TORONTO - The stark saga that unfolds in "Home Again" is a tragic reality for many who are deported to Jamaica due to harsh immigration laws, says director Sudz Sutherland.
It's the reason his sobering film has grown into a campaign of sorts, with the Toronto director making it his mission to raise awareness about the way countries including Canada, England and the United States treat their immigrants.
"A lot of times deportees end up as murder statistics," says Sutherland, who interviewed dozens of Jamaican nationals ejected from Canada and other countries while preparing the script.
"They find themselves down in Jamaica as they're deported and then they're on the streets and then they're part of the homeless population."
He says "Home Again" is inspired by those horror stories, with each of its three main characters composites of real people.
Tatyana Ali, best known for playing rich-kid Ashley Banks on "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," stars as the woe-begotten Marva, who was raised in Canada since infancy but is sent to her birth country after unwittingly transporting contraband for her boyfriend.
Marva is forced to leave her two Canadian-born children in foster care in Toronto. She heads to Kingston, where she moves in with an aunt and uncle she hardly knows to serve as their live-in maid.
"Rookie Blue" regular Lyriq Bent co-stars as the New York-bred Dunston Williams, whose drug-related offences get him kicked out of the United States and drag him deep into Jamaica's brutal gang world.
And "Degrassi: The Next Generation" alum Stephan James is Everton Sinclair, a kid raised in England with a private school education but considered a foreigner because his parents never arranged for his U.K. citizenship.
He's deported after being convicted of trafficking in marijuana but his privileged upbringing leaves him ill-prepared for Kingston's crime-ridden streets.
Sutherland co-wrote the script with his Jamaican-born wife Jennifer Holness, whose childhood friend was deported to Jamaica much like Everton.
"And the thing is that he had the same sort of life history as Jen," says Sutherland, who was born in Canada to Jamaican parents.
"He came (to Canada) when he was six. He grew up here but he fell in with a bad crowd when he was in high school and for one reason or another, started doing petty crimes, graduating up in severity."
That friend was killed about 10 years after landing in Jamaica, where murder rates are among the highest in the world, Sutherland says.
Many of the more than 40 deportees he interviewed in Jamaica didn't know they weren't citizens or that they could be deported with permanent resident status, he adds.
"People should actually know their status — kids should know their status. And if they aren't citizens, get your citizenship," he says.
All those interviews are being fashioned into a documentary film that will further explore the issue, he says.
Meanwhile, the "Home Again" website (homeagainfilm.com) features information on how to get citizenship and a petition against a proposed law that would make it easier to eject foreigners.
Bill C-43, also known as the Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act, would prevent convicted immigrants from appealing a removal order if they face six months or more of jail time. Currently, immigrants facing up to two years in jail can appeal their case.
"Six months is common assault — so that's like getting in a bar fight or a fight at school," says Sutherland. "You're going to have families ripped apart. This is what happens with this deportation."
The problem is particularly acute in Jamaica, where deportees are largely blamed for the country's crime woes. Deportees receive little to no resources to help establish new lives, leaving them especially vulnerable to criminal activity, he says.
Although "Home Again" is set in Jamaica, financial and logistical issues kept Sutherland from actually filming there beyond getting some exterior shots. Instead, the 26-day shoot took place largely in Trinidad.
He expected fans of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" to be surprised by Ali's dramatic chops in the difficult drama.
"There's all kinds of stuff, harrowing experiences, that her character goes through so we wanted to see what she could do. And she did it. She came to play," he says, also heaping praise on co-stars CCH Pounder and singer Fefe Dobson.
"It's a tough movie but it's an entertaining one and we wanted to really struggle and make this thing something that people could see and talk about afterwards."
"Home Again" opens Friday in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver.