What Is Refugee Cinema About?

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

By Vinh Nguyen

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.

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