St. Louis International Film Festival: Watch "Day One," about the Nahed Chapman New American Academy, for free

Plus, why the film's director immediately knew she had to make this documentary after visiting the school.

Imagine being forced to flee your home for fear of persecution, growing up in a refugee camp, and then being thrust into a school setting for the first time in your life in a country where you don’t speak the language and don’t understand the culture.

That is the experience for the hundreds of students attending Nahed Chapman New American Academy (NCNAA) in the St. Louis Public School District. This two-year school eases the transition for immigrant and refugee students by prioritizing English instruction and training faculty and staff so they are prepared to help students manage their trauma.

St. Louis filmgoers will have the opportunity to see this school up close at the free screening of Day One, a documentary that features the students and staff at NCNAA. The film screening, which is part of the St. Louis International Film Festival, takes place on November 3 at 7 p.m. at The Gathering.

Lori Miller, the film’s director and producer, learned about the school from her friend, Peter Tao, a local architect, community organizer, and an executive producer of the film. “Peter and I met in school, and we’ve stayed in touch," she says. "He’s always supported the films that I’ve done.”

When Miller learned about the school from Tao, she wasn’t entirely convinced it would make for a great story. “I was hesitant and skeptical because I didn’t know the school, and it honestly sounded a little bit dry to me,” she says.

It only took one day at NCNAA to change her mind. She and Brian O’Connell, the co-producer and director of photography, flew to St. Louis from Los Angeles and instantly knew they had to do the project. “We were drawn in by the educators and the students. We were so inspired by them. It just became a part of us. There was no looking back,” she says. The film organically unfolded as the cameras were rolling. “We followed the different threads–we just happened to be there when [then-principal Donnie Harris] was resigning and when Donald Trump was elected," Miller says. "We seemed to luck out with all these plot points that one could not write with a screenplay. We just felt like the story was telling itself while we were there.”

Miller has been producing independent features since the 1990s, but her daughter’s birth in the early 2000s served as a wake-up call. As a new mom, she began looking for ways to make her work more meaningful. “I wanted to start learning about documentaries and making documentaries because I thought that I might be able to make a contribution,” she says. “And I just find real people so fascinating. You can’t write it.”

She saw this film as a perfect opportunity to provide a counter-narrative to the stories we see in media about refugees and to showcase the brilliance of public school educators. The teachers and Harris are, to Miller, the unofficial producers of this film. “They just enveloped us into their world the minute we arrived and helped find story lines and gain access.”

In the film, we see educators work long hours into the night, give up their lunches to spend time with students, and even move into inner-city communities to live near the families attending the school. “The talent and brilliance of the teachers in the school… they work all the time," Miller says. "They make sure that these kids and their families have food, clothing, books, whatever they need.”

Despite their differing home countries, the students featured in the film share stories of hope, despair, and courage. Many of the students escaped war-torn countries and refugee camps only to come to St. Louis and live in poverty, but they remain optimistic about their futures and determined to overcome the odds stacked against them. “Before they got here, they couldn’t dream and now they can," the director says. "It’s so unbelievable to witness.”

“We just love the kids," she continues. "They were so natural on camera, and they wanted to talk to us­–they wanted to tell their stories. They weren’t scared; they wanted people to know what they’ve been through. People don’t give voice to a lot of these kids.” What stood out most to Miller? The students' sheer intelligence. “These kids—many of them with very little education—were nailing their advanced math classes.”

The St. Louis screening marks the official launch period for the film, and there will be several student screenings across the city. In talking about the film, Miller exudes the same determination of the students, saying, “We’re just going to push the rock up the hill and try to get this movie out there because people really like watching it.”

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