Impact Filmmaking

Sonari Chidi, C’20, uses film to put a human face on the need for social change.

Sonari Chidi, C’20

For Sonari Chidi, C’20, it’s all about the convergence of film, social advocacy, and legal reform. A double major in cinema and media studies and Africana studies, he is resolutely focused on film as a tool for social reform, and he is determined to be part of the policy change that he believes can come from film.

“Injustice gives me fire in the belly. Connecting with people gives me fire in the belly,” says Chidi. “Even if you haven’t experienced the same thing as people, there’s this moment of understanding what you have in common. You realize that what connects you is bigger than what separates you. I want to be a part of the conversation and policy discussion, and the reform, after the films are made.”

Chidi’s film, Shattering Refuge, which explores the depictions of refugees and displaced peoples in the media and envisions how to move forward in a world where the idea of refuge has been shattered, recently won the Rough Cut Film Festival’s prestigious Social Justice Award.

“I wanted to create something that had a visceral impact,” he says about the film. "Given the myriad reasons why people become refugees, it really could happen to anyone. How would you respond if it were your friend, neighbor, or relative in that situation?”

At Penn, Chidi, who is L.A.-born and bred, found a home for his drive to gain an interdisciplinary, globally oriented liberal arts education. “This past year, I feel I went to film school—the CAMRA Fellowship was a bootcamp in all aspects of production and I was fortunate to have Sosena Solomon as my mentor,” says Chidi, who had a successful child-acting career, and had been accepted at the USC School of Cinematic Arts prior to choosing Penn.

Chidi cites Professor of Law Regina Austin’s yearlong Visual Legal Advocacy course as having been instrumental in showcasing film, social advocacy and legal reform.

“That course is at the intersection of what I want to do. I learned how important video advocacy is in the law. There’s a burgeoning use of video in sentence commutation, leniency, and reduction, and in rallying people around a social issue,” he says.  

As part of the course, Chidi and his team created a video on the Church of the Advocate, exploring the legal and social ramifications of sanctuary for asylum seekers in Philadelphia. He also worked on videos for Penn FilmAid, the student organization that he co-founded to bring to light refugee issues, advocate for refugees in the Philadelphia area, and engage with global refugee communities.

Chidi also singles out Fernando Chang-Muy, Thomas O’Boyle Lecturer in Law, as having been particularly inspirational in connecting him to tangible opportunities, including helping Penn FilmAid partner with refugees and NGOs that provide services to them.

“With regards to Shattering Refuge, Professor Chang-Muy suggested events and panels with stakeholders on the front lines of refugee policy discussions, which enabled me to gain real-time information on the challenges and opportunities that exist,” he says.

As creator of the Penn-in-Kenya summer program that Chidi attended in July 2017, Peter Decherney, Professor of English and Cinema Studies, was instrumental in helping him harness the power of film as a research tool.

“Professor Decherney does an excellent job of getting students to think outside the box, connect disciplines, and present academic findings in an accessible way, through film. He encourages students to be fearless not only as learners, but also as participants in and agents of positive change,” explains Chidi, who worked with refugee filmmakers in the Kakuma Refugee Camp under Professor Decherney’s tutelage.

Beyond the world of academia, Chidi is inspired by the civil rights movement, the collective struggle for justice, the leaders who stood up and fought, and the communities that supported them. It is not all about struggle and pain, as Chidi points out.

“There is a levity too. There is joy too. In spirituals and gospel music, which I love, you can hear the hope and joy despite the struggle. At Kakuma, there is so much suffering but, turns out, there is much joy also.”

Chidi, who was honored with the Sol Feinstone Award this past Ivy Day for his contributions to Penn and has been named a United Nations Academic Impact and MCN Millennium Fellow, is keen to attend law school in order to effect policy change in the future.

“The power of film and media lies in the ability to put a human face to what was a sound bite or an abstract issue and provide a nuanced perspective. Documentaries aren’t the only way to have effective social commentary. In the future, I would also like to make entertaining, scripted content that also has a message but documentaries have the unparalleled power to transform the filmmaker, the subjects, and the audience in profound, life-altering ways,” he says. “My goal with Shattering Refuge is to achieve a critical mass of resolute individuals who can no longer be complacent with the media representation, attitudes, treatment, and policies of and for refugees and asylum seekers.”

Photo credit: Dyana So


By Laura Ziv