8 must see films about the refugee experience

Mark World Refugee Day 2016 with this collection of films that place a lens over the journey and struggle refugees face.

by Colin Crummy
20 June 2016, 11:35pm


The refugee experience, whether on television news or UKIP postering, is often framed in terms of what it means for those asked to accommodate. But the current crop of films depicting the refugee crises - whether current or historical - switches that focus. Refugees bear witness to their struggle through smartphone footage of treacherous journeys across desert, mountain or by war torn road, often at the mercy and whim of illegal smugglers. Directors with first hand experience of being a refugee channel that into powerful non fiction and fictional stories. Collectively, these films offer a sharp correction to the idea that it is the those to whom the refugees flee who are at breaking point.

Screened at this year's Doc/Fest in Sheffield, Anne-Claire Adet uses refugees' own footage to illustrate just how they live in Europe in this short, first person documentary. The filmmaker interviews one Sudan journalist who has been housed in a bunker in Geneva. 'There is no way to escape, no space to breathe,' he says of the bunker three floors underground where refugees live in cramped conditions without daylight.

Flotel Europa
In the early 90s, Vladimir Tomic, his brother, mother and approximately other 1,000 Yugoslavian refugees boarded the Flotel Europa in Copenhagen to embark on a new life on the ship moored in the Danish capital. At a time before Snapchat, the new inhabitants of this refugee camp on the water sent VHS videos of their lives on board to loved ones who remained in Yugoslavia. It is through these fuzzy snapshots of refugee squalor and life lived as best it can be that Tomic pieces together his own story in a documentary that eschews a victim narrative in favour of a vibrant coming of age tale.

Rokhsareh Gahaem Maghami's Sundance winning documentary about an Afghan refugee living in Iran appears at first a straightforward film about teenage ambition versus societal constraints. Sonita is a 15-year-old rapper who writes verse about the oppression of arranged marriages, something that turns real life problem when her family plan selling her off for $3000 so that her brother can, in turn, pay for his bride. For Sonita, this would mean returning to Afghanistan and giving up her dreams, a prospect that pushes the film's director to consider intervening, crossing both documentarian and cultural boundaries. Sonita's refugee status, which initially plays second fiddle to the main thrust of the story, brings with its challenges as the story takes its extraordinary turn.

Continental Drift
Shipwrecks off the Italian coast serve as haunting reminders of the cost to human life in Pietro Novello's short film about African refugees who struggle to make it across the sea in dangerous waters. But the treacherous nature of the journey itself is only part of the story as Novello's film, one of several shorts screened at Doc/Fest depicting refugee crises, as it explores the intimidation and corruption faced by those hoping to survive the trip.

Transit Zone
Frederik Subei's short documentary about life lived in the Calais refugee camps in the depths of winter is a chilling watch as basic needs like shelter, food and water become huge challenges. 'England is like a dream for me, you know. I want to make it,' says Sudan born Teefa, who hopes to make it across the Channel from France but must tough it out in the meantime in Calais with other refugees, mostly from war torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and his native Sudan. Of his own country Teefa explains, 'either you die or you run.' Transit Zone shows the place refugees run to in all its horror.

When director Elke Sasse screened her 90-minute film, about the journeys taken by refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and Eritrea, at Sheffield Doc/Fest last week under the 'No Place like Home' strand, the filmmaker said she didn't have to go far to find the stories. They were all online, she said, where refugees had uploaded their smartphone footage of treacherous, arduous treks across dangerous territories in a bid to make Europe. Sasse intercuts the often harrowing, eye opening video with in depth interviews with the protagonists, who explain the context to scenes of incredible endurance.

After Spring
Directors Steph Ching and Ellen Martinez head into Zaatari in Jordan, the largest camp for Syrian refugees which opened in 2012 to accommodate those fleeing civil war across the border. A temporary measure at the time, Zaatari has seen its population swell as the conflict continues. After Spring, which debuted at Tribeca film festival, follows two refugee families and the aid workers fighting to keep the camp running as Zaatari looks increasingly like somewhere they will have to remain.

Arta Dobroshi's family fled Kosovo in 1997 to a refugee camp in Macedonia. She has worked in a refugee camp and been a translator for NATO. She has spent half of her life as refugee, half in freedom, a fact that inspired her new fictitious film. HOME stars Jack O'Connell and Hermione Grainger as a British couple who become refugees. They smuggle their kids in car boots, walking miles and miles and scavenging for food and warmth. HOME is released in cinemas today to mark World Refugees Day. See withrefugees.org for more.


Text Colin Crummy

World Refugee Day
continental drift
after spring home
flotel europa
transit zone
after spring