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Colette Ghunim Radiates Love Through Film

Written by on March 16, 2023

Chicago documentary filmmaker Colette Ghunim is passionate about both sharing stories to make a social impact and creating a community where others feel empowered to tell those stories. Her work has led her to create opportunities for other women and non-binary filmmakers in Chicagoland.

Chicago-based filmmaker Colette Ghunim makes films in hopes to promote change in the world. Many of her films are centered around women internationally who have been silenced. Her first documentary short film The People’s Girls, released in 2016, centered on sexual harassment in Egypt and served as her introduction to film-based social justice work. 

Her career has taken an introspective turn with her newest project, Traces of Home. The film highlights her Palestinian and Mexican heritage, sharing the story of her parents, how they met and why, as children, they both had to leave their respective homes for a better life in America. Originally, Ghunim intended to tie into how this affected her and her siblings’ relationship with their cultural heritage — but as filming went on, the project became much more personal.

“As I went deeper into production, it became clear that my disconnect was not just from my cultures, but it was to my parents themselves,” Ghunim said. “It’s become clear that it’s a story about me and my identity, and accepting myself and my disconnect with myself.”

Colette Gunim is a Chicago-based director and filmmaker living in Humboldt Park. Joshua X. Miller/Vocalo Radio

Creating a community of storytellers is just as important to Ghunim as sharing her own stories. In hopes to inspire others to pursue filmmaking, Ghunim, along with Elena Valentine, co-founded Mezcla Media Collective in 2017. The collective is focused on giving women and non-binary storytellers of color an opportunity to produce and share stories with a wider audience. Mezcla also provides a slew of community workshops, job opportunities and resources for its storytellers, in hopes to empower participants to tell their stories. 

“I’m so grateful to be able to be on this journey of forging our own paths as storytellers is amazing,” Ghunim expressed. “And it’s such a privilege, what a blessing.”

Ghunim’s work has taken her all over the world as she has worked to uplift the voices of underrepresented communities. Now, she hopes to do the same back home as she works to give back to her community and empower those around her. In this segment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Colette Ghunim shares Chicago’s influence on her career, how she dealt with being the subject of her most recent film and what she has discovered about her family through the project.

Colette Ghunim is a Chicago-based director and filmmaker living in Humboldt Park. Photo by Joshua X. Miller/Vocalo Radio.

My name is Colette Ghunim, and I am a documentary filmmaker and a nonprofit leader in the Chicago film industry. This is what Chicago sounds like.

Tell us about you, what do you feel drives your work and life?

My calling, I feel like, is to be a radiant being of love towards everyone and everything around me. And that, if I am able to stay with that intention in anything that I do, even if it’s through film or if I do another career path, whatever, that I will have fulfilled my purpose on earth. 

Where are you from?

So, I grew up an hour away. And, you know, living in the suburbs is great and all, as a child, that, you know, I’m very grateful for the opportunities that I was given, but definitely felt real plastic and phony over there. And I really wanted to experience the vibrancy of the city. And so, after I graduated from college, I studied abroad for a bit and  traveled a bit, and then came back to Chicago to get to live in the city. And I specifically wanted to live in Pilsen. It was amazing. I absolutely loved it. And then I went back abroad, I lived in Egypt for a while. And now I’m in Humboldt Park, which is also beautiful. 

What do you like about living in Humboldt Park?

I had no idea that there was so much nature over here! Of course, I just  love Puerto Rican culture, too, and just… the party every day in the summer was amazing. But that I live so close to the lagoon and everything, it’s just like, wow. What a peaceful space in the middle of the city that I had no idea existed. 

How did you get into documentary filmmaking? 

I was very interested in communications and doing more work in the nonprofit space. And I thought that maybe I would do children’s educational television. I really thought that was something that would intrigue me, because I loved working with kids and playing with kids, and that I wanted to have some sort of social impact. And so I worked at Nickelodeon in Hollywood for, like, a few months, which was amazing! I got the experience of that production side, but it didn’t feel like it was fulfilling for my heart and soul. The content was just not there, for me. And so, after that, in college, I studied abroad in Egypt. And while I was there, I got to work at a film festival, at this documentary film festival. And that was a life-changing moment for me, that I got to meet all these documentary filmmakers and watch these films from around the world that went so intimately in-depth into people’s stories. And that you were able to just completely relate to this person that you’d never met through the power of film. And I was like, “This is it.” 

