When Gordon Henderson, executive producer at 90th Parallel Productions, asked me a year and a half ago whether I’d like to document an immigrant family’s first 150 days in Canada, I said yes right away. As an immigrant myself — born in China — directing such a documentary has always been on my to-do list.
Finding a suitable family was not easy. Our associate producer Rita Kotzia contacted several different sources before finding 48-year-old Melona Banico, who’s lived in Canada for eight years, through an immigration lawyer.
A single mother who was then working in a Toronto café, Melona was about to sponsor four of her family members to come to Canada from the Philippines: her 26-year-old daughter, Judelyn; 24-year-old son, Jade; 14-year-old daughter, Jeah; and 10-year-old grandson, Clyde,
I first met Melona about a year ago, just before her family arrived. She was excited for us to record their story — together again after eight years of separation. After their tearful reunion, we followed the family on and off over the next five months.
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In the beginning everything seemed rosy, and the family co-operated with the film crew. But soon I started to sense tension between Melona and her children. When I called Melona to confirm a film date two weeks later, she told me she’d had a big argument with her children; they didn’t want to be on camera. I had to cancel filming for the time being. I knew the family’s honeymoon was over — life’s realities were hitting them hard. Melona and her children were strangers to each other after many years apart. Financial burdens divided them even more.
Melona has five mouths to feed, and she thought her children would better appreciate the effort it took to bring them to Canada. She wanted them to help out with the expenses and her debts. But her children, like many new immigrants, had thought their lives here were going to be easy. They also wanted to send money to their family in the Philippines. But they couldn’t find jobs. They didn’t even have enough money to go out and have fun — and anyway, they had no friends. Jeah and Clyde had trouble in school, due to the language barrier. They wanted to go back home, and Melona began to regret sponsoring them to Canada.
Meanwhile, filming became more difficult. The children tried to avoid the cameras, and sometimes the family would ignore my phone calls and texts, taking much longer than usual to respond when I tried to schedule filming dates.
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As an immigrant myself, I felt their frustrations and understood their reluctance. But as a filmmaker, I knew they might walk away at any time. Even if they allowed us to continue following them, I could not be sure they would continue to share their emotional distress with me, since the children didn’t want to talk about their problems in front of the camera. But our deadline meant we didn’t have time to find another family to film. Besides, I’d grown to like the Banicos; I wanted to carry on with them.
I had to be more patient than usual. I told them about my personal experiences. I let them know they were not alone, that most immigrants faced challenges similar to theirs. I told them what we were recording was not just the story of their journey to Canada, but also a story representative of immigrants everywhere.
As newcomers to Canada, the children also wanted to know how other immigrants dealt with their difficulties. When I spoke to them, it was as an immigrant speaking to other immigrants. We exchanged life experiences, and it seemed to make them more relaxed and more comfortable. I tried to mediate between Melona and her children, to help them better understand one another. They began to confide in me and became increasingly open. It was as if they’d forgotten the camera was rolling. We were as friends, just chatting.
Today, the Banico family are adjusting well, and after their first 150 days, they’re feeling hopeful about their new lives in Canada.
Diana Dai is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose work has been screened around the world.
Watch the trailer for "My First 150 Days."
TVO presents the world premiere screening of "My First 150 Days" on Thursday, February 23, at 6:30 p.m., at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, 506 Bloor Street West, Toronto. Tickets are available at the Hot Docs box office.