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Aspen Shortsfest: After freedom

Documentary ‘Welcome Strangers’ looks at what happens after ICE releases detainees in Colorado

Sarah Jackson and Oliver at Casa de Paz in the documentary “Welcome Strangers,” playing at the virtual Aspen Shortsfest through Sunday. Courtesy Aspen Film
IF YOU WATCH…

What: ‘Welcome Strangers’ at Aspen Shortsfest

Where: Eventive via aspenfilm.org

When: Program Nine; Streaming through April 11

How Much: $15/single program; $60/Five Program Pass; $150/Full Virtual Pass; $250/VIP Pass; $45/student pass

Tickets: aspenfilm.org

More info: A livestream Q&A with filmmakers from Program Nine will run Saturday, April 10 at 3 p.m.

So much of what we see about contemporary U.S. immigration is centered on the halls of power in Washington or on the people crossing at the southern border. The eye-opening and inspiring short documentary “Welcome Strangers” instead trains its compassionate focus on a moment you might not have previously thought about.

The 21-minute film, screening at Aspen Shortsfest though Sunday, is about the first minutes, hours and days after people are released from an ICE detention center in Aurora.

It brings the viewer into this industrial stretch of the Denver area, where people – most of them asylum-seekers – walk out of the barbed-wire-topped fences of the prison and into the streets, disoriented and often with little idea of how to find their family, how to restart their life.



The film follows Sarah Jackson and the volunteers from Casa de Paz as they pick up the newly released, offer them some hospitality, bring them to the Casa and begin trying to reunite families.

The instructions for Casa voluneers on pick-up duty, delivered somewhat comically in the film by Jackson, are: “Go to a prison and pick up the people that you find and don’t scare them so much that they run away.”




The service offers the immigrants a simple welcome and a helping hand. At the Casa, they can shower, rest, have some good meals, meet other newcomers and get basics like clothes and toiletries.

Guards and ICE administrators at the facility tell inmates about the Casa and will call the Casa to let volunteers know when people are coming out.

“One guard was like, ‘Hey, don’t worry, there’s a place where you can spend a couple of nights,” Oliver, an asylum-seeker from Cameroon, explains in the film.

Still separated from his wife three years after his release, Oliver had become one of the Casa’s chief volunteers working beside Jackson.

“Welcome Strangers” director Dia Sokol Savage first learned about Sarah Jackson and Casa de Paz in the summer of 2018, when President Trump’s zero tolerance immigration policy rolled out and news reports exposed the practice of separating families at the southern border.

Sokol Savage’s mother volunteered with the Casa and told her filmmaker daughter about it.

“I had never through about that slice of moments when somebody who has been imprisoned and is then legally released,” she recalled in an interview last week, “about what that first 24 hours is like for them.”

A week after her mom’s call, Sokol Savage came to Denver to see Casa de Paz and meet Jackson.

Shot in December 2018 and January 2019, the film – in its observational style – brings viewers into those first moments of freedom as Casa de Paz volunteers search for newly released detainees, and try to help them (in one poignant moment, a newly released man named Javier assumes the volunteer is an immigration officer taking him back in) and into the Casa.

Open since 2012, Casa de Paz has operated across the Obama, Trump and Biden administrations. From her vantage point, Jackson has seen little change for people she serves at Casa de Paz.

“In the past nine years what I witnessed is people being abused in all different kinds of ways while they’re in the immigrant detention center here in Aurora, Colorado,” she said. “I haven’t necessarily seen the conditions inside be better or worse under one administration or another.”

“Welcome Strangers” has been on a festival run since last year, premiering with a pre-pandemic in-person screening at Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Montana in February 2020. It has played virtually at many stops since then, including the Denver Film Festival and Telluride Mountainfilm, where it won Sokol Savage the Women in Film Award.

“It’s been a hard year to not be able to be enjoying it in rooms with audiences,” said Sokol Savage. “But it’s been cool to see how different festivals are handling things and nice to know that people are watching and responding.”

The filmmakers have also used it as an outreach tool, doing virtual events with immigration rights organizations and others to spread word about what Casa De Paz is doing. After the festival run, to land “Welcome Strangers” on public television or a similar national platform with the help of underwriters and sponsors.

Jackson said the film has already helped fuel new initiatives for Casa de Paz through the limitations of the pandemic.

With in-person visits barred by public health restrictions, Casa de Paz launched a pen pal program that connects Americans with inmates at the Aurora facility and other immigration detention centers. The film has propelled those efforts and created a network of hundreds of people around the U.S..

“I thought people might watch it and think, ‘Oh, that’s a nice story,” Jackson said, “But people say, ‘Oh that’s a nice story. And what can I do to help?’ Almost every single week I receive an email or a hardcopy letter or Instagram message from someone saying that they saw the film and they were moved and inspired and want to help.”

atravers@aspentimes.com


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