Street Level Health Project staffers Norma Calmo and Edgar Salazar-Velazquez as shown in the film. Credit: Underexposed Films

A lot has happened over the past five years since Bay Area filmmaker and health practitioner Michelle Grace Steinberg and producer Robyn Bykofsky began working on their documentary, “A Place to Breathe.” 

The film follows immigrant and refugee families as they navigate a complex U.S. healthcare system, and the efforts of community-based healthcare providers and social workers to help them along the way.

Steinberg works at Street Level Health Project, a nonprofit in Oakland’s Fruitvale, and one of the organizations featured in the film. Street Level serves Latino day laborers and Mam immigrants with healthcare, employment, and food support. Steinberg, as the organization’s nutritionist and herbalist, helps members access natural remedies that they would have sought in their home countries. 

Steinberg and Bykofsky spent the last few years traveling between Oakland, where they followed Street Level Health Project, and Lowell, Massachusetts where they documented the work at Lowell Community Health Center, which serves refugees and asylum seekers primarily from Cambodia and Laos. 

“Between April of 2016 and July of 2020, we took eight trips to Lowell, Massachusetts to film over time with our characters over there,” said Steinberg.

During their years traveling back and forth, the duo witnessed how immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers were affected by the differing policies of the Obama and Trump administrations. 

“We started this in no way expecting that we would be finishing the film under the current administration,” said Steinberg. “President Obama was the deporter in chief, he totally ramped up deportations.  We were seeing ankle shackles all throughout the Obama administration, that’s not new. What was new, is that we stopped seeing as many ‘grilletes’ (ankle shackles) because people were just being deported.” 

According to a study from Pew Research Center, in the 2018 Customs and Border Patrol and ICE together carried out 337,287 deportations, a 17% increase from the previous year. 

Last spring, Steinberg, and Bykofsky hosted a “work in progress” screening to raise funds for the documentary at Community Bank of the Bay. Since then, the pandemic halted additional in-person screenings and has delayed completion of the project. Originally set to debut in March, Steinberg, and Bykofsky were not able to finish production until July.

Despite the financial hurdles and delays due to the pandemic, Steinberg and Bykofsky said it’s imperative to release the film—even if it means doing so virtually—to shed light on the challenges facing community clinics that treat immigrants who are fearful of seeking care. 

One key source of support that helped them complete the project, said Steinberg, was a $12,000 grant from the Berkeley Film Foundation. 

The filmmakers worked closely with animators to ensure immigrants’ stories were portrayed respectfully and accurately.

“We were able to hire animators to do the backstories of three of the characters in the film,” said Steinberg. Animation, she added, was the most respectful way to have the characters narrate the most challenging aspects of their personal journeys to the United States. “We were trying to establish memory of homeland and traumatic experience in a different environment than the rest of the film.” 

Although physically remote, the duo worked closely with the animators based in Europe, and the three characters whose migration stories were depicted, to ensure their experiences were portrayed respectfully. “It was a deep process of accountability,” said Steinberg, “in whether they feel that their story is being represented in a way that feels good and familiar.” 

In total, Steinberg and Bykofsky raised over $100,000 in individual donations to complete the film. In addition to the Berkeley Film Foundation grant, they also received a matching grant from the Theodore Edson Parker Foundation, a private foundation in Boston.

Bykofsky said she is grateful to the “really supportive group” of individuals who contributed. 

For the filmmakers, the project was never about making money for themselves, but about highlighting the desperate need for funding at community clinics and the need for more healthcare workers from the countries of origin of the patients in the film. 

“The majority of the time that Robyn [Bykofsky] and I put into the project was unpaid because it’s a project of love,” Steinberg said.

Because of the pandemic, the duo had to finish the last portion of the documentary remotely. Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University donated the final finishing for color and sound. The two were last able to travel to Ohio in February when they met with the crew to go over the film. 

“We got to see what it was like to finish this process from a distance,” Steinberg said. “That process kind of juxtaposed with how I’ve watched our clinic services [at Street Level] change.” 

The pandemic also caused Street Level Health Project’s in-person services shut down in March, and the organization transitioned to over-the-phone services via a hotline. 

While there won’t be any group screenings for the foreseeable future, “A Place to Breathe” is currently screening virtually at the San Francisco Doc Fest 2020 until September 20. On September 17, Steinberg and Bykofsky will partake in a Q&A alongside two of the characters in the film. The livestream of that panel discussion will also be available until September 20 to those who purchased a ticket to the virtual screening.

Steinberg and Bykofsky said they hope the film showcases the importance of the work that’s taking place in immigrant communities like Fruitvale. 

“It’s really important,” said Steinberg, “that I’m capturing glimpses of the power that I see coming out of these communities.” 

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.