An award-winning documentary filmmaker who recently relocated to Peterborough-Nogojiwanong is producing a new documentary about refugee journalists in Canada.
Himself a journalist as well as a historian, Dr. James Cullingham’s films with Tamarack Productions have been screened worldwide. His most recent films include Jim Galloway – A Journey in Jazz (2018), In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey (2012), and Lessons in Fear (2005).
Cullingham is now working on his latest documentary, The Cost of Freedom – Refugee Journalists in Canada, scheduled for release later this year.
The Cost of Freedom will profile the individual stories of three refugee journalists — Arzu Yildiz (originally from Turkey), Luis Nájera (originally from México), and Abdulrahman Matar (originally from Syria) — all of whom were forced to flee their countries because of imprisonment and death threats.
Cullingham tells kawarthaNOW that, by sharing these specific human stories, he hopes his film will “open a window on a global crisis” and “raise consciousness” on the global threat to journalism.
A Trent University alumnus, Cullingham has been imagining the film since 2017, but it became a local matter after his move back to Peterborough.
“I hadn’t lived in Peterborough since the 1980s,” Cullingham notes. “Thirty-nine years later, I’m back and I met — courtesy of a very fine filmmaker in Peterborough, Peter Blow — Rob Viscardis and Pawel Dwulit.”
Viscardis and Dwulit jointly run Paradigm Pictures in Peterborough. Viscardis — known for films such as Town of Widows (2019), Last Beer at the Pig’s Ear (2018), and Before We Arrive: The Story of the Weber Brothers (2016) — has signed on as co-producer and post-production coordinator. Dwulit, a photojournalist, cinematographer, and filmmaker, will be the film’s cinematographer.
Viscardi and Dwulit’s involvement with The Cost of Freedom began after Cullingham asked them to film an event at Peter Gzowski College on February 27, 2020. At this event, Cullingham led a panel of discussion with the three refugee journalists the film will profile.
“The three journalists were riveting,” Dr. Cullingham recalls. “It was one of those things that could only happen at Trent University in Peterborough.”
Footage from the event will appear in the finished documentary, a tremendous boost for the project since the pandemic shut everything down — including the film industry — just 10 days after the event.
Although COVID-19 temporarily stalled filming and there is more to be done in the weeks and months ahead, Cullingham says his team is committed to completing the project. They expect the film will be complete by the end of July and released to the public in the fall.
Working on this film is Daniela Leal, a recent graduate of the Cultural Studies program at Trent University, and Shahed Khatio, a film production student currently studying online with George Brown College. Leal is originally from Honduras and has first-hand knowledge of the global threat to journalism. Khatio and her family are Syrian refugees living in Peterborough.
Deborah Palloway, an award-winning documentary film editor, is also committed to the project. She and Cullingham have collaborated on several projects since the 1990s.
Cullingham says it means a great deal to him to have these people working on the project with him.
“It’s gratifying and exciting,” he says. “For 30 years, I’ve worked with a lot of people in Toronto very happily, but it’s great to have developed these relationships and the team here.”
Since the three main characters of the documentary film live in the greater Toronto region, filming will not take place solely in Peterborough. However, Cullingham says the film will be completed here and that all of the post-production will take place locally.
The Cost of Freedom is a timely film, given a recent request by a coalition of press freedom and human rights groups calling on the Canadian government to welcome at least 100 at-risk journalists as refugees annually.
“I think that we Canadians often share a presumption that the world is like Canada,” Cullingham comments. “Canada is an uncommonly safe and secure place to be. Storytellers here, despite all of the challenges, experience nothing like the risk of going to prison and being killed because you’re a journalist.”
According to Cullingham, the three journalists profiled in the film — Luis Nájera, Arzu Yildiz, and Abdulrahman Matar — all either are or want to be Canadian, so by sharing their stories, he is sharing Canadian stories.
Although each would be delighted to get a full-time paying job in journalism, Cullingham explains, this has yet to happen in Canada due to language barriers. Nevertheless, all of them are finding ways to keep their storytelling alive, including through their involvement in this film.
“Getting to know Luis, Arzu, and Abdulrahman has been a real eye-opener and a blessing for me,” Cullingham notes. “They’ve been incredibly generous, patient, and committed.”
Cullingham also says he is grateful to the multiple individuals who have provided much-needed support for the film, as well as organizations including the Symons Trust for Canadian Studies, Peter Gzowski College, New Canadians Centre Peterborough, and Kawartha World Issues Centre.
The film’s development is also being supported through funding from the Canada Council for The Arts.
“We are very grateful to Canada Council for its development support,” Cullingham says. “We are hopeful of further support from broadcasters and cultural agencies going forward.”
The film requires continued financial support and is open to donations from individuals. Any amount would be welcomed.
If you’d like to support the film, contact Tamarack Productions at 416-312-1841 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
As co-producer of the film, Rob Viscardis tells kawarthaNOW that he hopes the Peterborough community will show support for the project, especially since “this is a production happening completely locally at this point between James and our company Paradigm Pictures, so folks would be supporting a local team to tell a global story.”
“The issue at the heart [of the film] affects us all,” Viscardis explains. “They [the refugee journalists] put everything on the line to uncover what they did. The least we can do is help play a part in uncovering their own stories.”
“The issues at the root of this film have massive implications globally so that’s always an attractor for me with a project, but as a filmmaker I am also excited to collaborate with an experienced journalist and filmmaker like James as I continue to develop my career as a filmmaker.”
Cullingham says he realizes not everyone will be able to donate to the film.
“There are other ways of supporting the effort,” he points out. “Stay in touch with the way the community is going to release the film. Maybe people can help in kind rather than in cash when the time comes.”
“It’s very gratifying personally as a filmmaker who has only lived back in Peterborough for less than two years to have this kind of community response to the film,” Cullingham says. “I appreciate it greatly, and it’s certainly a motivator.”
For more information about Tamarack Productions, visit www.tamarackproductions.com.