The Refugee Crisis on Film
Updated: May 23, 2019
Earlier this month, Donald Trump reportedly got into a heated argument with the Australian prime minister over an Obama pledge to accept up to 1,250 refugees in the US from detention centers down under.
The figure represents one-fourth the record number of people the UN refugee agency UNHCR estimates died trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe last year.
That's more people lost at sea in one year than the entire population of Cle Elum, Kittitas and Roslyn combined -- 5,000 men, women and children, fleeing war, violence and persecution especially in the Middle East and Africa.
It's tempting to minimize the plight of migrants and refugees when they're not washing up on your shores. Europe doesn't have that luxury -- over 360,000 are estimated to have arrived there by sea in 2016.
European filmmakers are responding by bringing these pressing stories to screen. Some have earned top prizes at film festivals in recent years, like Cannes winner "Dheepan" (now on Netflix) and Berlin victor "Fire at Sea" ("Fuocoammare" -- up this weekend for a best documentary Oscar), among others.
About "Fire," 2016 Berlin Film Festival jury chair Meryl Streep (yes, the "overrated" one) said: "It demands its place in front of our eyes and compels our engagement and action." Like the refugee crisis itself?
Seeking Solid Land
"Terraferma," also on Netflix, weaves a similar tale to "Fire" through fiction, and is set on a sister island off the Italian coast.
The movie opens underwater on the belly of a ship casting its fishing net into the midnight-blue sea, and closes on the reverse shot following the same boat from high above as it races clandestinely across the waves. Scenes throughout the film return symbolically to the water, including one haunting sequence recording vestiges of lives left on the ocean floor - shoes, toothbrushes, ID cards.
The Mediterranean is a lead character in "Terraferma," representing the vanishing livelihood of the island's elders, a paradise retreat for partying tourists, and a strategic route to freedom for thousands of desperate emigrants.
We're a third of the way into the movie before its protagonists, 20-year-old Filippo and his fisherman grandfather Ernesto, happen upon a vessel overflowing with Africans, several of whom jump into the water and frantically swim towards them. Ernesto dives in to help.
The local police later seize their boat for failing to report the undocumented. What the police don't know is that the duo also pulled a pregnant woman out of the sea, and now she's hiding in their garage with her son and newborn baby.
The film's characters and conflicts symbolize the larger dilemma facing Europe. Everyone has an opinion on how to handle the displaced masses, but nobody has the answer. In "Terraferma," political law, embodied by the rigid local police chief, is positioned as contradictory to the islanders' "law of the sea," which dictates you never leave a person behind.
This opposition represents an overly simplistic narrative construct, but it allows for heartrending scenes of indifference to personal suffering and it sends a strong humanitarian message.
Filippo's mom, Giulietta, embodies the more nuanced reality. She has plans herself to migrate to the mainland in search of steady work, of which there is precious little even for the natives. She's resentful of being asked to risk everything they have, which is not a lot, to help the stranger, played by real-life Eritrean refugee Timnit T.
Yet the two mothers also forge an undeniable human bond that allows Giulietta no other option but to help, a clear moral choice underscored in a tender farewell scene shot in stark shadows and light.
Swimming to Freedom
A similar personal connection prompts a local man to embrace a Kurdish refugee in the French drama "Welcome," available from The Film Movement. The English Channel replaces the Mediterranean as the perilous passageway to a hoped-for new beginning, and the dreary northern clime matches the film's more deliberate realism.
The 17-year-old Bilal has arrived to the encampments on the northern French coast (Google the "Calais Jungle") after a 3-month journey by foot from Iraq. He's running from war, and towards a girlfriend in London. He decides his only hope is to swim the Channel, so he signs up for lessons at the local pool.
His instructor, Simon, is a lonely, aging man going through a divorce. He finds himself compelled to help Bilal, in the process awakening his own dulled spirit. But a neighbor reports Simon to the police, who tell him they will dissuade more migration by penalizing any local who offers them help. As in "Terraferma," the law is portrayed as contradicting basic human decency.
In an early scene that inspires Simon, his ex-wife stands up to someone refusing service to refugees, declaring that indifference is worse than inaction.
That's a message for us all.