The films portray refugees in varying ways: as resilient survivors, helpless victims and even scheming opportunists. Similarly, the people who help them are shown as heroes, exploiters or simple working-class citizens. In one film the refugees occupy the foreground as main characters, in another they are part of an ensemble, and in two they are relegated to the background, having only a handful of lines. Although these films do not share country of origin or destination, they all portray the plight of refugees as part of a pervasive world crisis.
Michael Winterbottom is an accomplished director whose style and focus change according to his subject. His film uses a cinema verité documentary style in following two young Afghan refugees on their journey to London. Though the story is fictional, it is based on true events. The actors, refugees themselves, improvise throughout the film; Winterbottom captures their reactions as they are led into one situation after another, some preplanned and some not.
The style of the film is so brisk that the logic and meaning in any given scene are often not apparent until after the scene has ended. We are hurtled along the Silk Road into an unforgiving terrain that often goes unexplained and unguided. Tourist signposts are gone, and culture shock reigns for an hour and a half before the enormity of the journey becomes clear. The film itself is a marvel of circumstance. The crew often shot guerrilla-style without permits and under the radar of government sanction in Iran, Italy, Pakistan and Turkey.
Director Damjan Kozole is a veteran punk rocker from Slovenia whose film focuses on drunk, corrupt and depressed smugglers who reminisce about their former lives as race car drivers as they ferry terrified human cargo across the Croatian border to Italy. They swindle refugees out of their money (charging $50 for a pizza), sexually exploit women in exchange for favors, and often end up killing their charges by packing them too tightly in car trunks.
Such occupational hazards are presented as par for the course; still, the men see themselves as angels in disguise. Ludvik, the lead smuggler, is a widower and alcoholic. He becomes a father figure to Rudi, a young protégé who idolized him in his former racing life. Their difficult relationship manages to squeak a few bright moments out of the sad landscape. Krsko, the town where the film takes place, is home to the only nuclear power plant in the former Yugoslavia. Impotence and cancer run high among the locals, and Ludvik drinks his own piss to get his cancer under control. He grooms Rudi to take over “the business,” and in the end Ludvik’s protegé must decide for himself how much of the job’s burden and ethics are his own.
In Hans-Christian Schmid’s film, the Oder River between Frankfurt, Germany and Sublice, Poland is the featured border, the division between the prosperous west and the impoverished east. As in Spare Parts, the ferrymen here are unscrupulous, charging inordinate sums for tremendous danger and no guarantees that refugees will arrive safely.
Distant Lights interweaves eight narratives that reference border-crossing figuratively or metaphorically. One storyline follows a Ukrainian couple attempting to cross over. Creeping through the woods along the river’s edge, they follow a group of other refugees into a botched defection scheme and narrowly escape capture. A poor local man desperate for money hides them in his garage without his wife’s knowledge and agrees to help the couple, though he is neither savvy nor skillful enough to take such a risk. Meanwhile, a fellow refugee is captured but finds luck at the Border Patrol Interrogation Office when his interpreter takes pity on him and eventually agrees to help.
In both of these stories, the relationship between helper and traveler is compromised. Mercy and ruthlessness change hands, guilt and innocence are a matter of chance, and freedom comes in varying shades of gray.
In stark contrast to these films comes this stateside tale of a wealthy society woman who is transformed into a humanitarian aid worker. Sara Jordan (Angelina Jolie) is a pampered, insular American who makes her home in London. While on a relief mission in Ethiopia in 1985, she picks up an emaciated boy lying on the roadside and begs Nick Callahan (Clive Owen), a bitter activist doctor, to save him. Callahan snubs her at first, saying the boy is practically dead already. She pleads, he relents, and the boy’s recovery is the romantic glue that bonds.
After a few weeks she returns to her prosaic life in London, but the plight of the starving and sick haunts her, and she starts a job with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Her work reunites her with Callahan in Cambodia in 1989, where after a harrowing episode with the Khmer Rouge, they declare their love but realize the impossibility of it surviving amidst all the tragedy. Six years later, Callahan goes missing in Chechnya, and Sara sets out to find him.
By far the most widely seen of the four films, Beyond Borders was a financial and critical failure. It grossed only $4.4 million domestically and closed within a month. Most reviewers compared it unfavorably to In This World, which earned only $84,000 in the United States (in limited release—it took in much more overseas) despite winning the Golden Bear Award for Best Film at the Berlin Film Festival. Spare Parts and Distant Lights do not yet have U.S. distributors, but also have garnered accolades overseas and were produced on limited budgets.
The studio machine behind Beyond Borders might have been, in part, what doomed the film. Hiring beautiful stars like Angelina Jolie and Clive Owen, for all their sincerity, undermined an honest portrayal of the world’s disenfranchised, especially when one has played Lara Croft twice, and the other has the looks and charisma of James Bond. It doesn’t help that director Martin Campbell retains his feel for globetrotting action films in every scene (his previous films include The Mask of Zorro, GoldenEye and No Escape).
Still, for all the studio trappings, it is difficult to argue with the film’s good intentions. Without getting into geopolitics, it presents an unflinchingly detailed account of starvation and death that in most instances overwhelms the romance. The characters’ love for each other and love for their mission are explicitly connected, and while that may smack of narrative gamesmanship on the studio’s part, it may have been considered a means to sell a very bleak movie to a mass audience.
The problem is not the romance, but that Hollywood does not trust its audience enough to make a film about real refugees, to present them as people in specific contexts and not just as victims. Instead, Hollywood settles for self-serving stories about conflicted humanitarians who nurse the national image of the United States as world benefactor. When Callahan crashes a charity ball that Sara attends and accuses its sponsor of corporate greed and racism, the corporation in question is British, and the danger of the film invoking anti-Americanism is conveniently sidestepped.
The chance that Beyond Borders might spur interest in the other three films is remote. It’s the most depressing of the bunch. Even as bleak as Spare Parts is, the end of that film works up to some kind of hope. In This World and Distant Lights are, as their titles suggest, circular in their conclusion that the destination never really comes and people forever wander the globe without settling.
The film that stands out from all four, however, is Distant Lights. By effectively tying the plight of refugees to the daily lives of natural citizens, Schmid leaves us with a less isolated sense of “home” and a more personal connection to the characters. The film presents all the stories and characters so evenhandedly that easy choices of whose side to take are difficult to make. In the end we empathize with everyone.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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