And so I worked on my first short, which was called The People’s Girls. And it is all about the issue of street harassment in Cairo, and… starting to explore why it’s such a big issue in Egypt, and what is the cause of it, the root causes of it, and then also highlighting and spotlighting both men and women that are fighting back against the issue in the country and different initiatives that they had to fight against it. And that was just an amazing crash course of how to fundraise, how to go into production, how to edit, all of that kind of thing, and how to build a team around making a film. And so I came back to Chicago, and that’s when I started working on my first feature-length documentary, which is what I’m still working on five years later. 

What are you working on these days?

My current film is called Traces of Home. I am half Mexican and half Palestinian, and both my parents, they were forced out of their homes as children growing up. But I never really thought about that story, growing up in the suburbs of Chicago… it was just, like, complete disconnect, that I was just in fantasyland. In the film, we go back to try to find the original homes that my parents were forced to leave as children, and then starting to unpack the intergenerational trauma that they went through, and how it affected our relationships growing up. So it’s definitely been a huge healing journey and a very emotional one for my family. 

What did you find when you deep dove into your parents’ lineage?

There’s just so many parallels with Mexico and Palestine on the political side, with the walls and that there’s just this erasure of history that is going on that has happened in both colonialism in Mexico and in Palestine, that are very similar. But then there’s also the rich beauty of these indigenous cultures in both places, too, that are very parallel even in like the clothing and that kind of thing that you see. It’s super fascinating how much Arab influence there is in Latin America and Mexico, specifically. The motivation was definitely from 2017, with all of the administration and the refugee ban, and the family separations at the border. And I knew that my parents had similar stories, of having to leave and cross borders. 

So I was like, “Oh, let me tell my parents’ story, so that it can relate to what’s happening and use it as a political tool to fight against all of this.” And then, as I went deeper into production, it became clear that my disconnect was not just from my cultures, but it was to my parents themselves. And so it went a layer deeper, and being like, “Okay, now I have to go into the relationship with my parents.” And like, “Okay, am I ready to go there? I guess we’re doing it! We’re doing it,” you know? So it stayed there for a while, of just me trying to heal this relationship with my parents and that kind of thing. And, as I went even deeper into this process, and even like, I think it’s in the past year, that it’s become clear that it’s a story about me and my identity and accepting myself and my disconnect with myself, and not even with my parents. This is why it’s just like, you know, digging it deeper and deeper, that I wasn’t ready for it. But, you know, that’s the thing of documentary film that you just keep going deeper as it progresses. And it just takes you… wherever it’s meant to take you on the path.

RELATED: At Home W/ the Homies — Colette Ghunim, Mezcla Media Collective — Mat 14, 2020

You mentioned you work in the nonprofit world as well. Can you tell us more about that?

I feel that, definitely, for me, collaboration is key in this industry, and that, especially with filmmaking, can be very isolating. Back in 2017, when I came back to Chicago, it was very difficult to find other women of color, specifically filmmakers working on work. And so, a friend and I started this organization to specifically build a community for women of color called Mezcla Media Collective. And yeah, since then, it has grown to now over 700 members that are doing cinematography, sound, editing, all of the things in the film space. We have quarterly workshops that range in different educational topics like fundraising, distribution, cinematography. We have an annual retreat, we have a crew database to get employers to hire from our community. And we also have industry leaders from New York and LA to come to Chicago to meet the incredible potential talent that’s coming out of our community. It is for both documentary and narrative filmmakers, specifically women and non-binary filmmakers of color in Chicago. 

How has Chicago shaped you as an artist?

I am so grateful to be in Chicago, because of just how collaborative it is. I feel like a lot of times, people who are in the film industry in LA or New York, that there’s just like a lot of cutthroat… saturation, that it’s very hard to find people that are along a similar path as you, and I feel like Chicago has so much heart in the artist community, and that everyone here is here to elevate one another. And it has been essential for me, in my own storytelling journey, to see other people working on their own content that is just like, yeah, so authentic and heart-centered, that I just feel so grateful to be in a place like this, where people are just here to support one another. That, I’m so grateful to be able to be on this journey of forging our own paths as storytellers is amazing. And it’s such a privilege, what a blessing. 

Colette Gunim is a Chicago-based director and filmmaker living in Humboldt Park. Photo by Joshua X. Miller/Vocalo Radio.

Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.

Audio production by Ari Mejia

Photography and written introduction by Joshua X. Miller

Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

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