Filmmaker working on local, immigration-related documentary

Cary Ashby • Dec 6, 2018 at 4:00 AM

A veteran filmmaker with Norwalk ties is working on a documentary that will add local faces and a personal side to immigration issues.

“I have two filmmaker friends who started working on a project about an individual and a family that was captured and taken at the Corso’s raid. It would be a mistake to say (my documentary) is about that; it’s about the family and their lives,” said Justin Zimmerman, the son of Alan Zimmerman and Susan Choma, who live in New England now.

Justin Zimmerman’s film will focus on the family’s lives in the community and how the raid at Corso’s Flower & Garden Center has impacted their life. He said he expects it to be “a short piece” — maybe less than 10 minutes long — “done by people who care about this family.”

“We’re excited to make something for and with them that showcase what their lives are like,” the Portland, Ore. filmmaker added.

“Most of this family is born and raised in the United States of America. One individual from the family came over when they were very young and so they are not a citizen and their siblings are. What we are doing is we are working with that family to tell this (story),” he said. “It’s not such a unique story, but you don’t hear about it very often.”


‘Fireland’ documentary

Film buffs may recognize Zimmerman’s name as the man who created the black-and-white “Fireland” documentary. Sixty-three Ohio residents were killed during Golden Age Nursing Home fire in November 1963; 21 bodies were left unclaimed and buried in a mass grave.

“My father’s family is from Norwalk and in fact, I directed a documentary that’s free on YouTube about the Fitchville fire,” Zimmerman said. “That ‘Fireland’ film was great because that’s been used by fire and nursing home and safety officials the country over (and) that helped I guess get the memorial plaque out there finally, which was well deserved.”

He started working on the nearly 40-minute-long “Fireland” in 2003 or 2004. It was released in early March 2006.

“That was years of work before it was finished. I had an Ohio (Arts) Council grant that helped me out and then I did what I like to do with that kind of project. … I eventually put it out for free,” said Zimmerman, whose film is listed on the Internet Movie Database (aka IMDb).

“So that was more than a decade ago. It’s neat to come back and visit all these places that I spent time on here. It’s also interesting that once again this area is connected to a national event and that there’s a story right here,” he said, referring to the Corso’s raid in Perkins Township. “Ohio truly is the heart of it all, I think.”

Zimmerman, who has been making films for more than 15 years, earned his bachelor’s degree from The Ohio State University. His master’s of fine arts degree is from Ohio University in 2002

“So I always keep my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in lovely, lovely Ohio,” he said.


New footage, ‘old-school film’

Last week was the second time Zimmerman filmed footage in the Norwalk area for his upcoming documentary.

“I’m doing a lot of research personally, getting archival information,” he said.

If everything goes well, the film could be complete in the next couple months. The interview footage covers about 10 hours, which will need to be scanned and processed into a digital format.

“Probably when this done, we will have shot — I don’t know — 25 or 30 rolls of film, which is a ton for this kind of project,” Zimmerman said.

“Then we will submit it to some film festivals and some media outlets and we’ll see what happens from there. It would be neat to do more of these kind of stories, but right now — where you’re catching me — is making sure that we get everything to do this one right.”

While Zimmerman has created plenty of documentaries with many “sit-down interviews” using high-resolution cameras, he is shooting this one on 16 mm film.  

“Old-school film with a wind-up camera,” he said. “So we’ve done the interviews separately from the footage and the footage is filling in the blanks.”

Zimmerman was asked why he chose 16 mm film.

“It’s softer; it feels more natural and feels more home-movie-esque, but (is) absolutely gorgeous,” said the filmmaker, who wants to avoid a “watching-on-television feel.” 

“These are people in the community; they’re our neighbors and they are us,” Zimmerman said, referring to the family in the film. “We are trying to make something that is organic and warm and as natural as possible and film is the perfect medium for that.

“The thing to remember is that we can pinpoint the Corso’s raid as a national event that AP covered. You folks (the Norwalk Reflector) have covered it, The Washington Post, New York Times; it had a huge amount of media coverage. But it isn’t the Corso’s raid that is affecting these people; it’s their status as citizens and community members and friends,” Zimmerman said.

“I think they are dealing with it is the way they have been dealing with it forever. They are part of this system. We (have watched) the system rear is ugly head from time to time.”

What is the purpose of his documentary?

“The goal is to tell, in a visual way and supplemented by interviews, this family’s story and hopefully by telling their story authentically and personally … and with them, people will see a different side of the issue, rather than seeing talking points on the television. They will get to learn a little bit about what it’s actually like to be in this situation and living their lives like this,” Zimmerman said.

“And that’s the best you can do as a storyteller, is break down the barrier between the audience and the story. And that’s why film is simultaneously the most excruciatingly difficult and most amazing medium for me because it’s such a giant thing to say. You do the best you can.”

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