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‘Sweet, Sweet Country’

As a dimly lit theater begins to fill up, a Dehanza Rogers is already seated in the third row. She keeps her hands in her lap. One foot taps on the ground as she waits. Her dark skin is a glow, and her small eyes twinkle behind a pair of square glasses.

Tonight’s Atlanta Film Festival showing is by the group Women in Television and Film Atlanta. The film block, “New Mavericks: Women in Film,” will feature seven short films done by new female directors. Rogers, or “Daye” as everyone calls her, flew home to Atlanta from Los Angeles for her big night.

“I always get nervous right before it starts,” Rogers said. 

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Rogers’ short film, “Sweet, Sweet Country,” has come home. Members of her Atlanta-based crew surround her as the lights dim. Rogers finally gets to tell Atlanta about their refugees.

 

“War doesn’t choose…”

She knew there was a story to tell in Atlanta.

“Some friends of mine bought a house in Clarkston [Georgia] some years ago and when I stayed with them, I came to visit,” she said. “That’s when I went around the town, it’s like 1.1 square miles …You drive around are you’re like, ‘Wait. Halal market? What?’”

Rogers went back to her current home in Los Angeles, did some research and returned to Atlanta.

“When I came home [last] March, all of these wonderful people let me into their homes,” Rogers said. “Let me ask them questions and it was just women. There was only one family that had a male…everyone else, a woman on her own and her kids.”

Rogers met one refugee woman living in Georgia who just had her seventh child while waiting for her husband to be granted asylum in Georgia. Many struggled to find work for their families, Rogers said.

“War doesn’t choose who it will and will not destroy,” Rogers said. “So there are all these people who are teachers and doctors who can’t teach and can’t be doctors in this country… so they end up in the chicken processing plant. And it’s hard, horrible work.”

Rogers said America is a country of immigrants who all have a “refuge” story of their own.

“Immigrants built this country, immigrants are still building this country, Immigrants maintain this country, so I think that it is important to realize that the person that is in the kitchen cooking your food, and the person carrying your bags and the person driving you somewhere…they all have a story to tell,” she said.

Not only did the stories of refugee women touch Rogers, but stories of her own family’s struggles influenced the story she wanted to tell—women who will support their family by any means necessary.

One Mother’s Day, when four generations of her family’s women sat down together, she learned a little more about her family’s sacrifices—a relative would entertain a man in town “on credit.”

Rogers, shocked by the arrangement, later asked her grandmother about the situation.

“And my grandmother is kind of judgmental. She’ll tell you when she thinks you’re wrong. With no judgment attached, she just said, ‘Woman do anything to take care of our families,’” Rogers said. “Sometimes life will conspire against you, no matter how much education you have.”

 

LA bound

Rogers’ road to storytelling was not without detours.

A native of Columbus, Ga., Rogers came to Atlanta two days after her high school graduation. She enrolled at Georgia State to study computer science.

“I did computer science because that’s were I thought I would find a job and get a career, not because I really loved it,” Rogers said. “I mean I was good at it but I didn’t want to stare at a computer all day…who wants to do that?”

She found herself taking a class or two, but then took a semester off.

“I realized I don’t love what I was doing if I was constantly finding reasons not to be in school,” Rogers said.

After visiting friends in Los Angeles, Rogers decided to take the leap and move to pursue her career.

After getting denied to the UCLA film program, she decided to get a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at California State University at Northridge and work on her writing.

During her studies, she discovered being a refugee was something that was hard to relate to, or imagine.

“I think westerners in general, it’s really unfathomable to people that you can be born, live your entire life, and die in a camp,” she said. “Your entire existence is in a state of not having a nation of your own, not having an identity that you can attach to a space.”

After graduation, Rogers spent a lot of time writing and preparing to give UCLA’s film program another shot as a graduate student.

When Rogers finally landed her UCLA interview, they asked her why she didn’t reapply for their undergraduate film program.

“I was not going to wait for you to make the right decision,” Rogers told the interviewer. “I had to go to what I needed to do and live my life and now I’m here.”

Her hard work paid off, and Rogers was accepted into the program.

“Sweet, Sweet

Country”

With a charge, a story and a location, Rogers said seeking out an Atlanta-based crew was important.

“When you go somewhere and you try to tell a story that is not yours, you need to have the support of the community,” she said.

She also found cast and crew help from Georgia State.

“I still have the support of Georgia State, which is real important to me,” she said. “Sheldon Schiffer, who is a professor, he told me what resources I should go to…”

Through the audition process Roger’s found “Sweet, Sweet Country” lead, and now close friend, Danielle Deadwyler.

“Daye is really communicative,” Deadwyler said about her experience on the set of “Country.” “She is going to ask you those questions that you want to be asked as your character. People don’t do that, and I really appreciated that.”

Rogers chose to tell the story of one woman and her struggle in America to support her family in refugee camp, and herself, through less conventional means. She can no longer hide her struggle when her family shows up at her front door.

“My character in Sweet, Sweet Country, she is sent off somewhere to do some work to prepare her life. It’s not the life the family expected,” Deadwyler said.

Rogers sometimes questioned her message in the film.

“At one point I thought, ‘Oh God, I’m not doing justice to this story, there are so many stories. And then I realized this is one story in a larger story,” Rogers said. “And somehow this story touches on all these different things that are happening.”

Although Rogers tells the story of a 20-year-old Somali woman, she said the message is universal.

“It’s not that [Ndizeye’s ethnicity] is not important,” she said. “It is important, but I think she could’ve been from Iran. She could have been from Iraq. She could have been from any country that has [conflict].”

 

“I know that story…”

Deadwyler said making this movie with Rogers has moved her as an actor.

“It was the kind of movies that I want to make,” Deadwyler said. “The kind of stories and the kind of characters I want to portray. It’s hard to go do other things when you’ve done something that you wanted to do.”

The film was finished earlier than anticipated, which allowed Rogers to enter it into a few film festivals, including the Atlanta Film Festival.

Rogers received an honorable mention at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Muse’s Young Director’s Night, were her film was viewed by more than 600 people in one sitting.

“To have 600 people sitting in a theatre with my film and six other that they are showing…experiencing it for the first time with all of these people was extraordinary,” Rogers said.

After every viewing, Rogers said women from families all over the world will come to her with stories of their own.

“This woman came up to me, Russian, Jewish. She said, ‘I know that story’…she told me the story about her family leaving Russia and how she knows that story,” Rogers said. “That story is the same story that is in her family…she was a refugee, she understood the story.”

Although she was pleased with the response from other women about the film, she anxiously waited to see if she would be asked to join festival she anticipated the most, the Atlanta Film Festival.

“And when I found out that we got into Atlanta, I lost my mind,” Rogers said. “It was just really exciting… this is the one that mattered the most.”

The chance to sit with the friends who supported her on her journey and watch the film together was an experience Rogers will not soon forget.

“I got to come home and see this film with people who know me before I even vocalized to the world that I want to make movies,” she said.

Rogers said the short term means getting ready to graduate and talking Deadwyler into flying out to Los Angeles to help with a couple of projects.

For the future of her films, Rogers said she isn’t trying to change the world, but make her viewers want to know more about it.

“I don’t want to make movies that change people’s minds,” she said. “If my movie changed your mind, and you watch a movie ten minutes later, that movie will change your mind. What I want to do is have people start thinking about things more and question things…if you walk away just a little more curious then I’m happy.”

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