When the elderly math teacher, Sibhatleab, ventures alone from a refugee camp in Ethiopia, he finds himself at the bottom rung of the social ladder in a vast, faceless Texan metropolis in the summer before a contentious election. As he still copes with his unthinkable twenty-five year history of imprisonment and torture, he finds hope at Salem Market, a tiny store that caters to Houston’s refugee community. The film tells his story of disillusionment and resilience, questioning our understanding of the immigrant experience in contemporary America.
Filmed in: Houston, Texas
Running time: 1:38:40 min
Digital frame rate: 23.976
Screening format: Blue-Ray, DCP, DVD
Language: English, Tigriyna, Arabic, Amharic
"Am I a good man? Do you know who I am? Do you watch me? Do you see me? I am an immigrant, a refugee… Can you explain the temperature in this city… Houston? Will you show me downtown?"
The film begins with the voice of Sibhatleab Gebrekid, an aging math teacher, asking someone questions about his new home: Houston. We see him at his apartment. He faces the camera. No consolation is offered.
Sibhatleab is a math teacher who spent more than two decades in the Ethiopian prison and then another six years in a refugee camp. We meet him during his first week in Houston. As he attempts to make sense of his newfound home, navigating between human solitude and membership is some community immigrants, we follow him as he visits the local Salem market. His story is structured less around spectacular dilemmas, but more around encounters reflecting ordinary lives and struggles.
A hidden enclave in the shadow of the Alliance refugee resettlement offices, Salem Market, is a store that brings Houston's diverse refugee and migrant populations together. Crowded with Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants and filled with injera bread and shiro curry powder, this small store is part of their old/new home, their "small Eritrea" in the midst of a city preoccupied with urban development. Customers talk about human trafficking as they purchase coffee. Another colorfully-veiled woman admits that she works too much. Indeed, she has been here for five years and didn't find the time to learn English in her new country.
In the middle of such dialogues, African items and clothes are sorted and then finally sold to an endless parade of recent arrivals. Their journeys and subsequent settlement in Houston, reveal the harsh realities and subtle beauty in the American urban landscape.
As spices exchange hands, Sibhatleab appears again. He begins talking about his years in a dark underground cell, tortured, beaten, walking in circles, awaiting trial; more than two of those years in solitary confinement. His case never went to trial. As children chase candies, he recalls the day that he knew that God forgot about him, hiding the razor from the guards, cutting, bleeding through the night, hearing dark shadows yelling, "the political prisoner is killing himself!"
While others insist on filling job applications, he is reminded of his wife, coming to see him from Eritrea, then suffering from depression, remaining unemployed, and dying alone. Then their two children became orphans. "I believe in this America," he later tells me amid ongoing reports about the 2016 elections, "I cannot surrender to hopelessness. I believe in this country. I believe in the American people."
Through Sibhatleab and his daily visits to Salem store, we get to know Mahbbrat and Nura, two single African-Muslim mothers, the daily struggle for food and safety is made all the more difficult amid the stiflingly humid summer days while they hunt for employment in the city's factories.
Theodoros, the senior gentleman of the Eritrean community, who exalts in his beatific visions of daily life while negotiating his loneliness in the American metropolis, becomes Sibhatleab's best friend. Together they search for jobs and fail. And while Theodoros insists on being optimistic, it is Sibhatleab who begins thinking about giving up and returning to the refugee camp.
Idris, the young joker that makes everyone laugh, wants Sibhatleab to learn from his example. He has been working the in the assembly line since his arrival, trying to save money to open a small store and fly to his parents whom he didn't see for more than a decade. "America is only about job," Idris invites Sibhatleab for tea, "if you have no job then America is very sad."
Like most newcomers, Sibhatleab spends more and more time in front of the TV screen to learn more about America and its culture. His story shifts fluidly from fiction to documentary, from criticism to Reality TV. He begins watching daily shows about "exotic vacations" and the entertainment channels of this new America, but with Nura, he talks about their long months of unemployment and their inability to see the promised America.
