f ULTIMATE CITIZENS Director’s Statement – By Francine Strickwerda

ULTIMATE CITIZENS Director’s Statement: Francine Strickwerda

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ULTIMATE CITIZENS Director’s Statement: Francine Strickwerda

ULTIMATE CITIZENS is not a movie about Frisbee. The “flat ball” is one tool that Jamshid Khajavi, the film’s protagonist, uses in his work as a primary school counselor. A fiery, funny 65-year-old Iranian immigrant and ultra-athlete, Jamshid does his best work on the playing field with his students, the children of refugees and immigrants.

Jamshid coaches two intrepid 11-year-olds, Nyahoak, whose South Sudanese parents came to the U.S. as refugees, and Pio, whose Samoan parents came for a better a life, but became homeless. Jamshid teaches the kids about life on their way to compete in the world’s largest youth Ultimate Frisbee tournament.

The story unfolds at Hazel Wolf K-8 School in Seattle, a city known for its high-tech companies and $7 coffees. It’s also an America where many families quietly struggle to afford housing and survive.

Jamshid’s efforts to build community where all kids can thrive are heroic. But it’s the parents who work low paying jobs around the clock, and their first-generation Americans kids, who are true champions. They save themselves, with a little help from a counselor in a supportive school.

At a time when schools are on the frontlines of America’s culture wars, some politicians and parents are fighting the work of counselors like Jamshid. He teaches social emotional learning and sex education. He talks with families about grief and loss, and helps remove barriers to learning and belonging.

Today there are roughly 100 million forcibly displaced people around the world – more than at any time in modern history. The plight of these asylum seekers is increasingly met with anti-immigrant policies and violence.

ULTIMATE CITIZENS is a vision of a more welcoming America. You often hear Jamshid saying to people, “I’m so glad you’re here,” and he means it. For almost 40 years Jamshid has taught children how to be “ultimate citizens” – to look out for themselves and each other, and to choose community over exclusion. He and the kids show how to do the hardest work of all – find their way forward, together.

Q & A with ULTIMATE CITIZENS Director Francine Strickwerda

Q. Is this a film about ULTIMATE FRISBEE?

Jamshid Khajavi, the film’s protagonist, is passionate about Ultimate Frisbee, but it’s just one of many ways he teaches empathy, conflict resolution, and resilience. And especially belonging. In a divided country that’s in conflict around so many things, Jamshid models how to make a community more welcoming for everyone, and it’s replicable. Jamshid shows how much better that is for all for us.

Q. You’ve referred to Jamshid as a “ray of light” and his story in ULTIMATE CITIZENS as an “everyone story”--  What distinguishes Jamshid’s immigrant narrative? 

Jamshid is a great human. He’s funny and fiery and so skilled at bringing people together. He’s a “Mr. Rogers” for our time, a school counselor and ultra-athlete who uses the sport of Ultimate Frisbee to help children heal and find belonging. ULTIMATE CITIZENS follows Jamshid and an underdog team of kids who are mostly from immigrant and refugee families as they prepare to compete in the world’s largest all-gender youth Ultimate tournament.

I saw Jamshid do beautiful work with all the students - no matter their background - at Hazel Wolf K-8, the Seattle public school where we filmed. But I was especially interested in Jamshid’s work with the students from immigrant families. In a prosperous city like Seattle, known for its high-tech companies, there are still many families struggling to get by, with parents working multiple minimum wage jobs around the clock to keep food on the table. If you are a newcomer, an immigrant or refugee, it is that much harder. As an immigrant himself, Jamshid is so very skilled at relating to these kids and teaching them skills to succeed in school. The film also focuses on two of Jamshid’s fifth-grade students and star Ultimate players, Nyahoak, whose South Sudanese parents came to the U.S. as refugees, and Pio, whose Samoan parents came for a better a life, but struggled through homelessness.

Certainly, ULTIMATE CITIZENS is a story for immigrants and refugees, but it’s also for anyone who has ever felt left out. And really, who hasn’t felt left out? So, I think ULTIMATE CITIZENS is an “everyone” kind of story.

Q. What was your mission in creating and directing this film? 

When I first learned about Jamshid, I had just finished making a film for PBS, “Oil & Water” about a couple of extraordinary boys (one indigenous Ecuadorian and one American) who were dealing with the fallout from one of the world’s worst environmental disasters in the Ecuadorian Amazon. That documentary was really complicated, it took eight years to make with a lot of travel. I wanted to tell a story far away from toxic sludge, and I wanted it to be close to home. My son was getting ready to start kindergarten, and I was nervous because I had my own childhood experiences of feeling bullied and left out at school. I hoped school would be different for him all these years later. Jamshid’s story seemed like a perfect way to explore some issues and themes that really matter to me. And because Jamshid is one of the most engaging people I’ve ever met, I knew I could make a great film about him because of the person that he is.

After we started filming there was a dramatic rise in anti-immigrant policies, and “culture warring” on public schools and immigrants. I saw that ULTIMATE CITIZENS could be used to start meaningful conversations about those things and more.

The real heart of Jamshid’s story is belonging - from being included to being accountable to one another. We’re planning an engagement campaign – and looking for funding – to take ULTIMATE CITIZENS into schools and communities where we’ll invite people to explore belonging. Who is included, who gets left out, and what’s the impact on the well-being and productivity of that group, community, or workplace? And what are steps to make that group more welcoming and resilient? Because when everyone belongs, when everyone has opportunities to contribute, we really are better off.

Q. How does this film mark an evolution in your filmmaking? 

This is the first time I’ve been the sole director and producer of a film. I’ve co-directed two other feature docs. With ULTIMATE CITIZENS I’m really looking forward to doing outreach and engagement, there’s a huge opportunity for that here. We chose to make a 39-mintuve version because it’s a good length for community screenings where, when the lights come up, we can have meaningful conversations with audiences. We also have a 52-minute feature version of the film that’s a deeper dive.

Q. ULTIMATE CITIZENS is set in Seattle – are you from Seattle? 

I grew up in the Seattle area. My father is a retired public school teacher; he taught high school math here for 25 years before teaching in community colleges. I watched him grade a lot of tests and help a lot of students. I’ve always been drawn to education and social issues, and I started my career as a newspaper reporter covering those things. It was a natural progression from there into public television. I worked on documentary projects at Seattle’s PBS station for several years before I started my own company with my husband Tracy Dethlefs, Hullabaloo.tv, to make commercials and documentaries. (We’re taking new clients, by the way.)

The best thing about being in Seattle is that we’re surrounded by water – lakes, rivers and the ocean – and it’s always raining, everything is green. You really see that in ULTIMATE CITIZENS because Jamshid Khajavi (the film’s main character) is an ultra-endurance athlete who loves being in nature. After filming him open water swimming many times, both in Seattle and New York City, I decided to give open water swimming a try. Stepping into that icy water, and knowing Jamshid and the families that we spent time with in making the film, has given me a whole new appreciation for my city, its schools, and the Salish Sea where I swim every chance I get.

Thank you!