Discover the documentary films about the refugee experience that are often overlooked in the factual landscape.
Documentary films about the refugee experience are both plentiful and often overlooked in the factual landscape. But they often are the most compelling human narratives, and many have pushed the boundaries of narrative techniques. Here are a few of our favourite:
Exodus: Our Journey to Europe
This extraordinary BBC series tracks the journey of refugees from before departure, tracking their often harrowing travel with the help of the refugees’ own shooting on smartphones. The series was filmed in 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis, when one million people made their way illegally to Europe.
Keo, the production company, wanted to document the places film crews couldn’t go – from the backs of lorries travelling across the Channel to the open trucks driven by people smugglers.
The BBC were able to bring their wealth of resources to unfold the stories from the series across a variety of platforms and formats, such as this BBC news feature, which details contributor Hassad’s first ill-fated dinghy trip, trying to reach Greece from Turkey. See this Open University website for more about the award winning series.
Midnight Traveller / Dir. Hassan Fazili / 88mins
Like Exodus, this feature documentary also uses refugees’ smartphones to tell a story no film crew could capture in the same way. When his life is threatened by the Taliban, filmmaker Hassan Fazili goes on the run with his wife and two small daughters. Shooting on their mobile phones, the family takes us with them on a harrowing and gruelling journey, through many countries, trying to find asylum.
A festival favourite, Midnight Traveler places us inside the refugee journey, in its waves of danger, tedium, exhaustion and tenderness. As the family endures endless walks, refugee camps, duplicitous smugglers and filthy accommodation, they are constantly at the mercy of forces far beyond their control. A moving reminder that family life goes on even in the most difficult of circumstances.
A Syrian Love Story / Dir. Sean McAllister / 75mins
Sean McAllister’s 2015 A Syrian Love Story was many years in the making, but “lucky” in its timing. Released in an atmosphere of high tension around the refugee crisis, the film garnered an unusual amount of attention for a Storyville documentary – including a viewing in Parliament.
McAllister tells the story of Amer and Ragda, who had met while both were locked up in a Syrian jail for speaking out against an oppressive regime. Twenty years and four sons later, as McAllister comes into their lives, Amer is again waiting for Ragda, who has once again been imprisoned. McAllister and his subjects’ lives become irrevocably intertwined when McAllister himself is jailed, and footage of the family is confiscated.
Amer and Ragda must flee overnight to Lebanon, with nothing but their children. McAllister follows their story over five turbulent years, as they struggle to find their feet as refugees.
Seldom has a documentary maker had such a profound impact on the lives of the contributors, as McAllister’s arrest led directly to the family fleeing Syria.
As McAllister notes in this Docs On Screens interview, when the film came one of the questions he had for Raghda, who participated in the Q&As was ‘I just came back from the border, screening the film with Raghda, and one of my questions (in preparation for post screening Q&As) was ‘did she blame me for life today?’. “And she laughed and said “I cried when you were arrested, I cried for you. The only people I blame in any of this are the regime.”
Island of the Hungry Ghosts / Dir. Gabrielle Brady / 98mins
Island of the Hungry Ghosts has a particularly strong visual aesthetic, with a motif contrasting the care taken to protect millions of migrating land crabs to traumatised refugees languishing in a Christmas Island refugee centre. We follow Poh Lin, a trauma counsellor to the refugees, who uses a sandbox to help them tell their stories in counselling sessions. Such intimacy was brought about by Poh Lin’s relationship with filmmaker Gabrielle Brady; close friends from university, Gabrielle is also goddaughter to Poh Lin’s daughter.
The Lost Boys / Dir. Megan Mylan and Jon Schenk / 2003
The Lost Boys of Sudan fled for their lives in 1987 when the army attacked their villages. Thousands of young boys fled into the bush and began an epic journey through the wilderness. Four years later the survivors arrived in Kakuma reguee camp in Kenya.
Now they face the challenge of leaving their refugee camp to start a new life in the USA. Megan Mylan and Jon Schenk’s verite film artfully captures the surreal and sometimes funny journey from the chaos of war to the heart of suburban America.
Clouds Over Sidra
A number of interactive documentary projects take you inside the experience of being a refugee. One of the first is also amongst the simplest and most powerful. Clouds Over Sidra is a 360 degree film in which Sidra, a 12 year old girl, guides us on a tour of her home: the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, which homes 80,000 migrants.
The project is made by the United Nations in order to increase empathy and understanding of those living in vulnerable conditions. And indeed, it seems to have reached those in power.
There is a striking sequence in Greg Barker’s The Final Year, where Obama’s UN Ambassador Samantha Power emerges from a UN showcase having just viewed Clouds Over Sidra and immediately tries to the get the ambassador to Saudi Arabia to view it.
Another simple documentary project which strives to take you inside the refugee experience is this BBC Media Action short, which highlights the importance of smartphones to the refugee journey. Watch it vertically on your smartphone for a short but intense experience.