Every month, Guernica’s multimedia editor, Mary Wang, selects a new documentary as part of our partnership with Social Impact Media Awards (SIMA). These works were produced by filmmakers around the globe, but are united in their commitment to advancing social justice through compelling narratives and captivating imagery.
Hotel USA is a tender and intimate documentary that follows a group of refugees as they spend their first night in the United States in a New Jersey roadside motel, before settling into their new lives. Not much is said about the undoubtedly harrowing conditions that have landed them there, the harsh immigration procedures they have had to pass through to justify their place, or the inevitable challenges they will face in creating a life in a foreign land. Instead, we see a young woman worried about whether she’s packed her makeup and a father wondering what job he’ll find to support his family. These might be small parts of a refugee’s experience, but they are essential.
Below, an excerpt of a Q&A with filmmakers Andrea Meller and Marisa Pearl conducted by SIMA.
What motivated you to make this film?
We had both independently read an article in the New York Times about the process of resettling refugees in the US, and how many of the newcomers spend their first night in this county in an airport hotel. At the time, the Iraq War was happening, and the question of America’s responsibility to all the newly created refugees kept coming up. As filmmakers with family histories of immigration and persecution, we knew that we wanted to address the issue in our country’s role in assisting refugees. And the motel had the added benefit of being a striking visual space that because of its bland “everywhereness” could help us focus on capturing the raw emotions and physical responses to resettlement.
We didn’t want to make a didactic or informational film; we wanted to make something that would spark emotional connections between viewers and participants. Our intention was to show that issues of refugee resettlement aren’t somewhere far away. They are happening everywhere, in the most neutral of areas: the airport motel. “Refugees” could be any of us, any viewer under different circumstances. They get tired traveling on planes, want the food they are familiar with, are concerned about their children’s futures. So the motivation was to bring all these issues related to resettlement closer to home—both geographically and emotionally.
Tell us about any special styles or techniques you used during the production of your film.
Partially based on budgetary limitations, but mainly to create a sense of trust and intimacy with the people we filmed, we kept our crew size very small. The largest crew size we had was three: Kathy Huang on camera, Andrea on sound, and Marisa directing/producing. And often it was just the two of us. Not having a large crew was a necessity in the small hotel rooms, and [was] incredibly helpful in allowing us to fade into the background while observing and filming.
During production, we also held our shots for much longer than usual. While this isn’t always reflected in the final piece, the sensation of just sitting and watching, letting things unfold before us with patience, really reflected and also affected the way we told the story. We found that so much could be said by just letting the camera stay on someone’s face a little longer than usual as they let their new reality settle in.
Can you describe any obstacles you encountered in making your film?
One of the more unique obstacles we faced involved security issues. In order to make this film, we worked closely with the staff of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the inter-governmental organization that manages the resettlement of refugees internationally. One of the challenges that came up in the post-production of Hotel USA was how to make sure that the hotel our participants were staying in was not going to be easily identifiable. This was due to safety concerns that the IOM had, especially given the hard-line emotions and policy shifts centered on refugee settlement in the US. For us, protecting the safety of future arriving refugees was not even a question, but we had to decide how to maintain our journalistic integrity as documentarians and erase any identifiable markers of the hotel. In the end, we decided to swap out shots when we could, and when we couldn’t, we “painted” over the hotel’s logo in a way that did not change the main content behind the images.
SIMA is a 501(c)3 tax-exempt arts organization. It exists to advance global awareness, social justice, human rights, and education by supporting filmmakers on the front-lines of social change. SIMA started as the first and only international media competition honoring achievements in the creative, human rights, and humanitarian fields. Today, SIMA is the most renowned global curator in the social impact space, serving independent film, academic, and global social justice industries around the world. The organization now consists of several programs, including SIMA Classroom, SIMA RAMA, and SIMAx, which all have the purpose of effecting change through social impact cinema.