With Open Eyes
Introduction by Christina Roman
At first he was curious. The news coming out of his hometown in Pennsylvania was all about the refugees resettling there, hundreds of them, more than he could believe. Why Lancaster? As a filmmaker with an eye for a story, David Godin followed the lead. After reaching out to several organizations, he connected with Gary Hobday of the Lancaster County Relief Coalition and travelled home.
“He introduced me to this young man from the Congo and we spent the next five hours. This guy told me his whole life story and when I left there I was so emotionally, almost brutally emotionally, affected by this guys story. And that was actually a couple years before wanting to make this film. It kind of just sat with me.”
At this point Godin was beginning to question his own sense of community and what it means to be an American. And the voices of the refugees returned to him, “They have such a strong idea of who they are and where they come from and such a strong sense of cultural identity…. That’s what I felt I was lacking in terms of my own American cultural identity.”
And so the documentary Refugees of Lancaster was conceived to explore the stories of the refugees he had spoken to from “everywhere”; from The Congo, Sudan, Nepal, Somalia, Iraq, Cuba… some who become almost more American than he felt.
But these stories would inspire more than a single documentary.
In the course of Godin’s interviews he met James, a refugee from Southern Sudan, began to travel back to Pennsylvania at least once a month to spend more and more time getting to know this man’s story.
“I was walking around downtown Lancaster with him and these different areas and everybody knew this guy. I mean it was unbelievable; we would be walking down the street and people would honk their horns and he would say hey what’s up and then we would go in this store and he would know the people. And I was like, wait a second. I grew up here. I’m the one who should know people. So to feel like I was the fish out of water in the place that I grew up was also a very interesting, but strange feeling…. I knew that the film I wanted to make at that point couldn’t just be about these refugees’ stories, it was something deeper that I personally had to explore without putting myself in the film.”
And so a second film was born ….
David B Godin
It was April, 2016 -- a few months after I had started interviewing refugees living my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I had a light lunch with James, a thirty-something Sudanese Refugee, who had been living in the Lancaster area for 15 years. I had been growing closer and more interested in him and his life. He was warm, kind, quiet, but full of incredible insights on life in America.
As we talked down the sidewalk in Lancaster City he stopped and said, “look, this is what I’m talking about.” I saw a row of townhouses, nothing peculiar or particularly interesting. “What is it?” I replied. James smiled and said, “Why is everyone’s door closed? In my birth country, your home door is open to your neighbors -- to come in for food, drink, conversation. In America, your doors are closed and locked -- and that says something about the mentality towards one another.” All of a sudden I saw it, what was blind to me, but I started noticing the statement of a closed and locked door -- a psychological statement of how we really feel about one another in the United States. A “welcome” mat laying underneath a bolted door.
James was stocked full of these observations -- casual conversation to him, but minor epiphanies for me. He helped peel back the wool off of my eyes.
The more and more time I spent with James and a few other refugees, I began to understand the overwhelming privilege it was to get to know these people. The depths of humanity, friendliness, openness and genuine love I felt from interacting with these people -- it changed me. I felt like I was seeing my hometown in a completely different light, with a new lens of sharp awareness and compassion.
Why did my hometown of Lancaster become a national refugee resettlement hub? Many, many factors, as I learned -- but that’s a story for another time. As a filmmaker and great admirer of my hometown, I was enthralled. I had already been interested in making a documentary about the refugee community in Lancaster, but after all the interviews, it became an artistic necessity for me to do something about it.
As 2016 rolled along, and I continued speaking with James, I realized that he had to be my central subject, and I no longer wanted to make a documentary film -- this had to be a fictional feature film that would be loosely based on James’ life. Like no project ever before, this story grew out of me like a wildfire.
And here it is: Creek Don't Rise
It's been months since James' estranged American wife has moved away with their three children and their savings - however, she has relocated only blocks away with the kids and her new boyfriend - using her family's influence in this small town to physically block James from seeing the kids.
It's been much longer since James has seen his South Sudanese Family - an ailing mother and thirty siblings, thousands of miles away in the midst of a nationwide famine. James sends thirty dollars a month through Western Union to help them survive, a sore point with James' estranged wife, who claims it proves he is incapable of prioritizing his American family.
Truly in the midst of a bi-cultural crisis, James is forced to quit his factory job due to the personal stress. Taking the advice of his former employer, he goes to a group therapy session for parents who have lost custody of their children.
In the session, he meets a town native, Rachel, a scrappy woman with her own set of mounting personal struggles. After years of battling bipolar disorder, alcohol and rugged self-reliance have become her only savior and shield - until recently, when her parents took her three children away.
An unlikely pair, James and Rachel begin to find solace in one another's company as they go through similar personal struggles in their own ways.
By introducing Rachel to his local Sudanese and Refugee communities, James rediscovers the power of his communities' togetherness in times of ever-present hardship. Concurrently, these tight bonds illuminate James’ responsibilities and the difficult realities of being a leader in these communities.
For Rachel, reluctant to get too close to these strangers, this newfound exile from her isolation proves to be revelatory.
As mirrors to each other’s core desire, reuniting with their children, James and Rachel develop a comforting kinship where simple silence and acceptance of one another becomes something nearly spiritual.
Although James and Rachel firmly represent the flesh and bone protagonists of the story, simultaneously, the ideologies and social constructs of community and isolation are equal protagonists.
Conceived as two different worlds existing within this rural Pennsylvania county, each character goes on a journey to explore the other.