Themes in Literature/Belonging
All immigrants belong.
- -Pierre Ieong
This story of loss and regaining of identity is, I think, the framework of all literature.
- -Northrop Frye, The Educated Imagination (1963), Ch. 2
A sense of belonging means one feels connected to individuals, places, communities, and the world. The contrary feeling--alienation--can lead to low self esteem and depression. Our life experience, childhood, culture, social setting, and self-esteem can all shape how we experience belonging. The need to belong is a valid and essential feeling and it can push us to connect with others.
The director of the short film Belonging, Pierre Ieong, gives us the point of view of a young Armeanian Syrian refugee named George Gabonian. Over the years, George and his family have had to relocate their home many times, so he always has felt like he does not fit in. However, at the age of four, his father encouraged him to join the Scout Movement, where he found comradeship and a common purpose: to survive the wilderness together.
After the violent death of his father during the Syrian civil war, George and his mother had to flee Syria, relocating to Paris. At first, George felt isolated in such a big and foreign city and yearned to feel a sense of belonging. To illustrate his feelings, the director compares George’s memories as a boy scout to the new memories that he is making in his international class at the Lycée Jean de LaFontaine. The differences seem to stand out at first: while George's boy scout team is made up of boys like him, his international friends are female as well as male and come from many different countries and cultures. And yet, as George points out, “[w]e all come from different places, [but are] united here with a common objective.” The community the international students have created as outsiders to the French culture makes George feel they all have the same purpose: "We're little scouts in our hearts."
The importance of the analogy is given at the end of the film, when George concludes that “[a]lthough we’re out of our homes, in the wild, we’ve got each other’s backs.” He is commenting on the reality that, just like him, we all live in some form of chaos and the connection to others and sometimes places is what balances us. In those moments, knowing that we are surrounded by other people who genuinely accept us and care for our well-being reassures us. That sense of comfort when we realize that we have others around us who share our objectives and fears--that is belonging.
Throughout the film, Ieong uses specific mises en scène to aid us in visualizing George’s journey of loss, change, and eventually, belonging. For example, when George says that moving to Paris was scary, the director shows a shot of a crane very high in the air to symbolize fear of heights; this gives the viewer a visual sense of the George's fear caused by the traumatic chaos in his home when his father was killed as well as by his move to an alien environment. When George mentions that he felt lost, the director creates a scene of him being surrounded by many people walking in different directions-- he is surrounded by people but he still feels isolated.
Another example is a scene of George laughing and eating with his fellow boy scouts to illustrate the happiness that George felt when he belonged. This scene not only contrasts with the shots of George alone on the subway and in the streets of a crowded Paris but also with a low-key scene where George eats a meal with his mother at a kitchen table in their Paris apartment. Sad music punctuates the scene as George recounts the devastation he felt at the violent loss of his father. A balance is then achieved in the last scenes with his new friends: they are moments full of light and vivid scenery that encapsulate the happiness that may eventually offset George's loss.
Overall, Ieong's film shows that George's journey as an immigrant has been made successful by his father's early insistence that he build identity through fellowship; in every case, it is this fellowship that has allowed him to find a sense of belonging in the midst of uncertainty.
- Refugee: A person fleeing their home to escape persecution or conflict who seeks asylum in other parts of their country (also known as an internally displaced person), or in other countries. Protected by international law, refugees cannot be forced to return to their home if their lives would be endangered. Until a refugee can resettle, they rely on others to provide the basics of shelter, food and water, and healthcare.
- Syrian Civil War: An armed conflict between several factions that include the Syrian Armed Forces, a loose alliance of opposition rebel groups, and the militant Islamic group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), each supported by international allies. It began in 2011 when the Syrian government violently suppressed pro-democracy protests. As of 2016, six million Syrians have been internally displaced and more than five million have fled Syria.
- The Scout Movement: An international educational movement whose purpose is "to contribute to the development of young people in achieving their full physical, intellectual, emotional, social and spiritual potentials as individuals, as responsible citizens and as members of their local, national and international communities." Its goal is to train its members to become independent, helpful, healthy, and happy.
- In an interview about Belonging, Pierre Ieong explains that George is trying to find his identity. What is an identity? Why does George have to try to find or create an identity? How is he doing so?
- The film compares shots of George surrounded by the greenery of nature to George surrounded by the traffic of Paris to represent George's idea of being out "in the wild." Does this comparison work for you? Why or why not? If not, what scenery would you have chosen to express George's feeling that he must survive in a hostile world?
- George believes that he and his classmates are "little scouts in our hearts." What does he mean by this?
- The end of the film featuring George's classmates are shot outdoors. How does this scenery represent George’s outlook on life?
Creative thinking questions
- Read about the Scout movement (see resources under "Further reading"). Hypothesize which skills and strategies George learned as a scout may have helped him navigate his displacement.
- Imagine that due to war or a natural disaster you had to move to a country where you were a stranger and different. What in your upbringing could you draw upon to make this sudden change and build a new life? If you realize you completely unprepared, what are some actions you could take right now to be better prepared if such an event were to happen?
- Very often, refugees do not have time to pack their possessions before they have to run for their lives. Imagine you had to leave your home due to a war or disaster and only had time to take one thing with you. What would you choose and why?
- Wikipedia contributors. "Scouting." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 Jan. 2021. Web. 15 Jan. 2021
On the social psychology of belonging
- Kendra Cherry, "How the Need to Belong Influences Human Behavior and Motivation." At Verywell Mind, a resource of wellness information by health professionals.
- Marianna Pogosyan, "On Belonging: What is behind our psychological need to belong?" At the Psychology Today blog, a resource of psychology literature for the general public.
On the Syrian refugee crisis
- "Syria Emergency." At the United Nations Refugee Agency.
- Chris Huber and Denise C. Koenig, "Syrian refugee crisis: Facts, FAQs, and how to help." At the World Vision humanitarian organization website.
- "Syria's beleaguered Christians." At BBC World News. February 25, 2015. (George is a Christian Syrian).
On the United Nations PLURAL+ Youth Video Festival on Migration, Diversity, & Social Inclusion
- Official website (here you can view other award-winning films and submit your own)
Other short films by Pierre Ieong