Filmmaker and storyteller Colette Ghunim retraces her heritage with ‘Traces of Home’

Colette Ghunim has been on my radar for awhile. Her work comes from a place of passion and is really making a positive impact on our film culture and world. She first came to my attention with her film she co-directed with Tinne Van Loon, “The People’s Girls” (2016), a short documentary that explores sexual harassment in Egypt through a series of interviews and social experiments.

As soon as I saw her Kickstarter campaign come up in my socials for her new documentary “Traces of Home,” I had to get the word out. Consider donating to this passion project. In this film, Colette connects with her heritage, while her parents rediscover their own past and heritage. There is one leg left of the documentary, and they need your support to finish the feature. Learn more about the film and donate here: http://kck.st/2LukvTa

REBECCA MARTIN: Your background is what inspired you to do this doc. Can you share more about growing up and how film was a part of it?

COLETTE GHUNIM: As the daughter of a wedding videographer, cameras were omnipresent throughout my entire childhood—yet I had no idea they would become an integral part of my own career. By providing me with the opportunity to benefit from a high-quality education and the freedom to pursue my own aspirations, my camera has become my voice.

I graduated with a degree in Communication Studies from Northwestern University and am based in Chicago. My passion lies at the cross section of social impact and visual storytelling. In 2016, I codirected “The People’s Girls”, an award-winning short documentary investigating sexual harassment in Egypt.

My goal is to create effective and compelling narratives for broadcast on public television, educational distribution, and impact campaigns that accurately portray ignored or marginalized communities throughout the world and bring their stories to audiences that may have little knowledge of the social issues others are facing. My life mission is to promote inclusivity through filmmaking.

Shooting “Traces of Home” in Palestine

My vision as a storyteller and nonfiction filmmaker is to not only spark conversations, but to shift perspectives and positively transform underserved communities. Being first-generation American and a woman of color, filmmaking isn’t just an artistic passion for me, but also a concrete way for me to support and advocate for my community. I also want to help other marginalized filmmakers and media storytellers do the same for themselves, and to that end, co-founded Mezcla Media Collective, a now year-old 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization built to support and provide resources for over 250 female filmmakers of color in Chicago, which has been integral in diversifying and strengthening the Chicago film industry.

MARTIN: What led you to “Traces of Home?

GHUNIM: Being first-generation American, it is easy to become disconnected to our own cultures, trying instead to assimilate to some sort of mainstream American identity. Yet for most of us, we never end up feeling completely American either. I started Traces of Home to shed light on what it truly means to be Latino-American, Arab-American, and an immigrant in general; the film explores the obstacles faced and risks taken before people decide to leave their countries. By intimately documenting these journeys to find my parents’ original homes in Mexico and Palestine, my goal is to highlight immigrant communities as symbols of what it means to be American.

MARTIN: What have you been learning during the filmmaking process?

Shooting “Traces of Home” in Palestine

GHUNIM: Throughout the course of shooting this personal documentary exploring my parents’ pasts, my relationship with my parents, the identities they gave me, and the homelands and lived experiences these identities represent has been radically transformed.

Though I am half-Mexican and half-Palestinian, I have realized there are gaps in understanding the nuances of those identities, as a result of being separated from my countries of origin. As I learned more about the places my parents once called home, the theme of a lost cultural identity became vital to include in the final film. 

Never returning to Palestine since 1948, I had previously only understood my father as an immigrant in the U.S.—someone who was divorced from the land to which he belonged. While shooting in Israel with an entirely Palestinian crew, I witnessed firsthand what homecoming meant to him, and how access to a land and community that had previously been denied to him brought back both the love of his homeland and the trauma of separation associated with it. I was able to finally understand parts of him that were previously hidden in his adopted American identity. 

I am aware that doing this within the filmmaking process naturally collapses public/private boundaries; I continue to try to navigate capturing my parents’ and my own experiences while making sure to respect individual needs for space, time, and healing. 

MARTIN: What are you the most excited about now when it comes to the film community?

GHUNIM: The film community in Chicago has expanded and is beginning to diversify in a beautiful way, with Cinespace and independent filmmaking blossoming with opportunities to share narratives that need to be told. I co-founded Mezcla Media Collective, a nonprofit organization to support over 350 women of color in film in Chicago. I strive to be a changemaker for communities worldwide, documenting powerful stories of individuals that often go unnoticed. It’s been so inspiring to see everyone’s passion to their craft, choosing unconventional routes to live out their true purposes.

MARTIN: Where do you see the need for change?

Shooting “Traces of Home” in Palestine

GHUNIM: Creating equity in the film industry is key for it to be representative of our communities. We have to be the narrators of our own stories, and to do that, we as marginalized people have to be given the opportunity to be part of crews, to be screenwriters, etc, just as much as what is being made in the mainstream. 

MARTIN: Who is your audience for “Traces of Home”? Who do you want to reach with your film?

GHUNIM: My target audience for the film is the immigrant diaspora in the Western world. By exposing my biracial upbringing, “Traces of Home” highlights immigrant communities as symbols of what it means to be American. I will partner with a number of community organizations, hosting subtitled film screenings to make the maximum impact. Many individuals in this target audience have faced prejudice first hand, and my film will provide them with inspiration and optimism that others understand their value to this country. As I am half-Mexican and half-Palestinian, I am very involved in Latino organizations such as HACE and NHI, as well as Arab and Muslim organizations such as CAIR and Students for Justice in Palestine. I have discussed my film with many of these organizations, and they are eager to screen it to their community members.

MARTIN: Anything else you’d like to add?

GHUNIM: We just launched the Kickstarter campaign for “Traces of Home” to raise funds for production in Mexico in January 2020. Our goal is $35,000 and we are requesting support from our community to back the film. Here is the campaign link and trailer to learn more: http://kck.st/2LukvTa

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