What Is Refugee Cinema About?

On films that look beyond testimonials and instead interrogate the citizen-resident's lives in relation to refugee crises.
Vinh Nguyen

Styx (2018).

When another imminent lockdown is announced, I rush to the cinema to catch Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s animated documentary Flee (2021). Sitting in the dark theater, unsure when I’ll have this luxury again, I’m hit with a pang of anxiety, as if I’m about to lose home once again. The film, which recounts Amin Nawabi’s escape from Afghanistan and eventual arrival in Denmark as an unaccompanied minor, strikes a chord, reminding me of my own refugee displacement. Specifically, I’m drawn to Amin’s charismatic persona, imbued with melancholic introspection. His remembrances, which constitute the narrative content, are at turns harrowing, bittersweet, and heartwarming. It is undeniable that Flee is well-crafted and genuinely moving.

Yet, I also felt unease with the film’s confessional framing, or how Amin’s story is told. While the film has been acclaimed for pushing the bounds of documentary, it is also wholly conventional in its reliance on the testimonial form to tell a refugee story. 

We are first introduced to Amin in a close-up shot. After Rasmussen instructs his interviewee to center himself within the camera’s frame, he asks, “Have you ever told your story before?” When Amin responds with a simple “No,” the director prompts him to close his eyes and move back in time. A few scenes later, we see that Amin and Rasmussen are in a dark room. The director is sitting in a chair off to the side, his back to the camera. Amin is positioned on a raised platform; a standing mic is next to him, and an overhead camera is rigged directly above his face. This is the context for how the documentary’s “story” gets extracted—the set-up resembling a cross between an interrogation room, a therapy session, and a laboratory. 

Dramatized here is the role of the refugee as a subject to be examined and investigated, placed under the microscope of the camera. The outcome of such attentive scrutiny is a “refugee story,” one that requires mediation, a prompter or witness to assist in bringing forth the painful and traumatic experiences often hidden away in silence. The filmmaker, like the bureaucrat, the journalist, the doctor, or the academic, is positioned as the listener and observer who the refugee must tell his story to.

Of course, the director is not some disinterested official, but an artist invested in a human story. It matters that Rasmussen and Amin share an intimate, decades-long friendship, but the relation that they share on screen is still structured by the interview, which has been a standard mechanism for processing and knowing refugees, whether it’s in the legal asylum hearing, the ethnographic study, or the media profile. And there’s always an imbalance of power in such forms of exchange. The interview is a conventional trope through which the refugee’s story is captured, and testimony is how refugees become “known.”

Flee rehearses the refugee’s burden to tell, to confess his life story in order to be recognized and seen, or to be healed from his interminable suffering. This imperative to tell haunts refugee cultural production, including refugee cinema. 

The question that gives this essay its title seems to be self-evident: refugee cinema is about refugees, obviously. But what if the answer isn’t quite that simple? What if refugee cinema does not ask refugees to testify? What if refugee cinema is not about refugees? 

Since the beginning of the so-called “European refugee crisis” in 2015, a number of films on refugees have been produced, most visibly by auteurs such as Aki Kaurismäki, Christian Petzold, Ai Weiwei, Jacques Audiard, and Nadine Labaki. Differing from testimonial-based works and employing a range of genres, including melodrama, (neo)realism, suspense, comedy, and romance, these films focus on refugees’ social and emotional experiences. To varying degrees of success, they portray the struggles and hopes of those uprooted from home. 

But there is another group of provocative films that shift their attention to those who exist next to “refugee crises,” who watch and continue to live as refugees undergo forced migration. In films like Wolfgang Fischer’s Styx (2018), Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea (2016), and Michael Haneke’s Happy End (2017), the lives of citizen-residents get interrogated and called into question. These films keep the focus on the excesses of the emplaced to comment on the wider existential impact of refugee displacement.

Perhaps, then, the most compelling aspect of contemporary films on refugees is how they shine a glaring light on the contradictions, absurdities, and degradations of  “settled life.” What they do is deconstruct the seeming coherence of “resident” and “citizen,” showing how refugee “crises” fundamentally alter and erode the humanity of non-refugees. If this boundary-pushing refugee cinema is about anything, it is about exposing the rotting core and existential precarity of those who are not migrants, who enjoy the luxuries of an ostensibly stable self, life, and national community.

But, first, what makes refugee cinema?

While it has no definitive criteria, the broad category of refugee cinema is most intuitively defined as films that deal with the theme or subject matter of refugee migration. The majority of these films are directed by non-refugees and produced by companies in the Global North. In the past few years, however, with more democratized access to media technology, there has emerged a number of films made by refugees, or what Raminder Kaur and Mariagiulia Grassilli call a “fifth cinema,” that center the authorial voice and agency of those in transit, most notably Arash Kamali Sarvestani and Behrouz Boochani’s Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time (2017), Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed’s Purple Sea (2020), and Hassan Fazili’s Midnight Traveler (2019).

Refugee cinema is thus films on and by refugees, and regardless of who is behind the camera, scholars have emphasized its stylistic hybridity and interstitial qualities. In terms of content, form, and mode of production, refugee cinema is, according to Hamid Naficy’s influential theory, “accented”—fluidly moving in-between generic, institutional, and diasporic spaces.

But what really drives refugee cinema is a political impulse to challenge the prevailing (inter)national social order, whether it is to counter dominant narratives about refugees, to humanize them, to make their plight visible, to critique governments, or to provide voice to untold stories. Of course, this impulse might end up reiterating stereotypes and problematic conceptions of refugees, but they nonetheless are socially engaged and politically motivated.

