What happens to history’s forgotten people? How did young Polish women deported to the Soviet Union end up as refugees in African villages in the 1940s? 'Memory Is Our Homeland' exposes the tragic fate of nearly 1,000,000 Polish Catholics and Jews who were deported to Siberian labour camps during the Second World War, and the tens of thousands of them who wound up in East Africa after an odyssey through Iran and India.
Interview with Writer/Director/Producer Jonathan Durand
Congratulations! Why did you make your film?
Growing up in an family that was symbolically headed by my Polish grandmother, I spent a lot of time listening to her stories about her childhood as a WW2 refugee in Iran and Africa. She would tell me about Siberia, Kazakstan, Iran, India, and East Africa, and had a photo of herself as a young woman, living in a traditional African hut. Her stories of deportation to the Soviet Union from Poland in 1940 – one young girl among one million Polish citizens deported to forced labour in Siberia – seemed right out of this history books. When I got to high school and university, though, none of my teachers had heard about this history, and some of them even denied that it could have happened, because they'd never personally read about it.
After spending 2 years in my late 20s living and working in South Africa and Mozambique, I started thinking more deeply about the strange upbringing that my grandmother had spent in that part of the world, as a European refugee in Africa. I came home to Canada in 2008 and started interviewing my grandmother, then her sister, and their cousins and friends, to document a historical event that only seemed to exist in their stories. Over time, I started travelling to archives and locations around the world, stitching together the survivors' stories with the few remaining physical fragments of it (documents, photographs, remnants of the former refugee camps). The film that it resulted in was the culmination of a 10-year process of piecing together my grandmother's narrative with the story of a much larger communal history.
Imagine I’m a member of the audience. Why should I watch this film?
On the surface, 'Memory Is Our Homeland' is a film that tells the story of an exceptionally specific, niche community: Polish children deported to the Soviet Union in the 1940s who ended up as refugees in British-occupied Iran and colonial East Africa, into the 1950s. Even though their history is very obscure, their story contains themes that not only broader our understanding about WW2, but that are deeply relevant to our times: population displacement, the control of and re-writing of history, concepts of fragmented cultural identity, and the erasure of women's narratives of war and trauma. My hope is that audiences will come away having learned something about the Second World War that is almost universally unknown, while feeling personally inspired by a story that isn't so much about the suffering of a community in the face of ethnic cleansing, but the human dignity they came through with, in spite of it.
How do personal and universal themes work in your film?
The goal of this film is to tell people an unknown story contained within the most documented event in history – the Second World War. What's significant isn't only that we're rescuing that history, but where we're uncovering it from: the memories elderly Polish grandmothers, my own and others. The film takes my personal relationship with my grandmother, and uses the questions that any grandchild tends to ask their grandparents (where are we from?) as the entry point into uncovering a chapter of the war that wasn't just forgotten, but deliberately erased. The personal themes (ex: the importance of learning to really listen to our grandmothers – especially for young men) help uncover the deeper truths: that the events that she experienced as a young woman, and spent a lifetime being told couldn't have happened, have been alive in the memories of women like her, since WW2. Through the stories of the characters in the film, we come to see that this chapter of history may not only have been erased because it was politically problematic for the Soviets and Western Allies to acknowledge it, but because it was easy for them to do, since survivors were almost all women and children. In that way, the simple gesture of sitting down and engaging with my grandmother's memories becomes an act of political resistance, by believing her, and countering the incomplete version of history that I've spent my lifetime being taught was true. For me personally, as a male filmmaker, it also means allowing myself to accept the trauma that has been held by the women in my family as part of my own, and as something that I need to identify and grow from, as a man.
How have the script and film evolved over the course of their development?
At the beginning of the process in 2008, the concept of the film was to put my grandmother and the other survivors at the centre of the film as the living storytellers of an erased history. When I started receiving funding to make the film, my grandmother very suddenly passed away, taking away the storyteller that was supposed to be at the centre of the film. In my mind, the film was over, because there was no way to recreate a history that essentially died with the person who had lived it. I had nothing but fragments: a few old papers and photographs, a couple of hours of interview footage. After putting aside the project for nearly 2 years, I slowly began to understanding that the experience of losing my grandmother actually contained the deeper truth of our family history: in losing the storyteller who had kept it alive for us, we risked losing our collective history, and since it really was a collective history (1 million people deported from Poland) I could turn to those people to piece together where we were from. So the script that had started with my grandmother telling her story turned into me inheriting the story from her, and keeping it alive as a storyteller.
