Amid the backdrop of a contentious presidential election, a health clinic in Southwest Houston is run by and for immigrants and refugees. A family from Iran is bound by love as they build a new home in the city’s most diverse neighborhood.
Filmed in: Houston, Texas
Running time: 1:34:00 min
Digital frame rate: 23.976
Screening format: Blue-Ray, DCP, DVD
Language: English, Farsi, Spanish, Arabic, Karenic
Seeds of All Things is set in the southwest corner of Houston, TX. The city is known as the most diverse in the country, and that corner is home to the highest concentration of immigrant communities from Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Central America. The clinic is supported with the philanthropic contributions of Asian American communities, mostly from China, who came to the city for business decades ago. Now, it is run almost entirely by a staff of immigrants and administered through the leadership of powerful, compassionate women who try to build a culture of care amid the extreme bureaucracy of American healthcare systems.
Filming begins just days before the 2016 US presidential election, when the lives of immigrants are regarded in simplified terms. How much do they cost us? How many of them are terrorists? Are they willing to assimilate? The most pressing questions for patients at HOPE Clinic, however, are far more personal. Is my child ill? How do I lower my blood pressure? How do I pay for this operation?
From the start, we meet a family who’s journey guides our narrative. The Dayan family came just weeks before from Iran. Led by a loving husband and wife, Abbas and Samira, they care for their four children. Ali is the oldest son, age 14. He is wise, hardworking, and eager to build a life of comfort in the US at any cost. Next is Hannah, the most curious and creative in the family. She questions everything and runs everywhere at full speed. Finally, the twins, Helia, the girl, and Elia, the boy, are 3 years old. They were born in Turkey as refugees, having never seen their parents’ home in Iran.
We are also introduced to a member of the staff, a young man named Tha, who came as a refugee from Burma. He is brilliant, outgoing, and exudes a deep sense of friendship. He struggles, however, with his own limitations, fighting between his most ambitious dreams and the allures of watching TV on his couch. With his familiar experiences of migration and a sense of prideful professionalism, he supports the needs of clients who now call Houston home after fleeing untold hardship from all corners of the globe.
A father of three girls from Syria holds his crying daughters as they get their vaccination shots. A mother from Ecuador waits for her newborn to be examined by the doctor. The waiting room is full of women in Hijab from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Jordan, talking amongst one another as their children run around the large room. Even the security guard, Juan, is a refugee who fled his native home in Cuba. Donors, wearing colorful dresses and holding designer handbags, are given a tour of the space as patients sit in examination rooms, waiting to see their doctor.
An unshakable reality is felt in every corner of the building on the day after Donald Trump wins the presidential election. The space cannot avoid the political realities of the world outside. Abbas comes to Yehuda, our lone cameraman and director, with confessions of deep fear and anxiety.
“Why did you bring me here,” he asks the camera. “I thought this would be my home, but I am not sure what will happen.”
The incredible friendship between Abbas and Yehuda begins to grow. Yehuda, the son of Iranian immigrants to Israel, is the first Jew the family has ever met. They begin sharing their story of migration, recounting that the sense of fear, which now appears to be following them in their new home.
Meanwhile, the work of the clinic must continue. The staff, walking in a daze, try to reconcile their own feelings as they process an endless flow of client paperwork. Tha, who had once shared his deep pride as a new citizen, comes to grips with fears he had hoped would disappear. His wife had been assaulted in public. He was yelled at on the streets. As an immigrant in Texas, he contemplates his best means of self-defense: Purchasing a gun. Or perhaps, he thinks, he can defend himself with one tool alone, his right to vote and become involved in the political process.
The film features a continual flow of music, history, and culture. Patients play music in the examination rooms to quell fears and bring comfort to their children. Samira, plays a classic farsi nursery song for herself as much as for her children. She and Abbas listen to Salvadorian pop while eating pupusas in a corner store and sharing their memories of a home they left behind. Samira begins to play a central role in the story, especially after doctors help her understand the source of her constant physical pain. Abbas, too, has high blood pressure. They seek relief from their physical ailments, while attempting to manage their role as loving parents with children in the midst of radical change. Their love for one another is the greatest medicine.
They are not alone in their need to heal. The entire community at HOPE Clinic is forced to consider the realities of the world surrounding them. They must find ways to cope with the reality that their contributions are not valued and that their narratives are being convoluted for political gain. Tha considers the value of a hyper-capitalistic view of success. He wonders if that path will bring him comfort and healing. Again, the only remedy for him and for his surrounding community is a deep, radical love.
In the final scene, Abbas hopes to calm his family’s nerves by preparing his famous, homemade lemonade. Samaria takes the ecstatic Hannah with her to ask the neighbor for some mint. The woman insists that Samira takes a handful of freshly grown mint and a sack of lemons. Hannah swings on a pole, back and forth, trying to catch the attention of the camera, while Samira marvels at her neighbor’s incredible kindness.
In this historical moment bereft of vision, we wake up into multiple catastrophes. We drink coffee into wars. When the incarceration and death of black-brown-yellow-Arab bodies have become part of an endless spectacle, and as obsessive Tweets have become our news, it is film, as an action to grasp and face our realities, where we can reveal and reconnect with our potential as communities and souls in motion.
