Dedicate a lot of quality time to the film development phase. As filmmakers we want to get quickly to the fun part, the production and the post-production. We have learned the importance of researching, debating, agreeing, and writing the objective of the project: why it is relevant, who is the audience, how we will reach the audience, what the artistic approach will be, and most importantly what is the impact vision and goals. And do not cut short the identification of the story and the selection of the characters.
As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Francisco and Alejandra Alcala of Home Storytellers.
Alejandra and Francisco’s paths converged through a mutual love for visual storytelling and a strong drive to leverage that passion into making a difference in the world. With a family of immigrants in the U.S. and having been migrants themselves, they decided to focus on the refugee space and together, this father and daughter duo founded HOME Storytellers in late 2018. HOME Storytellers is a nonprofit that creates short documentary films and multimedia to raise awareness and inspire support for solutions that enable refugee self-reliance.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
Alejandra: After working for over 3 years as a visual designer in the events industry in Barcelona, I felt the need for a significant change in my life. A change that could help me find a deeper meaning in my work while contributing to a just society through my love for visual storytelling. At around that same time, my father, Francisco, was on a similar exploration.
After months of going back and forth on what I should do next, I felt very lost. One day, while I took an afternoon stroll with my dog through the park, I received a phone call from my Dad. He shared with me an idea that he had been envisioning for months. As he told me about it, he also told me that he wanted me to be a part of making this project a reality. I didn’t even hesitate. Right away I fell in love with the idea and within a few months we launched HOME Storytellers.
Francisco: Well, I am pretty sure mine is not the typical path to becoming a filmmaker. I was born and raised in Mexico with undergraduate education in Food Technology and Aquaculture. In 1983, I started a 31-year career with the Kellogg Company with assignments in Mexico, U.S., England, and Australia. Before retiring in 2013 I was responsible for eight manufacturing plants and distribution in Latin-America. In 2001, I received a digital camera as a going-away present. Through the years I became more and more fond of photography and discovered a new side of me as well as an unfamiliar way to relate to people and the world. Since then, I have not stopped learning about visual storytelling and more importantly, I have found a way to combine the art with positive social change. This new life project became HOME Storytellers for which I have been so lucky to partner with my daughter Alejandra.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
Alejandra: In our 2 years of HOME Storytellers, we never expected a pandemic to get in the way. When it first broke out, we were worried about how we would continue with our work and felt very disappointed when we saw the need to postpone the production of SAWDUST, which would take place in Malawi at the end of April 2020. We knew, however, that we did not want to let COVID-19 stop us from delivering films that could help refugees especially considering the consequences that this pandemic would rapidly have. Around that time, we heard about 1951 Coffee Company and felt very compelled to partner with them and support them through these difficult moments. It was going to be a challenge to create a film under the current circumstances and creativity would take on a major role on how we would go about this. We spent days immersed in brainstorming ideas and looking at references. Finally, we decided that the visual outcome of this piece would be a montage of a variety of distinct visual resources such as online interviews, footage created by the protagonists, and existing footage from a filmmaker that had worked with 1951 Coffee Company a few years ago. We also worked with two local cinematographers, who spent a day with each of the protagonists, filming in accordance with social distancing measures. Luckily, our inhouse producer is based in San Francisco and she did an amazing job helping it all come together. The film is called NO SINGLE ORIGIN and will premiere in late September 2020.
Francisco: In September of 2019, my daughter Alejandra and I had just arrived in Malawi for the development phase of our upcoming short film SAWDUST. It was the first time we had set foot in this remote country and we found ourselves with the typical disorienting feeling after an extremely long flight. As we arrived at the airport, we met Innocent Magambi (Executive Director of the Malawian NGO There is Hope) who had agreed to receive us and drive us to their facilities at the Dzaleka Refugee camp about 35 miles away from Lilongwe. We greeted each other with excitement as we met for the first time face to face and within minutes of knowing each other, Innocent suddenly looked at us and said, “Here, take the keys. Today you drive.” My daughter and I looked at each other and thought he must be joking… but he was very serious.
Fortunately, I had some experience driving on the left side of very narrow roads because of our past experience living in England and Australia. We later found out that he wanted to leave us his car for the rest of the trip and it was his way of making sure we would be okay.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Alejandra: One of the things that makes me fall a little more in love with making documentaries each day are the unexpected surprises. I’m not going to lie…some of these surprises can be stressful but whether good or bad, they always seem to lead to something wonderful. I’d like to tell you about one of the “good” surprises that led us to meet an amazing boy. His name is Israel.
