After he made a documentary about St. Louis' little Italy, Joseph Puleo kept hearing the same question. Would he make one about the Bosnian community?
A St. Louis-area native of Italian descent, Puleo was aware of St. Louis' concentrated Bosnian population, but he didn't know much about it. That changed after he directed and produced his award-winning documentary America's Last Little Italy: The Hill, released in 2020. He and his wife had moved to Afton, where a majority of his neighbors were Bosnian.
The Bosnians' stories intrigued him, so he made them the subject of his next project. Puleo's documentary A New Home screened at this year's St. Louis International Film Festival and is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
A New Home is the latest collaboration between Puleo and executive producer Rio Vitale, author of St. Louis's The Hill, whose expertise and connections to the Hill were critical in the documentary's making.
A New Home brought new challenges for the duo. With the Hill documentary, "you had people reliving probably the greatest experiences of their lives on camera — it was something they were excited to talk about," Puleo says.
But the Bosnians' story of relocating to St. Louis was not a happy one. Interviewees in A New Home recall the hardest years of their lives, when ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian War forced Bosnians and other Balkan populations to flee their homes against their will. Neighbors turned on neighbors. Serbian friends who Bosnians had known for their whole lives were suddenly threatening to kill them, raping and killing their women, or stealing their homes.
The war displaced 2 million Bosnians. Many fled to Germany, which took refugees temporarily. When their time was up there, suddenly Bosnians had nowhere to go. Their homes were either destroyed or under occupation. Many fled to St. Louis. The city was relatively cheap and had the institutional backing to receive refugees.
St. Louis now houses the second-largest Bosnian population in the world, second only to Bosnia itself.
Puleo and his team knew they were making a big ask — wanting their subjects to relive the worst experiences of their lives on camera. But Puleo found that the documentary's subjects were fairly open to questions. They wanted to tell their stories.
"I think it was a cathartic experience for them to be able to go through this," Puleo says. "It was a novel situation for many: They'd never been asked to go on camera and do an interview about it. It was probably something that they've tried to lock away. Maybe it was beneficial for them to go through this for our film."
A New Home details the intimate and often tragic details of Bosnians' asylum seeking, but the documentary also touches on their successes. How beneficial they are to the St. Louis area. How they were able to turn their lives around, often with little money, and move from the then-less-than-desired neighborhood that was Bevo Mill in the 1990s to south St. Louis County.
The most gratifying part of the documentary for Puleo was the response. He says he daily receives direct messages and comments from people thankful that he took the time to tell their stories.
"I'm just happy that their story was told," Puleo says. "I think they feel unheard, and this kind of gave them a voice."
Puleo witnessed this firsthand at the documentary's screening at the St. Louis International Film Festival. The theater was packed with mostly Bosnians, Puleo says. Most had never seen, read or heard their story represented in such a way.
"You could hear audible sobbing going on in the theater," Puleo says.
The first 20 minutes of the documentary are a heavy experience. Footage from the war shows soldiers marching through streets with rifles and Bosnians recalling the short time they had to pack up their lives and leave everything. Old newsreels display families scrambling through gunfire, mothers carrying their children, bombs blowing up homes.
A New Home ends on a positive note, however. Bosnian refugees and local experts explain the Bosnian community's slow but steady ascent and their contributions to the St. Louis area.
Apart from giving Bosnian refugees a voice, Puleo hopes A New Home will explain to native St. Louisans the truth of Bosnians' hardships. Many south-city and south-county residents were under the impression that Bosnians found their success through handouts, Puleo says. In the 1990s, rumors floated that Bosnians received thousands of dollars from the federal government to jumpstart their new lives.
No such payments existed, other than a single $500 payment each refugee received to keep themselves afloat in the weeks after their arrival. Other than that, most Bosnains lived off their savings and hard work, the documentary details.
"Hopefully, people watch the film and appreciate their Bosnian neighbors for what they've been able to go through, but also what they've been able to bring to the city of St. Louis," Puleo says. "If anything, I hope that's what people leave the film with — a new sense of appreciation for these people."Coming soon: Riverfront Times Daily newsletter. We’ll send you a handful of interesting St. Louis stories every morning. Subscribe now to not miss a thing.
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