that every human being is attached to some extant nation, but this is not true. Statelessness is a separate category from all other immigration statuses, including refugee status. Statelessness is a very human reminder that the freedoms many of us take for granted are not even universal in theory. 

Throughout the film your story is rendered by Adnan Shati, an illustrator. What drew you to illustration as an effective way to tell this story?

Fisher: I liked the idea of hiring a sketch artist to listen intently to Mahmoud and then document the trials and petty injustices that he had to endure. Sketch art has a place in our legal system, both in investigative police work and as a dignified way to render courtroom proceedings. In this way, I wanted Mahmoud and his story to be afforded the dignity that he and it deserve. For years, Mahmoud’s very personhood had been rejected by an absurd international legal regime, the complete opposite of being listened to and taken seriously by a sketch artist and a filmmaker.

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Still from Mahmoud Ibrahim (at right) and Nathan Fisher’s Travel Documents, 2016. Image courtesy the artists

Ibrahim: After I wrote my story, the idea of illustration came up in a discussion between Nate and myself. My story has a lot of interactions with the government and military and it would have been difficult to re-enact the scenes or find suitable footage, and ineffective to just rely on my words. We decided to involve Adnan Shati and execute my story through illustration because it would easily capture the different scenes throughout my story. 

You begin the film by describing Mahmoud as stateless and end with sketch artist Adnan Shati saying, “Welcome to Minnesota.” Does the feeling and experience of statelessness persist even after being granted refugee status?

Ibrahim: I feel completely different after finding a country that finally welcomed me, gave me legal papers, and will consider me a citizen in the near future. It is a very beautiful and amazing feeling after I was stateless and displaced for so long. Especially since we asked for citizenship from several Arab countries and were always refused. My two children will soon have citizenship. In October, I will welcome my third child who will be born with citizenship in a country that is safe and secure.

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