It was during our development trip to Malawi when we first met his father Jacques Kabongo, a man from the Democratic Republic of Congo who had arrived in Dzaleka Refugee Camp after fleeing the conflict in his home country and whose life as a refugee had been changed for the good after graduating from the carpentry vocational training program at There is Hope. It didn’t take long for us to realize the power in his story and asked him to be the protagonist of our upcoming film SAWDUST. The next day, he invited us to his home to get some shots of him and his family. As we opened the door, we were absorbed by the soft sound of a guitar. We walked in to find his 14 year-old son, Israel, sitting on the couch illuminated by the gentle light entering through a small window. Next to him sat his 5 little brothers and sisters singing alongside him. It was a beautiful moment. We later found out that Israel had taught himself to play and that he had already composed a few songs. We will be using one of them for the documentary. You can hear it now in SAWDUST’s trailer. Israel asked us for our phone so we could stay in touch. He often asked us to send him pdfs of music so he could continue learning. Astonished by his drive and after a conversation with Berkeley College of Music, they were so surprised by his talent, that they facilitated a student mentor to help Israel continue his musical education through Whatsapp.
Francisco: By the nature of our work we interact all the time with very interesting people with incredible stories. Innocent Magambi was born a refugee and spent the first 27 years of his life in 5 refugee camps in Eastern and Southern Africa. He has been awarded the “Builders of Africa’s Future Award” in recognition for the transformational work the organization he founded is doing to address issues affecting Africa. More recently, we have interacted a lot with Doug Hewitt, the co-founder of 1951 Coffee Company. Doug is dedicating his life to increase the resettlement success of refugees in the San Francisco Bay Area. We are blessed with the possibility of being close witnesses to these amazing stories.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
Francisco & Alejandra: We have to respond to this question together as both of us are working on the same projects. We have two exciting projects right now. We are producing a short documentary film called SAWDUST in the Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi Africa. The story of Jacques Kabongo and his family who were forced to flee their accommodated situation due to the life-threatening violence in the conflict-stricken Democratic Republic of Congo. The film confronts tragedy with hope and is a testament that while waiting for repatriation or resettlement, refugees’ lives can be positively transformed at the refugee camps through vocational education. The other project is another short documentary film with the title of NO SINGLE ORIGIN. This is a story about a young man from East Tennessee who after opening his eyes to the complexity of immigration through volunteering and working with the refugee population in the San Francisco Bay Area. He takes action by starting 1951 Coffee Company, a nonprofit providing barista training and employment for refugees in Berkeley, California. Three graduates of 1951Coffee’s Barista Training Program share their stories, revealing their challenges and struggles after being resettled in the U.S. Through the world of coffee, a profound friendship unfolds, highlighting the importance of human connection and how community driven education, support, and integration can significantly increase resettlement success.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
Alejandra: The person that comes to mind is James Baldwin. I recently watched the film “I Am Not Your Negro” based on James Baldwin’s unfinished book and was extemely inspired by his courage and diligence to stand up for significant change. I was awed by his capacity to articulate his thoughts and find the perfect wording to communicate his emotions. Moreover, the film is extremely well achieved by using references of historic movies and shows as a reflection of the social context.
Francisco: The two historical figures that immediately come to my mind are Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. I am really attracted to the moral authority that both of them gained by the congruence of their actions that help them to become effective leaders of very significant social change.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
Francisco & Alejandra: Let us start answering this question by providing a definition of what a refugee is. They are people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country. They often have had to flee with little more than the clothes on their back, leaving behind homes, possessions, jobs and loved ones. There are about 26 million refugees in the world in 2020. We decided to dedicate our energy, passion, and visual storytelling skills to work for a future where meaning, purpose, and fulfilment are part of refugees’ lives. We create awareness and support for refugee self-reliance solutions through inspiring short documentary films and multimedia.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
Alejandra: My aha moment was definitely the moment my father called me to tell me about the idea of starting a project that could lie in the intersection of visual storytelling and social good. For months I had been going over and over about what to do with my life and even though I was exploring possibilities, I just couldn’t find the right fit. It was on that call that something in me lit up and I knew that this was what I was meant to be doing. It had everything I was looking for and an extra convincing element: working with my dad!
Francisco: I cannot recall a specific moment, I think of it more like a process. Migration has been a topic since I was a child in Mexico. I clearly remember my father frequently speaking about his dream to migrate to the U.S. because of the potential of a better life there. Then my job at Kellogg’s gave me the opportunity to personally live the relocation experience to other countries. We experienced first hand what it meant to start over: new home, new schools, new languages, new culture. It was very difficult even with the big support we had from the company. At the end, it was our decision to move and of course there were big positives for us. But a big question started to circle my mind, what about those who weren’t given the option? What about those who had to abandon everything and run into the unknown to protect their lives?
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Francisco & Alejandra: In May 2019 we finished the production of a short documentary film called HOT DOGS ON A TRICYCLE. The story of Mario, a teenager from El Salvador who had to flee his home and country when his life was threatened by the Maras gang. He reached the south of Mexico and received legal support from the nonprofit Asylum Access. Once Mario received the official refugee status by the Mexican government, he was hired by a plastic molding plant and became a well regarded employee. This film has helped more than 1,500 refugee families in finding safety and accessing their rights to fair work, education and healthcare.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
Francisco & Alejandra
- We are always looking for extraordinary personal stories that reflect extraordinary refugee self-reliance solutions.