A month passes by, and eviction notices are left hanging in Sibhatleab's apartment. He needs to a job, but he cannot even find his way in this city. Theodoros drives him all over the city. They, both unemployed, search multiple job openings but without much luck. Idris suggests applying to Wallmart, but Sibhatleab does not how to work the online application. In the meantime, Sibhatleab's back begins aching. His past keeps revisiting his supposed new life. He returns to the store on a daily basis to share more details about his imprisonment, the death of his wife, his love for physics, as he remains unemployed. "I don't want to bother God," he tells me. "God did enough for me."
Another month passes, and I try to help Sibhatleab in negotiating the bureaucratic maze as he further questions whether he better leave this country and return to the refugee camp. Eviction notices return to haunt him. He hardly eats. No job is in sight. It's the last days of another humid summer in Houston, and Hillary and Donald throw empty words onto Sibhatleab's TV screen, preparing for the 2016 American elections.
Lessons in Seeing structures Sibhatleab's narrative less around spectacular dilemmas, but more around daily encounters, reflecting on ordinary lives and struggles. It observes and captures the challenges and dreams of Houston's migrant and refugee communities battling to form both a sense of self and belonging in a city that very often, like much of America, struggles to face all that needs to change.
Lessons in Seeing is a film by Yehuda Sharim; edited by Abbigail Vandersnick; produced by Yan Digilov and the Firestarter Group; written and directed by Yehuda Sharim.
This film was not predicted, scripted, or planned. I didn't expect to meet Sibhatleab, only a week after his arrival in the US. But this film is not so much about myself, or the ways we deploy labels such as alien, refugee, undocumented, and more, to justify privilege and violence. Rather, it is more about American society and the sense of reality, ideology, and values that we presume that are part of our world (or the Western world).
Now, as a Mizrahi-Jewish-Arab artist, a son of immigrants whose concerns and dreams were and still are not considered real in the eyes and imagination of the Western world, I had to find a way to document the stories of my parents. I don't really have a choice.
I am trying to be honest and not just fulfill this ridiculous assignment that attempts to anchor a film in an individual, THE director. Well, I am tired of Directors. I am more interested in artists, poets who dare to take risks, appear vulnerable, and are ready to be challenged by the impossible task: to tell the truth.
At times, I am first to admit, in the process of filming I continually question my responsibility as my non-actors received eviction notices or simply didn't know how to operate the stove. Why and for how long you need to pretend that you are a passive spectator, a fly lost on a wall? Who has the privilege to assume that he (it's too often a blond he) is invisible as he holds the camera but then appears ever so present elsewhere? What is behind this infantile obsession with invisibility? Can anyone doubt that this is a calamity? Could I think about other models of artistic interaction and acting in outrageously kind and anarchically human in such unprecedented times of deep division and moral crisis?
For me, this film focuses on realities and experiences most Americans do not know exist. It portrays the courage and pitfalls involved in starting a new life and going through the colorless and gray days of the American metropolis; the scarce but the often more valuable moments of total freedom; the rare opportunities, too precious to be lost, to be heard by bureaucratic systems; the insistence to maintain a sense of hope and dignity in the face of a brazen and racist political rhetoric; the exhaustion and surprising resilience that follow long days of uncertainty. While migrant and refugee narratives have long been dominated by excessive victimization interlaced with a heightened sense of decontextualized and heavily mediated image of hysteria and terror, I have asked how can film initiate a conversation in spaces dominated by apathy and fear. If indeed the "film of tomorrow will be an act of love," as François Truffaut suggested, how can we imagine the film of today in a time eclipsed by panic and suspicion about the ubiquity of the camera and its endless manipulations?
More than once, while in the car, and after Sibhatleab just informed me that he wants to go back to his prison, I ask him to smile, "keep your hope." Alas, I force him to eat lunch with me. I know that if it were up to him, he would starve for days. I still don't know whether I did the right thing, whether such a "thing" actually exists. Should I reveal myself? Why don't I just follow other films and allow thousands of brown and black bodies (just like my parents) pass by mute? Just film and stop feeling. Get the right image. Capture the drama and hide behind the camera.
But I am not interested in hiding.
Even more strongly, I wished to describe the feelings about immigration, rather than immigration itself and the overly sensationalized news about refugees that follow it. What are people thinking? What are they doing when they are asked to begin anew? How are they coping? What makes them happy? What do they remember? What do they insist on forgetting? And what do they wish to forget? In the course of filming, it became clear to me that reality of immigrants is always more brutal, beautiful, and fantastic than any script.