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Putting a Human Face on the Refugee Experience

13 June 2017 at 8:36 am
Wendy Williams
Filmed over 10 years in Wagga Wagga, Constance on the Edge is an unflinchingly honest portrayal of one refugee family’s resettlement story in regional Australia.

Wendy Williams | 13 June 2017 at 8:36 am


Putting a Human Face on the Refugee Experience
13 June 2017 at 8:36 am

Filmed over 10 years in Wagga Wagga, Constance on the Edge is an unflinchingly honest portrayal of one refugee family’s resettlement story in regional Australia.

The documentary, one of seven selected for the 2014 philanthropic Good Pitch2 Australia initiative, follows Constance, mother of six, as she confronts her painful past in war torn Sudan, and risks everything so her family can thrive in her new country.

“In Africa I was fighting for survival; in the refugee camp I was fighting for human rights; and here in Australia, I’m fighting for belonging,” Constance tells us.

According to director Belinda Mason, the documentary, which premiered to a sold out audience at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2016 and will be shown in screens across Australia for Refugee Week, gives audiences a way into the refugee experience.

“It’s a film for everybody,” Mason says.

“People have said that the film has really put a human face on the refugee experience and raised their awareness of the situation of refugees.

Constance on the Edge gives audiences a way into the refugee experience – both the positives and negatives – and let’s people get beyond news and media reports that so often dehumanise refugees.”

The powerful documentary is now set to be the featured film in a special Refugee Week screening program.

Tim O’Connor, spokesperson for the Refugee Council of Australia, the national coordinator of Refugee Week which will be celebrated between 18 and 24 June, says the documentary is a testament to the courage shown by refugees.

“Refugee Week is an opportunity to reflect on the courage and contribution of people who have lived the refugee experience,” O’Connor says.

“Constance on the Edge is a testament to the courage required to flee persecution and set up a life in a new land, and the contribution more than 875,000 refugees have made to Australia.”

Mason spoke to Pro Bono News about documenting Constance’s story over a decade and what the documentary says about belonging in Australia.


Why did you choose to focus on Constance’s story?

I made a film with her about 10 years ago, actually 11 years ago now, that was a film about refugees arriving in Australia, so it was that first period of arrival and settlement. I met her then and met her family and thought that she was just the most amazing woman. She is very feisty and funny and she had worked very hard for UNHCR and FilmAid at the refugee camp and she is very accomplished really, on many levels.

I decided to make the film with her, Constance on the Edge, when she called me and said things weren’t working out for her in Australia as she had imagined they would and would I come back and make this second film with her. So that’s how it all started.

The narrative is very personal but the issues of belonging are quite universal, were you looking to paint the big picture?

I was really trying to focus on Constance’s story at the time but it was clear, and she kept on saying to me that the story wasn’t only about her, it was also about so many other refugees. Most of the people who she knew from refugee backgrounds, and of course she was in contact with lots and lots of people, were experiencing similar difficulties and challenges that Constance and her family were facing.

I guess I was surprised after the film was made at how many people it resonated with, who had parents who came from either a refugee background or even a migrant background. People would come up to us after the film was finished in a mess, crying and saying: “That was my mum up there on screen but she was never really able to articulate what Constance was able to say.” So that was amazing to find other people. So I think it is very much the first generation migrant experience but for Constance and her family, there is that layer of trauma coming from a refugee background.

Constance on the Edge is the featured film in a special Refugee Week screening program. How do you think the documentary fits into the wider discussion of refugees?

Her family are not asylum seekers so it doesn’t fit into that discussion quite as much, but it certainly gives a context and shows where people from refugee backgrounds are coming from, how they have had to flee and some of the things that they have to go through.

For me it is really important that it puts a human face on refugees. It humanises the refugee experience because you are allowed into their house and their world really, and there are so many similarities. With Constance’s concerns about her children, they are exactly the same concerns I have about my children. So hopefully it allows people to connect on a deeper level.

I think the other thing is that it is so important for welcoming, to show that even the smallest act like with the CWA [Country Women’s Association] – they are so lovely and there is a real connection there. And there are so many possibilities, I think particular in rural areas, for people to make those connections, also in cities as well. But I think welcoming so clearly promotes wellbeing in people who are newly arrived and I think that really has a long term effect on how they settle and how much they can contribute. Because they feel welcomed and it does make them feel that they belong and this is their home.