- We are always seeking individuals or organizations who want to become impact partners through funding or in-kind support.
- Another important support need is to facilitate community screenings to promote discussion and action. We will soon have a toolkit for NO SINGLE ORIGIN community screenings.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Francisco & Alejandra
- It is easier for individuals to donate directly to a solution than a film that will create awareness and support for the solution. We appreciate that perspective, however with the experience we have gained, donating to an impact campaign powered by an inspiring short documentary film can multiply at least 4–6 times the impact of the funding on the solution.
- Dedicate a lot of quality time to the film development phase. As filmmakers we want to get quickly to the fun part, the production and the post-production. We have learned the importance of researching, debating, agreeing, and writing the objective of the project: why it is relevant, who is the audience, how we will reach the audience, what the artistic approach will be, and most importantly what is the impact vision and goals. And do not cut short the identification of the story and the selection of the characters.
- There are always unexpected surprises in documentary filmmaking, both good and bad. Once, after we had already selected the main character of a story, we had people already traveling for the production and ready to start when we got a phone call saying that she had gone out of the city and was no longer available. We immediately had to find a plan b. Fortunately, there was a secondary character in the story that was strong enough to become the principal character. We now know that in documentary you always have to have a plan b and even a plan c.
- Producing a great film does not ensure great impact. When we started HOME Storytellers, our focus was only in the film production and a bit naively we assumed that the expected impact somehow would come. We now know that in order to maximize the impact we have to be involved in the communication campaign to reach the target audiences. For example, our current project NO SINGLE ORIGIN in partnership with the 1951 Coffee Company includes premiere events, social media, communication partnerships, corporate and community screenings all integrated with a call-to-action.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Alejandra: We find ourselves living in a really unique moment. A moment where innovation and creativity is encouraged. This is a fantastic opportunity to become entrepreneurs and architects of our own jobs! With HOME Storytellers, I’ve witnessed firsthand that it is possible to do what you love and create a positive impact. We need to take advantage of this moment in time and start creating more jobs that do social good, give us meaning, and at the same time allow us to earn a living. For me that is the perfect equation.
Francisco: Well, I do not have to go very far for an example of how meaningful and fulfilling making a positive impact can be for young people. I am a witness of how my daughter Alejandra’s life has been transformed by the experience. Of course, she is working to support herself but at the same time her work is having a very significant positive impact on our society. I want to encourage young people to explore their own situations to find avenues to make a difference for the environment or society.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
Alejandra: Clemantine Wamariya. The more I learn about her the more I am intrigued to know more and connect with her. She is an outstanding speaker and the way she uses her voice to raise awareness and contribute to the creation of a just society is extremely inspiring. I am amazed by her story and the strength she has to tell it. I hope that one day we can have the opportunity to meet and join forces together to make change.
Francisco: As a retired Food Industry Executive I have a lot of admiration for Hamdi Ulukaya, the Founder, Chairman and CEO of Chobani. Hamdi started hiring refugees in his factory in New York state, and soon realized they were some of his most loyal, hard-working, and committed employees. This experience inspired him to found the Tent Partnership for Refugees, which encourages businesses to help integrate refugees economically into their new communities. The Tent Partnership for Refugees now includes more than 100 large multinational companies making public and specific commitments to support refugees.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Alejandra: Ever since I was a little girl, my mother always said to me, “Don’t take life so seriously.” I would have to say this is the best advice I’ve ever gotten. Life is hard and messy, but it always goes on. I try to remember this phrase when I am confronted with big challenges because in the moment they seem huge and really scary but eventually you overcome them and they just…drift away.
When I am starting a new project I always have this really strong feeling of fear. Of not knowing what the outcome of the project is going to be like. I guess it is part of embarking on creative projects. As Elizabeth Gilbert said: “Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into the realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome.” When I get this feeling of fear, I try to think of what my mother says. It helps me relax and that’s when ideas just magically float into my mind.
Francisco: The strong words from novelist Nadia Hashimi capture why I decided to dedicate this phase of my life to the refugee cause, “Refugees didn’t just escape a place. They had to escape a thousand memories until they’d put enough time and distance between them and their misery to wake to a better day.” It is unthinkable to many of us being forced to flee our home, our town or city, our country because the conditions make it impossible to have a safe life. And tragically, that happens too many times in our world today.
How can our readers follow you online?
- They can find us in our website: www.homestorytellers.org
- Vimeo: vimeo.com/homestorytellers
- Instagram: @homestorytellers
- Facebook: facebook.com/homestorytellers/
- Twitter: @homestoryteller
This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!