The students ‘could make this beautiful place even greater’.
Apo W. Bazidi’s documentary shines a light on young immigrants in the United States against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s 2017 travel ban.
How Far is Home focuses mostly on Ahmed and Ruba, a brother and sister who attend the Thomas Jefferson school for immigrants in Ohio. Ahmed aspires to be an X-ray technician so he can help people, and Ruba is said by her brother to be smart, enjoying learning and drawing. We learn that they left Syria to escape the violence of the civil war, returned to Iraq, and eventually travelled to the US. The harsh reality of this violence is shown to us through Ruba’s own words: she tells her classmates about her two closest friends, who were killed when a bomb hit their home in Syria. This is intercut with footage of wreckage, destroyed buildings (and with them, destroyed lives), and it’s the first time in the documentary that we truly realise what these children and so many like them have experienced.
"Challenges the derogatory connotations of Trump’s terminology."
This is not a politically neutral documentary. The critique of Trump is subtle, but clear. A voice over news report about Trump’s travel ban comes at the documentary’s beginning, and then we’re shown the school, introduced to Ahmed and Ruba, given an insight into them as people, their lives and experiences – and then the voice over returns. In this way, we see how these large scale government decisions interrupt and affect the lives of so many people. Trump makes his only appearance in footage displaying the kind of rhetoric this documentary aims to undermine: ‘the United States will not be a migrant camp. And it will not be a refugee holding facility’ Trump says, while we watch the children laughing and playing sport. They are not a nameless, faceless, homogenous group; How Far is Home humanises the immigrant and refugee experience and challenges the derogatory connotations of Trump’s terminology. As one teacher tells us, the students ‘could make this beautiful place even greater’ – a subversion of Trump’s much maligned make America great again slogan.
It’s clear the documentary subjects are aware of the camera at all times, which only serves to bring their personality closer to the surface than a more fly on the wall approach. Ahmed is constantly smiling, playful, having fun with the camera and addressing it directly. We’re invited and welcomed into the school – at the heart of this documentary is togetherness, a unity that crosses borders and connects people. One teacher speaks of the myth of American streets ‘made of gold’, that instead people work hard for what they have – this recalls the idea of the American dream, that anyone from anywhere can build a life in this land of opportunity.
"How Far is Home very effectively humanises the very people some politicians try to demonise."
How Far is Home reminds us that the President has made this difficult for countless people. Ruba herself encounters complications when the travel ban goes into effect while she is in Iraq – the school had a lawyer ready to help her, and this information is a jarring reminder of the obstacles these children have faced and will face.
How Far is Home could perhaps go further in grappling with the political situation not only in the US but around the world. As the closing text reminds us, anti-immigrant policies are on the rise. But How Far is Home very effectively humanises the very people some politicians try to demonise, and maybe that’s enough to challenge prejudice. After all, these children are just trying to complete their education, not become ideological pawns in a debate over their humanity.
Overall, this is a quiet look at the ongoing struggle against anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. Clocking in at just under 22 minutes, it has a lot to say in its short run time – but maybe pulls its punches just a little too much to be as effective as it could be.