As you mentioned, the film highlights the important role communities play in encouraging a sense of welcoming and belonging. What do you think are some of the takeaways for communities?

I think communities can learn that people like Constance are like little Aussie battlers, they are survivors, and they have so much to contribute, I think that is the thing. Because they have been through what they’ve been through. They have a lot of insights and a lot to give and I think they’re enriching communities all around Australia and bringing kind of international perspectives, different perspectives on the world.

There is a lot of racism in Australia as well. In the Scanlon Foundation report, there were some extraordinary statistics about the South Sudanese in particular suffering from racism. I think certainly Constance and her family, in the beginning did experience a lot of incidents of racism that they just really brushed away and kept on going. But when you do look at South Sudanese people in that report, 77 per cent of South Sudanese have experienced discrimination, more than any other immigrant group and that was in 2016, the Scanlon Foundation’s Australia Today landmark research into multiculturalism. That is quite extraordinary I think.

And I think that people reaching out like for instance the policewoman who Constance has a relationship with in the family, that was a really positive interaction for Constance and so that shifted Constance’s experience of the police and then she passed that on to other people in her community who had had bad experiences with the police, because there are a few of those going on. But it is those things that start shifting understanding. I think you just need one really fantastic police officer, and then the culture of that police station changes. And I think also there was enormous encouragement by the family doctor and that empowered Constance so that interaction was really strong. Wagga Wagga also has the Fusion Festiva and that sets a really welcome scene for people, that’s fantastic.

I think all of those things put a human face on the refugee experience and hopefully that will give communities a better way of understanding the experiences of women from refugee backgrounds, like Constance. I guess if people watch it they get a sense of how Constance and the women had to flee and what sort of danger they were in and some of those experiences in the camp, and even though that is a very small bit of the documentary, hopefully that will help tackle assumptions and attitudes and help people understand what some refugee people, particular from some African countries, have been through.

A still from Constance on the Edge showing Constance and her family

Do you feel personally connected to the story after spending that much time with Constance and her family?

I do, I feel very connected to the family and to the community in Wagga. It is quite extraordinary when I think about it. We had one screening in Wagga at the big cinema there and that was sold out and so then they continued screenings and they were sold out for I think it went on for eight weeks which is just amazing. There is another one coming up in refugee week in Wagga. But the really great thing, and funny thing is, when Constance, or Mary, walks down the street she gets stopped by people who want to take selfies with her. She said to me the other day: “People just look at me all the time and say ‘hi Constance, hi Constance’.” And she’s got no idea. She said: “That fantastic, except when i’m really busy or in a really bad mood”. So she has become a celebrity which is very funny.

What impact are you trying to achieve through this film?

Obviously we want to get as many people to see it as possible. In terms of our impact, we’re hoping it encourages welcoming communities around Australia for people from refugee backgrounds, that’s the number one thing. But we’re also hoping that [it helps remove] barriers to employment for people from refugee background, particularly in regional areas. That it will help people understand and create more employment, it will help people understand the barriers and then work towards getting rid of those barriers to employment. We’re also working with government agencies like first responders to create resources for them and they’re using the film, we’ve been doing quite a lot of that. Also settlement services have been using the film to show to organisations who work with refugees, particularly around employment, which has been really important. We’re also working with trauma and torture services and creating resources out of the film for them. So they’re just some of the things that we’re doing at the moment.

For Refugee Week we’ve got I think over 50 screenings around the country. People can host their own screening and you can do it if you are an individual or a school, or a community group or a council, anybody can have a screening, we’ve got special rates for refugee week. We’ve linked up with the Refugee Council of Australia to put on these screenings so it is fantastic. We’ve also got a Parliament House screening coming up that week. And there are a number organisations who are holding fundraisers, so they will screen the film in a cinema and then if they make some money that goes back into their community groups.

Do you have a target audience in mind?

Our target audience is people all over Australia. It is surprising that the target audience actually is people like from the Farmers Federation for instance. Initially our target audience was regional areas where the new cohort of refugees are going to be settled, the Syrian refugees, so that people would be able to see it and get some sort of understanding of the refugee experience before refugees arrived in their area. So that is one of the things. But the general population in regional areas where refugees are. We’ve had a great response from schools as well so young people, as well as people in the settlement services who can then reach out to their networks and show the film, and they were really our impact partners – people from settlement services, torture and trauma and first responders.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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