Seeds of All Things represents the desire to wake up into the personal and political reality of immigrants in urban America. It questions the devastating ways this Republic denies the humanity of its immigrant majority. To outline the experience of immigrants and refugees — beyond the crossing of physical borders — is to look closely into a movement that goes unnoticed, unaccounted, disremembered, and the distance traveled that cannot be measured.
We are always in motion. Within our internal landscapes much ebbs and flows: What happens to our love in such a climate of fear and suspicion? Which questions die and which emerge with the crossing of borders? Is hope still a possibility in the face of calamity and loss? What remains of our homes when we are forced to lose, hide, leave, and begin anew? How are we coping? What weighs more heavily on the heart, loss or new findings? To which god are we praying when the world has seemed to betray us? What do we remember and what do we insist on forgetting? If forgetting is our only chance to survive, what is it that we wish to erase? And even after we attend the burial, alas, some things cannot die, so how do we live with the dying?
To begin portraying that visible yet invisible but always brutal, beautiful, and fantastic reality of border crossings, I started filming in a Southwest Houston health clinic. When I arrived at the clinic, I spent the first week just walking in its sterilized maze, trying to understand what happens around me. Then, I paused. I witnessed the rush, corridors fill, and then empty, and then get busy again, like traffic, like life. I used the camera as an optical machine to witness that movement, constant, but always fleeting, human and broken, watching us as we are observing it.
For six months, I attended every staff meeting, nurse’s huddle, and daily routines around HOPE, a clinic that is run by and caters to local immigrants, among other under served communities. At the same time, the 2016 presidential debate was gaining more and more attention and thus re- shaping and recharging the climate of care at the clinic.
Plastered with neon lights, the waiting room of a doctor’s office sheds labels of refugee, asylum seeker, undocumented migrant, citizen, and alien. It asks for attention and contact. I gradually began to be interested less in the structures of the clinic but more in those when we are marked by that need and cannot do without one another. I realized that human element is at the heart of a space that is distinguished for its hyper sense of hygiene, sterility, and professionalism. By and by, that unbearable fragility and vulnerability in a space where we are exposed, unmasked, and all made of flesh, became the seeds of this piece.
Against the backdrop of sensationalist media about immigrants, Seeds of All Things offers an insight into what American media tends to overlook: the images of fleeting and everlasting embraces between a couple before getting their vaccines; the image of a family from Syria practicing English while waiting for the doctor; the silence of an aging mother who doesn’t know who to blame for her nonexistent health insurance; the anger of an aging man from El Salvador who thinks that this country cursed him with illness, a terrible rash that began in his arms and now crept over his mind; and the music of a couple from China who ask their boy to stop crying and start singing.
The day after the 2016 USA election, I met Abbas and Samira Dayan, recent refugees from Iran who had come to Houston only two-months prior. That day I was filming in the waiting area of the clinic. Neon lights flashed from every corner. As they approached me, Abbas asked me in Farsi why the American government brought them here if they are not interested in helping Muslim immigrants. I didn’t have answers.
Please understand: like Abbas and Samira, but under different circumstances, my parents left Iran and never returned. Unlike them, however, I don’t speak Farsi. In a political space that viewed anything Arab as violent and inferior, I was taught how to hate myself. I look Iranian, also known in Israel as Arab-Jew or Mizrahi (“Eastern”) Jew, but I never knew much about Persian culture, people, and language.
As Abbas continued talking, I held the camera in my hand, refusing to use the Robocop gear that dehumanizes the act of filming. I didn’t film this moment. I didn’t want to film it. I wanted to listen. Anybody can press ON and begin filming, but not everyone can see and listen. Abbas looked nervous; he was sweating heavily. He looked at me, waiting for human contact or something more like attention. Of course, is always very moving but still different from prescribing answers.
I put my camera aside and began introducing myself. Filming emerged first and foremost as a result of human interaction, an encounter of shared vulnerabilities and listening. My name: Yehuda Sharim. And yes, I am Jewish. A former Israel soldier. A prisoner. A product of so many futile wars and the deep sacrifice of my aging and loving parents. And yes, I am the son of hard-working parents who arrived in Israel from Iran by the early 50’s. My father’s name, so I discovered only a few years ago when he is already in his sixties, is Fereydoon and not as I always knew him: Ezra.
Abbas and I immediately trusted one another. I can’t explain this moment. First Abbas and then Samira agreed to be filmed throughout their day in the clinic: their check-ups, blood taking, and vaccination, while continuously playing Persian music. I continued following the family.
Following is another useless way for me to sound professional because deep friendship is not about “following,” but rather a relationship between equals. As our friendship deepened, I continued filming for the next two years.
After viewing more than 300 hours of footage, we began narrating a story about the family. I moved away from a clear chronological order to emphasize the presence of our past in our present and future. Such a non-linear structure along with intimate and extended frames with Abbas and Samira, either waiting for the doctor or of Samira’s trying to explain her depression, reminds us again how limited is our sight. Matters are more complicated than what we see. Treatment can help with visible wounds, but for less apparent wounds, remedies should be found elsewhere, if they can be found at all.
Their stories of the family are not merely of heroes. Nor are/were they victims. To be sure, these definitions are meant to distract one from, and, as it were, justify the national and global obscenity of the so-called civilized world that has terrorized the life of many, far too many, who like the Dayans, remain in motion with the constant resilient yearning for a better life. And yes, like love and kindness, friendship is real.