Parkite shines light on refugees in Utah
Park City native and KUED producer Paige Sparks’ documentary on refugees in Utah aired in June of 2015. Titled "Finding Home: Utah’s Refugee Story," the documentary was a way to put faces and names to the people who have come to Utah in search of a better life. Little did Sparks know that just a few months later, Syrian refugees would dominate headlines. As someone who worked so closely with refugees for her film, seeing the negative reactions, the calls for blocking Syrian refugees from coming to America, caught her by surprise.
"[It] breaks my heart," she said. "In a time where they need the most help, we are turning our backs. I would hope that if I were in their position, they would open their doors to me, just as they did time and time again during the filming process."
In response to the Syrian refugee situation, KUED will re-air Sparks’ documentary at 9 p.m. Monday, Jan. 11. Sparks, who attended PCHS from 2002-2006 and took part in the school’s film program, said documentary filmmaking was not something she thought she would pursue.
"I never thought I would like documentaries until I was in college [at the University of Utah] and started paying attention to what was happening in the world," she said. "I started in the Film Studies program but quickly discovered that I could get twice the experience by doing a double major in Mass Communications. Between the two I was able to figure out how much I loved hearing real stories from real people rather than following a script."
Sparks said she fell in love with the process.
"I love the chase," she said. "Finding a story that you can really relate to and then finding ways to have the audience gain your same keen interest. I have always told myself that if I don’t have a strong interest in the topic, it will be really hard for me to get my audience to care. Which is why I am always really careful when it comes to picking subject matter."
Sparks said the refugee documentary was one of those passion projects for her, and it was an idea she pitched. It was a service trip to Kenya two years prior to making the film that got Sparks thinking she wanted to explore the subject.
"My experience in Kenya wasn’t what I thought it would be," she said. "I figured I would go to learn how good I had it, when really I felt almost envious of what they had. Don’t get me wrong, I know that most of their circumstances are incredibly rough, and they face extreme hardships that I will never be able to fully understand.
"However, their sense of community, their love of the little things, and the fact that they really haven’t been jaded by ‘stuff and possessions’ changed the way I see the world."
Sparks said she returned from her trip abroad with a determination to learn more.
"I was there for a month and came back with a new love of the culture and what they value in the world," she said. "After this I began reading more about all things Africa-related. I started learning about the ‘Lost Boys [of Sudan],’ and saw a documentary called ‘God Grew Tired of Us.’ I immediately was inspired to learn what other refugees go through during their relocation process. I guess it all just snowballed from there."
Sparks had worked on smaller projects before, but "Finding Home," she said, was her baby. She pitched it in 2014, started work on it in November of 2014 and completed it in April of 2015. It aired in June.
"The fact that I conceptualized the idea, pitched it to the station, researched, edited, and wrote the story made my attachment to this piece that much greater," she said. "I was given a huge opportunity by KUED to really head the piece, and I had a lot of freedom and support from the station which made it that much more a great experience."
Sparks, who also teaches dance at Park City Dance Academy in Kimball Junction, said her days, already split between her two jobs, became even more hectic when she took on her own film.
"I was working as a production assistant helping other producers with their various projects when I got a green light for the refugee’s idea, so I had about three other projects going at the same time," she said. "Once I was able to go full-time while working on the refugees piece (and still teaching dance part-time) I was working about 25-30 hours a week on ‘Refugees’ and the other 10-15 or so on other producers’ projects since I still needed to fulfill my production assistant duties.
"It was a grueling task to say the least but one of the best experiences of my career. I had never been in charge of a full crew, setting up and conducting interviews in entirely different languages or in broken English, all while making sure I was completing all of my other obligations as well. All in all, I came out of the experience knowing that this is what I am meant to do."
To say Sparks met some interesting people while making the documentary, she said, would be the "understatement of the century."
"The people I met during this film were so incredibly inspirational," she said. "Meeting a man from Burma who left everything for education and a better life, learning English at night after working 10-hour shifts, and studying for his citizenship exam all while sharing one mattress with his wife and two kids in a tiny apartment It is so incredibly difficult for me to choose just one moment."
Sparks actually did meet with a Syrian family for the documentary.
"They were the first Syrian family to come to Utah during the very beginning of the refugee crisis, and I had no idea what I was getting into," she said. "They spoke zero English, so the entire interview was conducted with a translator from Catholic Community Services. There were tears, there was laughing, most of all there was an amazing moment of understanding without words.
"The human connection is an incredible thing, and it doesn’t matter how many language or cultural differences you might have, there is an unspoken language involved when it comes to interviews like that. It was really special."
Sparks said speaking with families in Utah’s refugee community had a profound effect on her.
"They have changed me for the better," she said. "Refugees are some of the most welcoming, kind, hospitable, and respectable people I have ever met in my life. Hands down, they are truly amazing individuals."
Sparks said she is proud of her 30-minute documentary but added she wishes it could have been longer, or that she could make 10 more and turn it into a series. And she said she is glad to know the film will re-air now that the Syrian refugee crisis has garnered so much attention.
"Every headline that has popped up in the media recently is my reasoning behind wanting to re-broadcast the piece," she said. "This film is not supposed to do what the media is so good at doing, which is show the hardships and hopelessness of the situations they are fleeing from. I never wanted that to be the focus. I wanted people to see refugees for what they are: people.
"They are not just empty faces in a sea of violence. They have lives very similar to ours. They have jobs, kids, family, nice homes, neighbors. They never wanted to leave their circumstances; they were forced out because of violence."
Sparks said she hopes people who watch the documentary Jan. 11 will come away with a better understanding of refugees as people, not just a problem to be dealt with or a political football to be tossed around.
"I am hopeful that it will give refugees a voice in a time when they need it most," she said. "I hope it will show people what refugees go through before, during, and after they are relocated. I never want to ‘sway’ someone; that would be manipulative. I just want to open their eyes a little to what really happens in these situations and if I can change an opinion or two for the better, then I have done my job."
KUED will re-air the documentary "Finding Home: Utah’s Refugee Story" at 9 p.m. Monday, Jan. 11.
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