I’ve known Colette Ghunim for a while now through her previous leadership with Mezcla Media Collective, an organization that “ensures women and non-binary filmmakers of color can actively participate in Chicago’s bustling media production scene”. Likewise, Colette is the co-director (along with Tinne Van Loon) of “The People’s Girls” (2016), a short documentary that explores sexual harassment in Egypt through a series of interviews and social experiments. 

Nonetheless, as I was searching for subjects to photograph, Colette messaged me and was excited to make images with me. She’d been entering a new phase in her life with healing from loss. Inevitably, her new life development percolated into “Traces of Home”, an intensely personal documentary about Colette’s journey to find her parents’ homes in Mexico and Palestine.

I had the joy of speaking with and photographing Colette in her journey of dealing with tragedy, along with how it all affected her film. 

Colette Ghunim, photo by Rey Tang

The last time you talked with Cinema Femme, it was 2019. Your fundraiser was just about to end. What has happened since then with the movie? 

We were able to successfully raise the funds to go to Mexico, which was amazing. Since then, I started working with an editor – her name is Sara Maamouri and she’s based in San Francisco. We have been working to get to a rough cut for two years. We are now at a three hour assembly, slowly whittling away to get to a rough cut. The goal is to finish it late 2023. We’re just starting to really use my voice as a thread of the film and understanding that I am the skeleton of the film.

I know that, with documentaries, it can sometimes take decades. Do you feel frustrated by the amount of time it’s taking?

At some points I started to feel like, ‘oh my gosh, Colette, you are missing every deadline for every festival’. But as I’ve let the documentary mature on its own and it’s marinating and is becoming even deeper and more layered. Of course, with my life too, things are happening that are making it more layered that I’m like, ‘oh, this process is taking the exact amount of time that it needs to take’. 

This is the most important story I most likely will ever tell of my family. So I want to do it in the best version, the best way I can with the most intentionality. If it takes ten years, then it takes ten years, you know? But hopefully not. (laughs)

Are your parents part of the editing process at all? 

Oh, not yet. I’m open to it though. They’re fully on board with how the film has shifted into more around trauma rather than just the political situation in Mexico and Palestine. I would love to have them more involved. My brother is also very much like a co-writer. He’s been amazing on this journey with me. He’s my mirror in going back and forth with this deep reflection on our family. 

Yeah. I noticed he actually asked some of the questions too. He’s a big part of it all. 

Yes, yes. He’s behind the camera filming too.

Colette Ghunim, photo by Rey Tang

I would love to talk about your personal life. I know you’d reached out to me about wanting to make photographs about a big change you’re going through.

I’m getting a divorce and I’m facing that deep loss of my identity, having been wrapped up with this person. It’s a soul searching self-discovery phase for me that’s definitely going in the film once it’s ready – around this idea of home and where is home. The idea of home can never be anything external because I placed all my joy and identity with this person, and now it’s like, ‘okay, who am I by myself?’ There’s definitely this deep soul transformation of like, ‘what do I want in my life? What are my priorities?’ I’m just so grateful to have this tool of film to be able to unpack and heal through all of this trauma: both the trauma of the now plus trauma of my family. There’s a lot there.

Would you mind sharing how the loss of someone important to you in post-production is impacting the film?

It’s about the deep realization that home can never be a place or a person or like anything external from me if I don’t feel good inside of myself. This idea of the film starting to shift into a self-discovery of accepting myself fully and loving myself fully as I am versus needing these external pieces of happiness.

What have you been doing to help heal yourself?

A lot of inner child healing work and starting to see where these pieces of low self-worth and low self-esteem are coming from in my childhood and how I was raised. That criticism in your head from your parents of ‘you’re not enough, you can’t do this’. I think a lot of times, as children of immigrants, we’re just so focused on achieving all of our external success to define our worth versus just loving us as we are because we have to survive in this new country. So, definitely starting to do that deep self-reflection through journaling and meditation. I’m also sitting in nature and contemplating by myself and being in solitude. I think music has been super helpful. Angry songs, sad songs… I just dance. And my journal – I’ve always been journaling.

You’d mentioned this idea of finding home in other people rather than within yourself. Would you mind expanding more on that?

With my parents, I was always trying to please them and not wanting to be considered flawed. In my house, we had very big emotional walls – you couldn’t really share these deep feelings that you had because my parents weren’t at that level in their own healing from their trauma. We’re just coexisting together in a house, but there’s a clear disconnect. I didn’t want to rock the boat. I was feeling super detached from my parents. I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing my mistakes or the things that I did wrong. But now, after this divorce, I filmed the conversation with my parents about telling them: “this is the decision I made and this is what happened.” I came to them for emotional support and broke down these walls of trying to be this perfect person. I have had an extreme crisis and I want to renew the relationship with my parents in another way. I’m finding my inner strength more. 

Colette Ghunim, photo by Rey Tang

You’re doing incredible work. Your documentary… going to your parents’ homes and trauma is so difficult. It is such a brave decision. What sparked that idea in the first place behind the documentary? 

It was very much rooted in the 2016 election, with the refugee ban and the family separations. I knew that my parents had very similar stories of having to be forced out of their homes and taking refuge in the US. I wanted to share their stories of migration. So, I started going to racial identity therapy to talk about my race and why I felt so disconnected. My relationship with my mom just kept coming up over and over again in therapy. My therapist’s like, ‘I think there might be something deeper in why you are doing this, Colette’. It all comes back to how I feel internally and the only way that I could heal the relationships with my parents is if I’m fully accepting and loving of myself to be able to do that with them. 

That’s a difficult realization to come through too in therapy. 

Right? And that, maybe the goal isn’t to become best friends with your parents, but to be able to be your authentic self with them. Even if they don’t accept it, at least those boundaries are set… at least you tried.

Thank you. I’m excited to be making photos with you.

Thank YOU.

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