Colombian-American Director Juan David Romero on Making Impactful Films About the Migrant Experience

'Unbroken Paradise.' Photo credit: Alcides Urrutia, Pirata y Luna Creative Studio. Courtesy of the filmmaker.

Colombian-American filmmaker Juan David Romero has no desire to ever watch NarcosThe Netflix drama is such a constant frame of reference for every person he meets abroad that he’s all too happy ignore it. It’s not just Narcos, though. Even as a film like Rosario Tijeras first opened his eyes to what Colombian filmmaking could be, inciting the desire to become a filmmaker, he was already tired of seeing so many narratives about the country he and his family had left behind being tied to “Pablo Escobar, traquetos and prepagos.” He wished to see — or make — a Colombian Amélie. And while he hasn’t quite been able to do that himself, he’s slowly working his way toward it. An English major and a former multimedia journalist and communicator, Romero has recently unveiled his documentary short Unbroken Paradise. Its subject matter may be miles away from the countries where he grew up in, but its message is all the more universal because of it.

The short doc centers on Ramman Ismail, a young Syrian refugee who recounts everything from his escape to France to his aspiration to become an architect in order to one day rebuild his country. Romero first met Ismail in 2017 while he was volunteering for a refugee-aid organization called ActForRef (Action internationale d’aide aux réfugiés), during a march the young activist had organized against Bashar al-Assad. Being on the ground in Europe when the rhetoric around refugees was quite vitriolic and having the U.S. Muslim ban echoing in his head, Romero knew there was an opportunity here.

“Ramman was the exact image that I wanted to capture of the many Syrian refugees I met during my time living in France — hard-working people with an incredible desire to survive and restart against all improbabilities. It was so starkly different, positive and it contrasted so well with what is shown on television and this was the opportunity to break that — to step on the other side of the fence and amplify this current and universal story.”

Ramman Ismail in ‘Unbroken Paradise.’ Photo credit: Juan David Romero. Courtesy of the filmmaker.
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The doc, which at times uses animation to chronicle Ramman’s life story, is a powerful document about an issue that, sadly, remains too politicized and which Romero has firsthand knowledge about. “I must say that directly or indirectly, the plight of the migrant and the displaced has always been familiar to me. I am both lucky and grateful to say that when my family and I resettled from Colombia to the U.S., it was voluntary — yet the purpose was the same, to seek a better future. So, although I was not undocumented, I had friends, colleagues and family that were and my understanding of what that meant was always crystal clear.”

Even though he no longer lives in the U.S. he remains committed to telling stories that speak back to what he’s seen happening in the country under the current administration. “When I decide to tell a story such as the one of Ramman Ismail, I feel as though I’m telling the story of my own people and the story of so many other human beings across the globe living in the fringes and suffering so much at the cost of nations that refuse to simply be kind and open their hearts. In a way, making a film such as Unbroken Paradise is also my way to simply be an ally.”

As he notes, “there is a difference between people who choose to migrate and those who migrate because they have no choice. My own experience as a first-generation immigrant informs my work in the sense that I will do everything that I can to raise awareness about issues of migration, because I do believe everyone deserves a chance to live a life with dignity and that’s what it comes down to: simple humanity.”

Check out the full short below.