Video & Filmmaking

A Mixed-Media Video Explores the Immigrant Experience

April 23, 2018

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Daphna Awadish

The poster from Awadish’s Journey Birds. © Daphna Awadish

In her award-winning short film, Journey Birds, filmmaker and illustrator Daphna Awadish combines video and hand-drawn illustrations to tell the stories of four immigrants who reflect on the homes they’ve found and the homes they left behind. The video footage is grainy, black-and-white and sometimes shaky, but Awadish used vivid colors in drawing each character. She depicts them as humans with bird-like faces. Intercutting their stories with shots of real birds, she suggests her subjects are like migratory birds, who can fly freely above the ground while searching for a place to nest. Explaining her low-tech effects, Awadish says, “I wanted to create an atmosphere that is not sharp reality,” and adds, “I wanted it to be very personal and I wanted it to be emotional.” The 9-minute animated documentary is evocative of memory and the expatriates’ sense of dislocation within the cities where they live.

The idea for Journey Birds sprang from Awadish’s own experience of homesickness. Awadish, who is Israeli, was a student at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem when, in 2013, she spent a semester abroad in Milan. “It was a whole different culture, a different country, and a different environment,” she recalls. “I felt very lonely at the beginning and very clueless.” She often struck up conversations with immigrants. While visiting Paris, she met a long-time resident, Abraham, who appears in Journey Birds. Awadish recalls, “He seemed so Parisian: You feel the city in his bones, though he was not born there. I was curious why he chose Paris to be his home.” She recorded an interview with him using the only equipment she had: a Samsung Galaxy 2. He told Awadish about his struggles to settle in when he first came to Paris as a student, and about the moment he stood by the Seine River, seeing all the people passing by, and decided, “We are very lucky to be here.”

© Anđela Vidić

Daphna Awadish. © Anđela Vidić

Awadish recorded more interviews, always shooting handheld with her phone, without any apps or accessories. “The people I interviewed felt more free with my little cellphone than with professional equipment.” At the time, her own feelings about being far from home were changing. “I started to feel such an artistic freedom. The disconnection from my daily routine was an amazing tool—it was inspiring.” In addition to filming interviews, she captured footage of windows, city streets, clotheslines. “It was so beautiful,” she recalls. “I looked at things with different eyes.”

When she returned home to Jerusalem, “I was very passionate about using all these materials.” As a test, she scanned some frames and printed them using her old scanner and printer. The print-outs were black-and-white, low-resolution, streaked with lines. “I loved it,” she says. “I didn’t want something that was neat and sharp. It was perfect.”

She had previous experience making animations, but wanted to try mixing media. She drew on the black-and-white frames by hand, using oil sticks to add color to parts of a scene and to give shape to the characters whose voices she included. Awadish then scanned the illustrated frames and played them back as sequences. Each frame is slightly different; played in sequence, the hand-drawn lines in each frame seem to pulse and shake. “I think this hand-drawing makes an intimate feeling, which was important for me,” she says. From her many interviews, she chose four subjects: Abraham, the Parisian from Iraq; Karen from Colombia; Irina from Venezuela; and Nona, an elderly Egyptian woman who had lived in Milan for decades.   

Awadish made a one-minute pilot that she showed to teachers and friends, “to see if people connected with it,” she says. “I got a really good reaction to it,” and decided to embark on making a longer film. She realized she needed more footage for background. She found a cheap airline ticket to Vienna in the middle of winter, and spent a few days wandering, capturing an empty park covered in snow.      

She also shot footage in the home of her grandmother, who was herself an immigrant. Footage of her stirring soup and kneading dough appear on screen as Nona reminisces about the baklava her mother used to make. Nona spoke about it with great emotion, Awadish observes. “It’s more than food: it’s family, it’s childhood, it’s nostalgia. It means a lot,” she says.  She notes that some of the immigrants she met were forced to move, others chose to move, but all express similar longings. “I think some of these feelings are common to everyone.”   

© Daphna Awadish

Daphna Awadish scanned and printed her cellphone video footage, fitting four frames on each piece of paper. She then drew on each frame by hand. © Daphna Awadish

Before beginning the time-consuming process of drawing on each frame, she first edited the footage in Adobe Premiere, producing a 9-minute video. She also used After Effects to create masks for one scene in which the background moved behind the subject. At the start of the editing process, she tried separating the four immigrants into different chapters, then decided to interweave their stories. She considered ending the film with Karen, the Colombia native, saying, “I haven’t found a country that I can say, ‘This is where I want to live.’” Instead, she chose to close with Nona’s comment: “My home was my family. It doesn’t matter where it is.” Awadish notes, “I felt both those statements were strong, and I could relate to each of them.”

While she worked on the production, Awadish was making a living as an illustrator, and using her one-minute pilot to apply for funding. “I got lots of no,” she says. “It’s not only not getting the money. You are inside the process, and thinking, ‘Is it going to work?’” Eventually, she landed underwriting from an arts foundation supported by the Israeli Ministry of Culture and from the Israeli Council for Cinema.

The funding allowed her to work with composer Ady Cohen, who wrote and conducted the score. She showed him her storyboard and pilot, and told him she liked the music in Francois Truffaut’s film The 400 Blows. She also brought on sound designer Erez Eyni Shavit, who combined Cohen’s music with sounds that convey a sense of space: bird song, footsteps, the clink of glasses in a café, soup boiling in a pot. Awadish adds, “I feel so lucky to have worked with really professional and sensitive people who connected with the message of the story.”

From the time she began filming until she had re-scanned and cropped all her frames, Awadish spent two years working on Journey Birds. When it was complete, she submitted it to numerous film festivals. It premiered in late 2015, and went on to win the Grand Jury Award for Best Animation at the Mobile Motion (MoMo) Festival in Zurich. With time, she says, it became “like a snowball that gets bigger and bigger. More festivals contacted me.” In January, it was shown at the Bossche Filmers event in the Netherlands and two weeks later, after she posted the film on Vimeo, she heard from more festivals and from publications.   

Immigration is a “burning issue,” she notes, but the film’s popularity may have more to do with the universality of its themes. “I hope this film would also make people think about and be more aware of the complexity of the [immigrant] experience.”

Awadish is now getting her master’s in animation in Den Bosche, the Netherlands, and working on her next film. Now 29, she says living in a foreign city feels “comfortable” to her, after having traveled the world to attend film festivals. Her next film is “still in the concept development phase”: she is making character sketches and collecting interviews. It will touch on some of the same themes explored in Journey Birds, she says, “but it will be different, because now I’m different.”


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