What type of feedback have you received so far?
The response to the film has been exceptionally positive, with people telling me that it taught them about a fascinating part of history, while also helping many people re-connect with their own roots (regardless of whether they're Polish or not). I premiered the film to an audience that included a half-dozen survivors of the deportations, and several dozen members of their extended families. For those people, the feedback was especially positive, because it's the first time that nearly any of us has seen images of our own history onscreen, after a lifetime of listening to the stories at home.
Has the feedback surprised or challenged your point of view?
The feedback in general hasn't surprised me, though I've been very encouraged by how deeply it's resonated for some people. On the other hand, there has been some feedback re: some of the history in the film, that challenged my approach to telling the story.
Given that the film is about a very complex and politicized event, I haven't been too surprised by the reaction, but it is making me realize that some audiences will have very strong opinions on what they see. The film is partly about people maintaining a cultural identity in the midst of very deliberate attempts on the part of the Soviet Union to break it down: because this form of ethnic cleansing was an explicitly political act, it's understandable that some people would want the film to connect it to contemporary politics. I feel that being challenged in this way has only made me clarify the decision to make the film about the human experience of the people going through the deportations, rather than linking it to the current national politics of the countries the victims and perpetrators are from.
What are you looking to achieve by having your film more visible on www.wearemovingstories.com?
The goal in sharing the film is to share these deeply intimate portraits of survivors with a wider audience. On the one hand, the goal of doing that is to broaden public knowledge about the Polish deportees to the Soviet Union who ended up as refugees in Africa - after a decade of speaking to hundreds and hundreds of people about this project, I've only ever come across 5 or 6 people who knew anything about this history. On the other hand, I think the story also contains powerful lessons about the era we're living in, and I'd like the film to start conversations about themes around immigration, identity, the darker politics of WW2, and of who gets to write official history.
Who do you need to come on board (producers, sales agents, buyers, distributors, film festival directors, journalists) to amplify this film’s message?
I'm looking for film festivals interested in a personal, thought-provoking film, film festivals connected to to audiences that will come out for screenings (Polish, Jewish, Iranian, African audiences have all shown deep interest), distributors that can help with reaching USA, European, African, and Asian audiences, and sales agents who can connect us with broadcast & online platforms.
What type of impact and/or reception would you like this film to have?
I would like the film to start a conversation about the re-examining how WW2 history is framed, as well as our concept of what a refugee is. I'd also like this to spark interest in telling other unknown stories about these Polish refugees – it's exceedingly rich material, and there are many projects to do about it.
What’s a key question that will help spark a debate or begin a conversation about this film?
The first modern refugee camps in the Middle East and Africa were for Europeans – 120,000 Polish survivors of Soviet deportations spread out in camps in Iran and East Africa from 1942-52. What was so dangerous about this history that the USSR, the UK, and the United States all felt compelled to erase it?
What other projects are the key creatives developing or working on now?
They are working on a fictional adaptation of the documentary and a documentary about digital information and data format obsolescence.
Interview: January 2019
We Are Moving Stories embraces new voices in drama, documentary, animation, TV, web series, music video, women's films, LGBTQIA+, POC, First Nations, scifi, supernatural, horror, world cinema. If you have just made a film - we'd love to hear from you. Or if you know a filmmaker - can you recommend us? More info: Carmela
Memory Is Our Homeland
What happens to history’s forgotten people? How did young Polish women deported to the Soviet Union end up as refugees in African villages in the 1940s? 'Memory Is Our Homeland' exposes the tragic fate of nearly 1,000,000 Polish Catholics and Jews who were deported to Siberian labour camps during the Second World War, and the tens of thousands of them who wound up in East Africa after an odyssey through Iran and India. Through the recollections of the filmmaker's grandmother and other survivors, the film exposes a deliberately erased chapter of history, and questions the nature of identities rooted in exile and trauma.
Director: Jonathan Kolodziej Durand
Producer: Jonathan Kolodziej Durand
Writer: Jonathan Kolodziej Durand
About the writer, director and producer:
JONATHAN KOLODZIEJ DURAND is a documentary filmmaker and photographer based in Montreal, Canada. "Memory Is Our Homeland" is his first feature-length documentary.
Looking for: sales agents, journalists, film festival directors, buyers
Facebook: Memory Is Our Homeland
Funders: Telefilm Canada, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Poland), Self-funded
Where can I watch it next and in the coming month? TBD