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Meet Colette Ghunim of Traces of Home in Pilsen

Today we’d like to introduce you to Colette Ghunim.

Colette, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
As a child, Hosni had it all. His parents owned a successful business in Safad, Palestine, built an expansive home on top of a mountain and often visited family and friends that lived only a few blocks away. In 1948, when Hosni was four years old, his family was forced to flee by new settlers, taking only what they could carry on their 12-hour walk to Lebanon. Later in life, Hosni heard that his home turned into an Israeli hospital. Wishing to return to Palestine, he ended up moving to the United States, where he met his wife, Iza.

Iza was born in Mexico City in 1954, her father a well-known tailor for celebrities. He provided his children with a giant ranch house, two maids, and endless gifts. However, he concealed a dark secret: Iza’s father was a troubled alcoholic, severely abusing his wife whenever he got drunk. After years of abuse, Iza’s mother decided to take her children and leave Mexico, escaping from her violent husband forever.

My parents, Iza and Hesni, endured tremendous struggle and trauma throughout their lives, preventing them from developing a strong voice for their community. By providing me with a high-quality education and freedom to pursue my own aspirations, my voice has strengthened through my camera, which I use to address issues in both my community and communities ignored.

Based in Chicago, Illinois, my passion lies at the cross-section of social impact and visual storytelling. I have produced and edited videos for organizations in Costa Rica, India, and Egypt, and am currently working on a series documenting the lives of refugees resettled in Chicago. My most recent documentary, The People’s Girls, received worldwide attention for its bold spotlight on Egypt’s issue of sexual harassment. With recognition by major international outlets such as Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, New York Daily News, Al Jazeera and more, The People’s Girls trailer enticed over 2 million views.

I am currently working on Traces of Home, my first feature-length film documenting her journey back to Mexico and Palestine to locate my parents’ original homes, which they were forced to leave decades ago. I strive to be a changemaker for communities worldwide, documenting powerful stories of individuals that often go unnoticed.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc. – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Deciding to take the untraditional route of building my own business to be able to focus on my films has not been an easy task, but one I wouldn’t change for the world. Being able to create my own schedule, choose the projects that I feel most passionate about, and be connected to the film industry in Chicago has been such a blessing. Learning how to shoot and edit on my own has definitely been trial and error, but thankfully, I feel that I improve with every shoot. I have had to struggle with the difficult decision to have a stable financial situation and outside comforts versus saving for my film, but am so grateful with the route that the universe has created for me along the way.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
I am a freelance videographer and editor, but here, I will talk about my current film, Traces of Home.

Asking my father, if he’d like to return to his home country, he slowly responded, “They promised us we could go back. Now, we are not even allowed to enter the country.” Inspired to answer questions about my origins, I am embarking on a journey with my parents, Hosni and Iza, back to Palestine and Mexico to locate their original homes.


Traces of Home is a 56-minute documentary that explores what it means to be both an immigrant and an American. My parents’ stories are woven together through interviews, home footage, and animations. We have an extensive library of photos and videos that date back to the 1950s, seeing as my father was a wedding videographer and loved filming everything as a family keepsake. I will be behind the camera, narrating through my interview questions, as well as in the film, having discussions and traveling with my parents. The film will depict scenes of their everyday lives in Chicago, which I will contrast with their past memories in Palestine and Mexico. I will also incorporate archival footage of Palestine and Mexico City in the 1940s and 1950s, from Zochrot Organization and the National Archives of Mexico, providing the audience an accurate depiction of their original communities.

During our journeys to Palestine and Mexico, the landscapes of the two countries will be paralleled, showing the details and modern everyday life of each community. An illustrated map will allow the viewers to easily follow our journey to find my mother and father’s homes, tying together both routes at the same time. While in each country, we will connect with relatives, as well as friends of the family. In Palestine, I am connected to Saeed El-Safadi, one of the few Palestinians left in Safad, and he has extensive knowledge of the families that used to live there, including my father’s.

I have full access to my parents’ stories, hometowns, family members, and friends. I am able to travel back to Mexico and Palestine easily with my American passport, and I have acquired historical records from Zochrot, a Palestinian nonprofit organization, to trace the location of my father’s original home. My great-aunt is still living in Mexico, and she knows exactly where my mother’s home is and has agreed to lead us there.

After the completion of the film in March 2020, I plan to enter relevant film festivals in the United States and internationally. During that time, I will also host engaging community screenings of the film, working with relevant student groups and organizations focused on immigration policy, as well as domestic violence. I plan to have a theatrical run at the Gene Siskel Center in Chicago, building as wide of an audience as possible through my fiscal sponsor, Kartemquin Films. In terms of distribution, I will create an outreach and marketing team to contact international distributors to pitch to broadcast networks. I am in discussion with Journeyman Films about Traces of Home, and they are interested in distributing the film as well. I will apply for the PBS POV Open Call, as well as pitch to public broadcast networks. I have already shown my demo to POV, WTTW, and Univision, and they are both interested in screening the film on their channels.

What were you like growing up?
Growing up, I was an extroverted, A-type personality. I loved bossing my stuffed animals and Barbies around, and I loved being with friends at all times. One of my favorite things to do was create and act out scenarios with my best friend, which we would film with my dad’s old camera in the basement. From music videos to news reports, we created an entire world of imagination in our basement. I also had a passion for dancing – from tap dancing to hip-hop. My dream was to be a television talk show host, then a children’s television director then went into documentary filmmaking. The camera always played a big part in my house, with my dad filming our entire childhood, which definitely subconsciously made me interested in filmmaking as well.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Amelia Street Studio, Wendy Random

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