A new San Francisco video installation intentionally resists one-dimensional narratives about refugees—opting instead for a more complicated picture of personal truth.
Produced by Oakland filmmaker Sofía Córdova, “dawn_chorusiii: the fruit they don’t have here” challenges common narratives about the immigrant experience with intimate and confessional stories told directly by the migrant women who have lived them.
Eschewing traditional documentary form, the film empowers its six subjects—all women—with autobiographical agency, layering excerpts of their audio memoirs over archival footage, abstract hand gestures, animated illustrations and colorful scenes of rivers, interiors and cityscapes, which the women painted themselves.
Córdova—a Puerto Rican artist who has United States citizenship but considers herself an immigrant—says the installation is intended to “complicate” the way stories of immigration are told.
“Stories of immigrants… they’re always told in this incredibly binary way, where, ‘Oh, people are escaping terrible things and coming here for a better life, the end,’” Córdova says. “We’re always presented as starry-eyed and arriving here, and everything is wonderful and sort of hunky-dory after the fact. And it’s like, ‘No, these stories are actually complicated.’”
With “dawn_chorusiii”, she hopes “that people kind of walk away with more questions than certainty” about the immigrant experience.
Now playing on a loop at the Chinese Culture Center’s 41 Ross gallery, Córdova’s hour-long composition is a kaleidoscopic, stream of consciousness collage of memories, which flits from moments of terror and pain to scenes of reflection and transcendence.
There are horrific tales of fleeing violence, persecution, poverty and ICE agents interspersed with personal traumas of rape, abortion and contemplated suicide—stories all too familiar to those who have kept up with news from the United States-Mexico border.
But these devastating accounts are juxtaposed with nostalgic, even fond, remembrances of home.
Though every woman’s story was unique, Córdova was particularly struck by one nostalgic point of reference that several of her subjects shared—difficulty finding fruits that are commonly available in their countries of origin.
Córdova says that mainstream American accounts of the immigrant experience are often reductive—casting the migrants as little more than beleaguered victims fleeing impoverished, corrupt hellscapes. But they are so much more nuanced than that.
“Yes, they’re leaving terrible things,” she says. “[But] they’re also leaving parents. They’re also leaving abuelas. They’re also leaving villages that they adore. And so I wanted to really stress that part of the equation that you’re also leaving things that make you whole.”
Though the film spans oceans and traverses international borders, the origins of “dawn_chorusiii” can be traced back to a single Muni bus stop.
In 2018, during the height of the Trump era, Córdova was tapped by the San Francisco Arts Commission to transform a series of Muni bus shelters along Market Street into spaces for contemplating the theme of “sanctuary.”
The goal of the project was to interrogate San Francisco’s pioneering role in the sanctuary city movement. In that spirit, Córdova created a series of portraits, called “A Body Reorganized,” featuring local undocumented immigrants and asylees, like Tian Shi, who fled from religious persecution in China during the country’s ’89 Democracy Movement. Unlike the other portrait subjects who wanted their identities’ obscured, Shi looked straight into Córdova’s camera and helped connect the artist to a circle of asylum seekers yearning to tell their stories.
Córdova’s work on “A Body Reorganized” planted the seed for “dawn_chorusiii,” which took shape over the course of the pandemic—in partnership with the Chinese Culture Center, a collaborator on the Muni bus shelter project.
While “dawn_chorusiii” was originally intended to debut in 2020, Chinese Culture Center curator Hoi Leung notes that the project’s almost two-year gestation process has allowed Córdova to engage with the women featured in the film over an extended period of time and has made the work even more resonant.
Leung says Córdova’s piece challenges simplistic and “binary” perceptions of race and identity in American politics.
“It’s always about ‘where you come from, how you arrived here’ and all of that. For this work to exist at this time, it’s really to offer something that’s more fluid,” Leung says. “It’s like, ‘Here’s my story, and this is how I want to tell it.’”
Alejandra is one of the women who share their stories in the film. (We are using Alejandra’s first name only to protect her sensitive immigration status.) The mother of three not only left Guatemala to escape gang violence in her home country and forge a better life for her children in the United States—she also moved to escape personal tragedy. About 13 years ago, her 3-year-old, first-born daughter was run over by a military truck.
The memory of her daughter—whose body remains buried in Guatemala—brings tears to Alejandra’s eyes.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get over it,” Alejandra says, speaking through a translator. “But [I’m] learning how to live with it.”
Working with Córdova and the other women helped Alejandra process the pain of her daughter’s death and the isolation of the pandemic. As part of the creative process, Córdova recorded deep, one-on-one conversations with the women and also led them in painting workshops. Those paintings—of rivers, interiors and cityscapes—were used as the film’s fantastical backdrops. A team of multinational and multilingual therapists joined Córdova to help the women unpack their feelings.
“It was like a support group,” Alejandra says. “We had our own space so we can come and just express ourselves.”
As a migrant herself, Córdova says she sees her role as both a “container and bridge” for her subject’s stories—and she takes the responsibility seriously.
“I really worked very arduously to create a safe space in every possible way,” she says. “I didn’t want to retraumatize anybody.”
Instead of asking the women to improvise, as she’s done with other projects in the past, or asking them to tell their stories in the moment on-camera in front of an entire film crew, Córdova had the women repeat lines from their previously recorded audio conversations, and later—with their permission—carefully spliced in more “forthcoming” and candid details from their phone calls and voice messages.
“I didn’t want to leave too much to chance in the final shoot,” says Córdova.
Ultimately, Córdova hopes that her film can jostle viewers’ notions of the immigrant experience.
“There is really not one dimension to the story of migration,” she says. “I wanted to create the space where their arrival doesn’t tie up neatly with a bow.”
“dawn_chorusiii: the fruit they don’t have here” runs through Jan. 29, 2022, at 41 Ross. Admission is free.Christina Campodonico can be reached at [email protected].