Syrian-American composer and pianist Malek Jandali.

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Notes for My Homeland, the first documentary produced at Rutgers University–Newark by Newest Americans, featured the music of Syrian-American composer and pianist Malek Jandali, interspersed with images from war-torn Syria. Blending traditional Arab music with Western harmonies, Jandali looks at his Syrian identity from his American perspective.

By Tim Raphael’s reckoning, roughly 130 of the 195 nations on the planet have been represented by students in his classroom at Rutgers University–Newark. That demographic reality inspired Raphael—an arts professor always on the lookout for a good story—to tap the diversity of those students who filled his classes with their limitless, untold stories every day. The only question was how to showcase them. Newest Americans is his triumphant answer.

Newest Americans, introduced in May, is a thrice-yearly digital magazine of documentaries, essays, music, and oral histories about lives as they are lived in the Far East, the Middle East, South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Newark itself, the city in which it all comes together.

In the broadest sense, Newest Americans tells the story of modern immigrant students who identify with multiple countries, calling every place and no place their homeland and using social media to navigate many cultures at once, says Raphael. Newest Americans can be as specific as telling the story of Mohamed Alsiadi, a native of Aleppo, Syria, and a musician who plays Waslah music. It’s an art form that underscores the cultural identity of Syrians and also unifies Syrian Muslims, Jews, and Christians, who recognize Aleppian Waslah as an important tradition. Strife in Syria figures into Notes for My Homeland, the first short documentary produced by Newest Americans, which features the music of Syrian-American composer Malek Jandali interspersed with images from the war-torn nation. Blending traditional Arab music with West­ern harmonies, Jandali looks at his Syrian identity from his American perspective.

“There’s not a single student whom I have taught who is not a hyphenated citizen,” says Raphael, an associate professor in the Department of Arts, Culture, and Media and also the director of the Center for Migration and the Global City at Rutgers–Newark. “What these students brought to the table, which hadn’t been valued, was an incredible knowledge of the rest of the world, of things I knew nothing about.

“If demographers are telling us that the United States is going to look more like this campus than anyplace else,” he continues, “don’t we have a responsibility to understand the issues, the complications, and the possibilities for these kids?”

After receiving full-throated support from Nancy Cantor, the chancellor of Rutgers–Newark, to pursue a three-year longitudinal study, which began last fall, Raphael consulted colleagues. In creating the project, Raphael collaborated with journalists, filmmakers, faculty, students, and university units, most notably the Department of Arts, Culture, and Media and the Center for Migration and the Global City. Full-day meetings were held. Curricula were combed for ideas and links. Formats were considered and refined. Throughout the process, the digital magazine remained the best platform because, says Raphael, it embraces all the forms of communication students have come to expect.

Among the stories presented on the Newest Americans web magazine is one about a Mexican-American woman who arrived in the United States with her parents when she was 4 and is now a student at the School of Law–Newark. She won’t be able to practice law after she earns her degree, however, because she and her father do not have legal status to remain in the country, even though her sister, mother, and grandparents do. “The story is about how different immigrant statuses in a single family result in different life opportunities and limitations,” says Raphael.

Another story features a boy from China who came to Newark to attend Rutgers–Newark and wrote a graphic novel, which depicts the fears and stereotypes that many Asian Americans have about Newark. “His character ventures off campus into Newark to buy a commuter pass and discovers a different city than one that he had imagined,” says Raphael.

And a third story looks at Newark itself, presenting a then-and-now panorama that traces the growth of the city and its changing demographic composition. Today, Newark, a city of migration, has neighborhoods representing almost every continent. “You look at these stories of people who are not like you, and you understand the ways they bring something rich to the American fabric,” says Raphael. “Some of these stories are inspirational. Some are troubling. Some are amusing. We don’t want this to be just a clinical look. It’s about the range of human experience. We’ll see how well we did the job.” — Wendy Plump

For more information, visit newestamericans.com.


 

The War After, a documentary produced by the Rutgers Center for Digital Filmmaking explains the plight of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan and trying to acclimate to college life at Rutgers.

US Army, Batista being interviewed

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The War After, a documentary produced by the Rutgers Center for Digital Filmmaking, tells the stories of nine of the nearly 2,000 veterans who have returned from service to enroll at Rutgers. Through interviews, postwar footage, and helmet-cam footage from the front lines, the film highlights the realities facing modern soldiers that make civilian life so difficult.

Photography: 
Signe Sundberg-Hall

Although they are over a decade old, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely the most narrated in history. Every few months a new memoir, novel, film, or study is released. But for all that commentary, the wars haven’t resolved themselves into a clear message of experience, and the public remains sympathetic, yet  mystified, by the plight of its veterans. The new documentary The War After, produced by Dena Seidel, the director of the Rutgers Center for Digital Filmmaking, goes a long way in explaining why this is.

The War After tells the stories of nine of the nearly 2,000 veterans who have returned from service to enroll at Rutgers. Through interviews, postwar footage, and helmet-cam footage from the front lines, the documentary highlights the irreconcilable realities facing modern soldiers that make civilian life so difficult. They are awash, says Seidel, in contradictions.

The veterans, now students, talk about how they hated the war, and how they loved it. They wanted to go home, yet they miss active duty. They felt the war had no clear purpose, yet as individuals they had never felt more purposeful. Service was nothing like they had imagined, but infinitely worse—and better.

Their candid comments echo those of Army reservist Nicole D. Johnson, a graduate student at the School of Environmental and Biologi­cal Sciences. “I hated it, but  I miss it,” she tells the  camera. “Which doesn’t make any sense.”

Or of Seamus McGuinness SAS’14, who was in the Air Force: “I’m in a room with a bunch of 19-year-olds who never left New Jersey. I’m 28. I’ve just gone through some pretty not-normal situations.”

Or of Army helicopter pilot Justin Sasso, a senior at the School of Arts and Sciences, who says of the lost companionship of service, “Where is everybody?”

It took three years, 200 hours of recorded interviews, eight film students, and the invaluable input of Colonel Stephen G. Abel (retired Army), the retiring director of the Rutgers Office of Veteran and Military Programs and Services, to create The War After. That was the easy part. The tough part, says Seidel, like so many documentarians, was earning the trust of her subjects.

Initially, the interviews with the nine young veterans were superficial because of their wariness, she says. But for Seidel, who has directed several feature-length documentaries through the center, that simply would not do.

“It couldn’t just be, ‘The military taught me leadership and empowered me,’ or ‘I was really damaged and now I need services.’ That’s not interesting and no one listens to that. The military taught all these people to be leaders and they all came back really damaged. It’s those terrible contradictions.

“We had to keep going back and saying to them, ‘This is your movie. You’re going to represent the veteran experience to the larger public.’”

The film toggles between childhoods, war footage, and scenes of the veterans’ home lives—pushing a daughter on a swing, sitting in class, at work in the Coast Guard—as it uncovers their experiences. Some are parents, some are rich, some are military kids, some are gay, some are older. Seidel purposely chose a diverse cast to blow the cobwebs off any veteran stereotypes.

By the final moments of the 70-minute documentary, the viewer is aware of how articulate people can be about their own confusions, another seeming contradiction that nevertheless illuminates, with honesty and warmth, the complexities of veterans’ just trying to fit back in. — Wendy Plump

The War After will be screened on September 21 and 22 at 7 p.m. at Rutgers Cinema, Livingston Campus, 105 Joyce Kilmer Avenue, Piscataway. For more information, visit thewarafter.rutgers.edu.