Well-Founded Fear

2000, 119 minutes
Directors/Producers: Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini
Distributed by The Epidavros Project Inc.

Asylum Officer Gerald. Photo: Michael Camerini

Interview with Well Founded Fear filmmakers, Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini


What generally inspires you as a filmmaker?

Like every filmmaker, we get terribly involved in, attached to, and certainly inspired by the people and the ideas in all our shows. But in a more general sense, a film isn't just about its subject. It's also always about "seeing" in its simplest meaning.

We are inspired to make films that ask a viewer to watch closely, to pay attention to details, to notice the things people say. In real life, every moment is full of meanings (some of them contradictory.) There are multiple possible interpretations, and sometimes things that are on the surface don't seem to make sense. In film, as in real life, the words people say matter – and so does the color and light on the walls. A good movie, we think, helps you notice all those things, and that's what we love to do.

Well-Founded Fear - Post-Card.
When and how did you decide to undertake this project?

It's a funny story of something good coming out of a complete failure! Before Well Founded Fear, we had been working hard for a couple of years to launch a large, prime-time TV series about people on the move all over the world after the fall of the Soviet Union – refugees, displaced persons, migrants of all kinds. It was an idea the scholars loved, but no broadcaster we spoke to at that point would even consider devoting six hours of prime time to a series about "international issues." We finally had to recognize that our dream was absolutely not going to happen.

Just at that point an old friend, who had already had a long career in refugee resettlement, decided to cross the lines and become an asylum officer. Over dinner one night, she described this strange but very interesting place she was trying to get used to working in, and right there in the Asylum Office. Fortunately, as a result of all the research on the refugee series, we also had an advisor who graciously agreed to take our letter of request directly to the Commissioner of the INS. Once she agreed, we were on our way.

What were your goals in making Well Founded Fear? What would you like a viewer to understand after seeing the film?

We made Well Founded Fear with a broad general audience in mind, but for every viewer, we'd like people to think about this:

Political asylum is an institution that clearly turns the spotlight back on us as Americans – how we deal with others in need reveals fundamental truths about ourselves and our institutions, and cuts to the core of our commitment to human rights. Well-Founded Fear examines the meaning and the nature of political asylum in this country today, both from the inside – from the experience of people whose lives are marked by it – and from the wider perspective of the U.S. as a nation.

Well-Founded Fear - Huang Xiang, from China. Photo: Leo Hsu
At the level of public discourse, the film is about America's relationship to its ideals and to the complexity of living up to an ideal. It's about the enormous disparities among the countries of the world, our ambivalence toward new arrivals, and about the ways foreigners become us, Americans, part of this nation of immigrants.

At a personal level it's about how easy it is to take on the critical and distancing role of judge, how ephemeral one's own compassion can be, how hard it is to be fair, and how nearly impossible really to know the truth.

As we watch asylum officers struggle to balance sympathy with good sense and tough-mindedness, we may also realize that their decisions mirror the larger choices about our role in the world that the United States as a nation must make.

What were some of the difficulties and challenges you experienced in making this film? When filming, how do you hold your emotions back when you see injustice or suffering?

People always ask about the "access", about how we got into the asylum office. In a funny way, the official access was a pretty lucky break. As I mentioned, a trusted advisor who was also a close friend and colleague of the Commissioner relayed our request, and presumably vouched for us in some way. She thought our argument, that a documentary was a good idea for the Asylum Corps, was convincing enough to agree.

But the REAL access, the ability to film anything worthwhile, with the people we were filming being comfortable enough to ignore the camera – or sometimes enjoy it – took months and months in the case of the Asylum Officers, and was even more complicated in the case of asylum-seekers.

At least we knew where the Asylum Officers were for five days a week. The asylum-seekers only turned up at the office once, and that day was not usually the best day to convince them to be in a movie, any movie. We had to invent ways to find people who would have asylum interviews before the day they appeared in the office, and then go further to find the ones who would be open to letting us on film. In each case we talked to officers, asylum seekers and their advisors or attorneys. We had to prove our sincerity over and over again. That kind of "access" never comes easily.

What were some of the difficulties and challenges you experienced in making this film? When filming, how do you hold your emotions back when you see injustice or suffering?

Of course, when you're making a documentary, real people are your subjects and you have a real relationship with them, as well as some responsibilities. Whatever emotions we felt, we had to keep our performances intact, and not draw attention away from the experiences our subjects were having. The last thing we wanted to do was to be so sensitive that we upset our subjects on our own account.

Aside from the performance aspect though, we pretty much feel that making a good film involves experiencing all the emotions that sweep over you as fully as possible, then trying to drag them out and analyze them for use in turning the footage into a movie. You want that movie to be a communication to an audience who probably has never experienced this or that exact situation, or even thought about it.

I think it's fair to say that making Well Founded Fear, the whole crew went through a roller-coater of emotion while we were shooting, and then for the next year and a half, even the edit caused us huge sadness as well. But that's the truth of this subject – the world is not fair.

Everybody's luck, or fate, is his or her own. Even if our laws were more generous or humane, there would still be ample room for sadness.

Did your initial theories or feelings towards the subject change during filming? If so, how or in what ways? How do you incorporate (or ignore) those changes into the filmmaking experience?

Well, in the end, the one page piece of paper we wrote at the very beginning to request permission was still pretty accurate. But everything in it, every word, had deepened in meaning as a result of the full circle of experience we had in the asylum offices. Hopefully that got reflected in layers of complexity that different viewers can see in the final film.

What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?

Since the summer of 2001, we've been at work on a project that has grown from a film idea into something more like a television series, a cinema-verité soap opera or telenovela. The idea is still an official secret, but the working title is How Democracy Works Now. We plan to shoot through the 2004 elections, and would love to be on the air in 2005.


Human Rights Video Project is presented by National Video Resources
73 Spring Street Suite 403 • New York, NY 10012
tel:212.274.8080 • fax:212.274.8081 • info@nvr.org • www.nvr.org
Page last updated on March 2011. Comments or suggestions please email webmaster@nvr.org.