Mi Casa My Home. A documentary transmedia trilogy
by Oscar Molina and Brenda I. Steinecke Soto
“Cuántas casas ya están terminadas y no están habitadas. No regresan. No están disfrutando su casa. Así que son promesas. Del regreso.”
“So many houses are already finished and not inhabited. They don’t come back. They’re not enjoying their house. So, these are promises. Of return.”
Doña Silvia (México)
We are telling these stories from the ‘other’ side of the world. We look at them as people living and doing their work in a land from the global South. Colombia, the country where we grew up, has been involved in a long-lasting armed conflict and is one of the nations with the largest number of displaced people in the world. Since film director Oscar was young, he has wondered why Colombia, despite its rich natural and cultural resources, cannot be a home for all its people. In 1997, after finishing his degree in journalism, Oscar Molina left Colombia and lived for some years abroad. He wanted to take distance from the many violent situations Colombia and specially Medellín, his hometown, was experiencing during the nineties and to look for opportunities to develop his work as a filmmaker. During these trips, he worked alongside other migrants from less economically developed countries, many of them being driven by one burning pursuit: to save their earnings so they could build a dream house in their home countries. He also encountered coworkers who had already built their houses with remittances and did not return to live in them, houses they had never seen in person and remained empty for years, mausoleums to a deferred dream. The more he encountered this recurring story—in Japan, Europe and the United States— the more he asked himself: why do people have to go away from their home in order to build a house in their homeland? What is the nature of home as inflected by the experience of migration? It was in this context that the idea of documenting the stories behind these houses, which are built with love and patience from afar, emerged. Oscar Molina became aware that these houses face uncertain destinies within the larger forces of global resource exchange and migration.
It was only in 2011, while doing a Masters Degree in film and media arts in the United States, that Oscar decided to engage with these stories through a documentary project. It was not difficult to meet again migrants who were building houses with remittances in their places of origin. They were migrants not only from Latin America, but also from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe. Their many contexts of origin made Oscar think that this was a global phenomenon. They all shared with him their intention to return to their countries of origin, but while collecting the material for the film Oscar became aware that their intentions were repeatedly postponed. It was fascinating to find how certain elements constantly reappeared in these individual stories. Although the migrants planned year after year to return to their countries of origin to live in the houses they had built with great effort, their plans were subject to unforeseen changes.
Due to the complexity and nuances in these stories, this documentary project turned into “Mi Casa My Home”. This is a three-part transmedia storytelling effort that explores these stories through particular conceptual, narrative and dramatic approaches. It is composed of two feature documentaries and one interactive web platform that aims to capture the sheer breadth of this global phenomenon. Given the magnitude of the project, other people have joined the initiative and supported its development and production. Since 2016 Brenda I. Steinecke Soto started collaborating with it as a producer and a dramaturgical and conceptual interlocutor. Brenda is a Colombian-German choreographer and cultural manager with a degree in philosophy who, after living and working in Europe for eighteen years, returned to Colombia in 2013. She founded La FEA (www.espacio-arte.org), a non-profit organization based in a rural region of Medellin (Colombia), whose approach relies on boosting dynamics of social transformation through multidisciplinary artistic and pedagogical projects. Brenda’s work evolves around an expanded concept of choreography and is related to questions about the body as place of belongingness and power. Along with other great professionals, Oscar and Brenda keep on elaborating the approach proposed by ‘Mi Casa My Home’.
“La casa de Mama Icha” (“The House of Mama Icha”) is the first feature documentary and focuses on the experience of one single character, Mama Icha, a 93 years old woman who, after living for more than three decades in the United States, decides to return to inhabit the house that her family in Colombia built with the remittances she sent. This decision entailed facing economic uncertainty and emotional fractures in her family. This film is starting its festival and theatrical circuit during the first semester of 2020. The second film, “La casa de los ausentes” (“Absentees’ House”), is a coral documentary that explores through different stories multiple reasons why migrants often do not manage to return to their place of origin even if that is their burning desire. This film travels between Metztitlán (Mexico), a small rural town with an amazing landscape, and Philadelphia (USA). It seeks to portray the fragmented home experiences of migrants and the dilemmas that their families left behind face in their homeland. This film is currently at a development/production stage. Both feature films approach the stories with intimacy and with an observational treatment to give account of the emotional effects that migrants and their relatives experience. Such effects become visible in the destiny of these houses. The third part, the interactive web platform “Mi Casa My Home”, aims to facilitate a broad and participatory conversation on the resonances between migrants’ projects for return in different parts of the world, bringing a mix of short stories from different countries contextualized with economic, political, social and cultural information. This third part is at the conceptualization stage.
