Iraqi immigrant tells his story at homelessness film festival

The festival includes 21 short films and two features. That includes a film from Salam Saif.

The Hamilton festival includes 21 short films and 2 features

Salam Saif, left, made a film called A Child of Babylon for the Core Collaborative Learning Homelessness Film Festival. From left: Jahan Zeb, Saif's case manager at Good Shepherd; Cole Gately, founder of the film festival, and Shane Pennells, a local filmmaker who worked on the film with Fahim. (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Salam Saif, who as a child fled war torn Iraq, is one of the few people in Hamilton who could write a film like A Child of Babylon.

Saif was born in a country torn apart by the U.S. invasion of 2003. He ended up in two other countries, picking up five languages and learning to make and sell crafts on the street. In 2012, at age 17, he landed in Canada.

"I have seen things that most people couldn't dream of," said Saif, a 23-year-old movie buff. Now, "I will learn something from everything and make something of my own."

A Child of Babylon, a seven-minute short, will be part of the Core Collaborative Learning Homelessness Film Festival. The festival includes 21 short films and two features from across Canada, most by or done in collaboration with people who have at some point been homeless. Saif's film premieres Tuesday night.

Saif got involved after telling his Good Shepherd case manager, Jahan Zeb, about his goal of getting involved in film.

"For years, I've been dreaming to become some sort of actor and director and writer," said Saif, whose favourite films include American Gangster and The Godfather. "I have this passion and I don't know how to do it."

"I’ve seen things that most people couldn’t even dream of," says Salam Saif, 23. "I will learn something from everything and make something of my own." (Samantha Craggs/CBC)

Zeb put Saif in touch with film festival founder Cole Gately. Gately connected Saif with Shane Pennells, a local filmmaker who became Saif's mentor.

Saif and Pennells shot the film over three days in October. Pennells is one of the stars of the film, and edited it. During filming though, he said, he kept his distance creatively.

"I don't want it to be my version of Salam's film," he said. "That's what I want to avoid at all costs. What I want is for it to be Salam's vision as close as we can get it with the time we have and the resources we have."

Filming was tough. A Child of Babylon is a series of anecdotes that touch on sensitive themes for Saif — arriving in Canada, needing help from friends, learning to make a living. Pennells's wife Michelle is a therapist who specializes in trauma and gave Saif emotional support.

"After I left Iraq, for three years, I couldn't sleep for four hours continuously," Saif said. When he thinks about it now, "I have no emotions toward that. All I feel is depression and anxiety."

The film festival started on Sunday. It continues Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Lincoln Alexander Centre, 160 King St. E. Admission is $20 and includes panel discussions.

This is the second annual festival, which is part of the national Conference on Ending Homelessness in Hamilton this week.

About the Author

Samantha Craggs

Reporter

Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She has a particular interest in politics and social justice stories, and tweets live from Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca