In a series called “The Idea of America,” Turner Classic Movies has asked immigrants to discuss how film helped shape their perceptions of this country. Of the nine participants, four are from Atlanta.
On Saturday at noon, host Ben Mankiewicz will sit down with Sushma Barakoti to discuss her favorite movie, To Kill a Mockingbird, which she will introduce. Barakoti grew up in Nepal, where she became fascinated with the lush scenery in some American movies, before she immigrated to the United States.
She is the executive director of the Decatur-based Refugee Women’s Network, a nonprofit that serves refugees who have resettled in the state of Georgia. She also runs Sunavworld, which promotes sustainable, fairly traded items with the twin missions of “social justice and the empowerment of women.”
ArtsATL caught up with her before showtime to discuss her love for movies, particularly the beloved classic made in 1962 from the novel by Harper Lee.
ArtsATL: Where did you first put down stakes in America?
Sushma Barakoti: I came to Scranton, Pennsylvania, for graduate school to pursue my graduate degree in social work. I got married in Scranton and had my two children there. We lived there for 12 years, where I worked for a nonprofit advocating for survivors of gender-based violence.
ArtsATL: What surprised you the most about America and Americans when you got here?
Barakoti: The first thing that I could not experience from watching movies was the traffic and traffic rules, the speed, just driving from the airport to my sister’s place from Dulles International Airport. I was clutching the side handle of my brother-in-law’s car. I drove a standard-shift car in Kathmandu but never could drive more than 20 or 25 miles an hour. For the most part, I have met and interacted with friendly Americans. In Scranton we had a small, close-knit community for ourselves. Since it was a small town, we felt comfortable and very at home raising kids. When I started school, the disparity of wealth in this country was unfathomable, and still it makes me wonder, even after 22 years.
ArtsATL: What brought you to Atlanta, and what is it about the city that you enjoy most?
Barakoti: My husband works for United Parcel Service, and he got a transfer to the corporate headquarters, and that brought us here. After 12 years of living in Scranton, I was ready to explore a bigger city. I knew a bit about Atlanta because my youngest sister was living here a few years before me. Even for my career I knew that Atlanta had international non-government organizations and small activist organizations. But when we arrived in 2012, I was introduced to the arts and crafts scenes of Atlanta and was motivated to convert my passion to promote Nepali women’s arts and crafts into a viable business. That’s when I created Sunavworld LLC.
ArtsATL: Were you a movie buff growing up, or did you discover the magic of cinema a little later? What are a couple of other favorite movies of yours?
Barakoti: I was very keen to watch movies. Growing up, going to movies was not very convenient, but my early memories of going to movies were with my uncle. He was a very quiet man but every time he visited us in Kathmandu, it was understood that he would take my sister and I to a movie that was in the theater. At that time there were Bollywood movies. When in high school, we used to rent a VCR player and television screen and watch Bollywood and some Hollywood movies in marathons — all day and night — with not only the whole family but also our neighbors and friends’ families.
ArtsATL: Why did you choose this particular movie? What was it that resonated with you?
Barakoti: It says to me that America is a complex country. On one hand, it is a functioning democratic country with rules and laws with no tolerance for racism and discrimination. However, we also live with the consequences of systemic racism and discrimination in our daily lives. This movie portrays our humanity and the pursuit for justice. The relationship between Black Americans and White Americans, and the relationship between the nanny and Atticus’ children — altogether, it is a great portal of what was possible in America in the 1950s and ‘60s.
ArtsATL: What lessons or insights do you hope viewers experience with To Kill a Mockingbird, and the whole TCM program?
Barakoti: I hope people in America see immigrants as normal people watching Hollywood movies in addition to whatever movie industries that they have in their countries. Movies as entertainment are universal. Movies give people outside that culture a peek into the lives and culture of someone else. It is a common thread that bonds people around the world. For example, if a movie is funny, we all laugh, and if it is emotional, we cry. We should watch more movies! Thank you TCM for lifting up the movie-watching experience of immigrant men and women.
Candice Dyer’s work has appeared in Atlanta magazine, Garden and Gun, Georgia Trend and other publications. She is the author of Street Singers, Soul Shakers, Rebels with a Cause: Music from Macon.