The main concern we follow along this project evolves around the question: what is/are the meaning(s) of these houses? A life dream set in concrete and built with love and huge efforts, which remains uninhabited by its owners. In terms of the dramatic force of storytelling, we made some decisions regarding the kind of stories on which this transmedia project focuses: there are many migrants who do not build but buy a house or an apartment. Most of them tend to come from urban areas. In turn, people who build a house from scratch tend to have more of a rural origin. We decided to work with the opposition rural–urban, because we felt that it was helpful to make a stronger characterization of the migrants’ places of origin, their landscapes, and their social and cultural practices. It was also significant to make a contrast with the urban, western, ‘big city’ where they were living. The visible difference between the rurality of a southern country and the urbanity of a northern country offered a visual strategy to stress the dimension of that sense of divided home which many migrants experience. Particularly in “Absentees’ House”, the spatial relationship shaped by the exuberant landscapes of Metztitlan, its green, fertile valley and the sharp mountains laying around, in contrast with Philadelphia’s skyline and ordered urban space, embodied a visual metaphor of the first question: why do people have to leave behind these beautiful and rich places in order to find prosperity?
In the stories we came across, the main conflict becomes the difficulty of returning. This aspect became a dramaturgical key element for the storytelling. Some factors that make returning difficult or impossible are the following:
The dependency on financial resources from the destination country. The stories we work with involve people from contexts of origin where it was not possible to own a house. For them, a house is a ‘new’ cost to pay in terms of taxes, utilities and maintenance. These new costs are difficult to supply with the labor options they have in their home countries. One of the persons we met, who is the main character of ‘The House of Mama Icha’, used to speak about a ‘double fraud’. The first fraud is the promise an emigrant makes to her family – she will stay in the destination country ‘only a few years’. The second ‘fraud’ is that being (and working) in the destination country has allowed her to have her own house, but she cannot return because the maintenance of the house depends on the benefits she gained by living and working in the country of arrival. By leaving, she would lose the benefits she had worked for.
Restrictions on transnational mobility. We remember Rene, showing us his Mexican house on his Us-American cellphone: “From the inside, I don’t know how it looks because I have no photos (…). That house will be finished by the time we are there. The house is going to be there (…). But I don’t know how to get there, yet.”
The acquisition of a social right or social benefit in the destination country for the migrant or their offspring. Juan and María migrated almost twenty years ago from Mexico to the United States. During that time, they had three children who are now US citizens. They enjoy access to public education and subsidies from the government because of the family’s low income. Even in the future they will have access to other benefits of education, social security and income that they won’t get in Mexico. Although specially Maria misses a lot her family and relatives, she and Juan do not want their children to lose these rights as a result of moving back to their homeland.
The adaptation to the lifestyle and cultural values of the new place. Sergio migrated seventeen years ago to the United States from Mexico when he was fifteen years old. In practice, he lived most of his life in the US and got used to that lifestyle. Yet, he was deported to Mexico two years ago. After that, he has not been able to readapt to his native hometown’s lifestyle and working conditions. His mother, Doña Lucha, calls him “a social misfit”. She suffers as he spends his days driving around in his car, missing the child he has in the US and dreaming about how to cross the border again.
The development of a labor skill or knowledge that won’t be suited for the native country. “Because here, I have a job, a job I can support a family with. Here we are. I don’t have such a nice house but it’s okay, if you know what I mean. I have a car, I have a dog. In Mexico I don’t know what I would have done”. This is a quote from Rene, who is happy to support his family with a job as a cook. As he knows well, such a job in Mexico would not offer a minimum of well-being conditions.
But there are also other reasons for not inhabiting the dreamt house. For instance, Benito, who built his house and then returned to Mexico, does not dwell in the house with his family. His wife and children do not want to leave the grandmother’s place, where they were welcomed during Benito’s years of absence. Benito is a vigorous countryman who is proud of his strength, his labor and of his house. But he respects the will of his family and lives together with them in the small, modest house of his mother-in-law. Doña Margarita, a nonagenarian woman, lives in an old bahareque house in Metztitlan. Every day she walks the 100 meters to the house that her son, Pablo, built with the earnings from the North. She cleans the house, sits on the sofa, looks out of the window. Pablo died some years ago while living in the USA. For Doña Margarita, the house is a spiritual connection with her son. In these two narratives the house turns out to be something else than an investment, the promise of returning or a witness of economic improvement. In these two stories, the house connects with deep feelings of belonging and spirituality, beyond the material presence of the building.
The idea of a trilogy was born out of these considerations. The third part of the project, the interactive web platform ‘Mi Casa My Home’, is meant to be a vehicle to connect these questions, which implies a larger effort in terms of the ‘social impact’ of the investigation. The issue we are trying to understand is what these houses mean in a personal (for their owners and families) and in an economic and political dimension. Filming these stories has allowed us to reflect on the meaning of home, when it is crossed by the experience of migration. We have also reflected about the deep relationship between personal decisions we all take in our private lives and the influence of macro-economic and political conditions which nowadays are no longer an exclusive business of the nation state.
Mi Casa My Home Wesite: https://micasamyhomefilm.weebly.com/home.html
La casa de Mama Icha – Official Trailer: https://vimeo.com/395320569
La casa de los ausentes – Teaser: https://vimeo.com/164048664