Styx, Fire at Sea, and Happy End are refugee cinema in this sense, but their politics is not about creating empathy for or dispelling negative images of refugees. Theirs is a more progressive politics that steers away from centering refugees to consider how the violent conditions they endure are made possible by a fundamentally cruel system, one that insidiously warps the citizen-resident too. 

Fischer’s Styx is a thriller that presents a moral dilemma for a self-sufficient German national with free will and freedom of movement. Rike, an emergency doctor, is in search of paradise, sailing solo from Gibraltar to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic. After a storm off the coast of Africa she encounters a leaking fishing trawler overcrowded with refugees. When the promised help fails to materialize, and the coast guard warns her not to intervene, she must decide how to respond. Her predicament is even more complicated when one of the refugees, fourteen-year-old Kingsley, swims over to her yacht. As he insists that they help those remaining on the trawler, Rike has to contend with another subjectivity—one with its own will, desire, pain, and moral compass—in her self-contained world.

In Rike, the potential “white savior” is compromised, both by the system under which she operates and by the refugee’s presence. When help finally arrives, it is too late. The rescue mission becomes a recovery mission. As she’s being asked to fill out inquiry forms, Rike is unresponsive, a vacant expression in her eyes—damaged by the deaths she’s seen onboard the trawler. Her romantic dream of wild nature is no more, but a part of her psyche, her moral core, has also died. In a world where coast guards are concerned with procedure and corporations have strict policies against intervention at sea, the film shows that there is no coming to the rescue of refugees, or that of the affected nationals.

The distress radio signals at the end of Styx are eerily repeated at the beginning of Fire at Sea. Rosi’s documentary juxtaposes the everyday life of residents on the island of Lampedusa with refugee arrivals. Its key signifying function is the editing, which creates two parallel worlds that don’t intersect, playing with the ironies of proximity and distance. The residents profiled live as if refugees don’t exist, never coming into contact with the thousands of people seeking refuge on the small island. The only main character who interacts with refugees is a doctor, Pietro Bartolo, who describes having to witness awful things, forced to examine and legally process cadavers. He confesses that it’s something he can never get used to, that it leaves him with an emptiness in his gut. It returns to him in nightmares. 

But nightmares are not the most haunting effects of refugee deaths. The powerful consequence of the film’s narrative juxtaposition is that the most mundane acts, such as cooking, listening to the radio, diving for sea urchins, learning English, and playing with a slingshot take on a grotesque hue in light of the mortal tragedies happening to others. The blissful ignorance of settled life means that their humanity is being altered without them knowing. A crucial part of the resident’s ethical being is at risk. The final scene, of Samuele Pucillo, the twelve-year-old protagonist of the documentary, earnestly making air guns with his hands conveys his youthful fascination with violence, but also underscores the sinister tone of citizen imagination. The resident’s seeming innocence, the film emphatically shows, is a spreading poison.

Haneke’s Happy End does not pretend to claim innocence for any of its characters, and continues the director’s tendency to implicate them, and the audience, in histories of violence. Set in Calais, but instead of aiming its voyeuristic lens on the infamous “Jungle,” an encampment which contained thousands of refugees, the film turns its gaze toward the battlefield of a decaying white, upper-class family. The Laurent family squabble, they deal with overdoses, suicide attempts, legal disputes, addictions, and extramarital affairs. The elderly patriarch, Georges, and his thirteen-year-old granddaughter, Eve, are both alienated and obsessed with death. The family lives the most self-absorbed, socially unaware, bourgeois life in the same physical space as the refugees, who appear only twice in the film. First, when Georges, desperate to fulfill his death-wish, flags down a random group of men in the street, offering them his wristwatch to assist him in suicide. The second, at an engagement party for his mother, Georges’ grandson Pierre drags the same refugees into the banquet, listing their tragedies to disrupt the respectable celebration. 

Although refugees appear to be peripheral to the film’s main plot, it is precisely this decision to focus on the crisis of white capitalist anxiety in Calais that makes Happy End a refugee film. This deliberate directorial choice is a commentary on the decadent world that produces, and then turns a blind eye to, refugee situations. During the chaos that ensues at the party, Eve takes Georges outside in his wheelchair. As he rolls himself into the English Channel—the same that many refugees in Calais wish to cross—Eve records him on her iPhone. This final scene evokes the many refugees who perish in the water seeking new life, but here it’s the resident seeking to destroy it. The contradictions are absurd. The existential crisis of the first world citizen is particularly perverse in a city like Calais, where refugees hang on to survival in the most basic and visceral ways. 

While they turn on the citizen-resident, these three films don’t use the refugee’s story as an occasion to recenter the status quo or the Western subject like many humanitarian narratives do. Instead, Styx, Fire at Sea, and Happy End dissect the citizen’s existence to destabilize its mythology, as separate from and resolution to displacement. 

The sociologist Zgymunt Bauman says that refugees must be kept at bay because they remind the settled that their security, their very settledness, is a fiction. Refugee cinema, or the best of its kind, shows us that the settled are part of the “crisis,” that they are the crisis—and they do not come away unscathed from the violence of migration, the violence done onto refugees. 

Because we already know too much about refugees, about how they are victimized and are in need of aid, it is these films that maneuver the camera onto the world of the citizen that can push our imaginations forward. Rasmussen’s film, while beautifully made, relies too heavily on Amin’s compelling story. It’s too much about the refugee. Perhaps a riskier narrative method might interrogate the filmmaker’s fascination with Amin’s story, why his curiosity drove him to pursue Amin’s testimony for fifteen years. What’s at stake for Rasmussen? What’s to be gained in asking for the refugee’s story?

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Jonas Poher RasmussenWolfgang FischerGianfranco RosiMichael HanekeLong Reads
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