Most people see the refugee crisis through a lens of repetitive news stories and media sound bites. With everything going on in the world, it gets easy to tune out the news cycle. However, the last year has seen renewed public interest in the global refugee crisis.
Film is a growing factor in shaping the public perception of refugees. Documentaries and biographical films have become a powerful way to raise awareness and foster empathy for displaced individuals. Let’s analyse two films that have shaped this reality.
Three Songs for Benazir (2021)
Three Songs for Benazir is a short documentary film made by Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei. It won 13 awards and was nominated for the 94th Academy Awards. It follows the story of Shaista and Benazir, a newly married young couple living in a camp for internally displaced people in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Rather than an abstract depiction of war, the film takes us into refugees’ everyday lives. We see Shaista pursue his dream to join the national army and struggle to find direction in a place with so few options. The camp is filled with hundreds of displaced people living in mud houses. And yet, there is love. Children laugh and play outside, young men gather to dance, and Shaista sings to Benazir. In the midst of all their struggles, he serenades her with love songs as she shyly giggles behind her headscarf.
This documentary is, first and foremost, a love story. It shows us the humanity of displaced people beyond the statistics and impersonal clips we see on TV. Unlike most observational documentarians, Elizabeth and Gulistan do not take the fly-on-the-wall approach. Although they did not appear in the film themselves, they were close friends with Shaista and Benazir for three years before they ever started filming.
In a 2022 interview with Ms. Magazine, Elizabeth Mirzae stated; “Our films come out of friendship. But I think that you do have to, as a filmmaker, always self-interrogate and have these ethical audits.” This is a refreshing departure from the dozens of exploitative documentaries that frame refugees as one-dimensional caricatures of suffering.
Even though the film centres on the interpersonal experiences of refugees, it still subtly keeps you aware of the very real danger of war. In several scenes, you can see a US surveillance balloon ominously suspended in the sky above the camp. The filmmakers are aware of the risks of this pursuit, but they believe it is one worth taking. Despite the difficulty of filming in these circumstances, the Mirzaes succeeded in telling a beautifully nuanced and humane story.
The Swimmers (2022)
The Swimmers is a biographical film directed by Sally El Hosaini who co-wrote it with Jack Thorne. It is based on the real-life experiences of Syrian sisters Sarah and Yusra Mardini. The teenage sisters were competitive swimmers before they escaped the Syrian civil war in 2015, and fled to Greece on a battered overcrowded dinghy. In the middle of the Aegean Sea, the motor stopped. The sisters got off, strapped themselves to the leaking dinghy and swam until they reached the Greek shore. They made the rest of their journey to Germany over land while facing discrimination, sexual assault and endless bureaucracy. Yusra fights to continue her swimming career in Germany and competes in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Most of the film is factually accurate due to the close collaboration with the sisters. Heavy research was made before storyboarding the scenes and careful casting was done to ensure authenticity. Real-life Lebanese sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa played the Mardine sisters. Several of the supporting cast were refugees, some of whom had made the Aegean crossing themselves.
It was a powerful choice to not centre the film on only Yusra who made headlines at the Rio Olympics. We learn about Sarah, who chose not to compete, and their male cousin Nizar who was their chaperone on their journey. Not everyone can be an Olympian, but every individual refugee has a unique story worth hearing. The scenes of urban Syrian teens dancing in clubs and hanging out with their friends before the war broke the monolithic stereotype of the Arab refugee.
By striving for accuracy and painting a full picture instead of zeroing in on a media heroine, these filmmakers showed us a side of the Syrian war that is often missed.
Filmmaking is an art as much as it is a political and social expression. With enough patience, resources, and skill, filmmakers can craft brilliant stories that amplify the voices of displaced people.