Documentary Days: Asylum and Refuge Movies from Hot Docs 2016

It might not surprise you, given my love of non-fiction, but I’m also an avid fan of documentaries. This post has been sitting in my drafts folder since April 2016. I figured I might as well post it, as I am reading a number of books on borders, refugees, and immigration policies. The post wasn’t completed, and I haven’t modified or updated it, so it only provides partial thoughts on these films. 

Each year Toronto hosts Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary film festival. It is my favorite week of the year, and I usually try to take it off of work and see as many movies as I can. This year I saw 42 movies in 10 days…. it was glorious! One major theme running through my selection at Hot Docs this year was that of asylum and seeking refuge. The theme cropped up on different days and in various screenings, following current and past stories. Here are just a few:

On opening night, I saw director Eva Orner‘s Chasing Asylum. Using hidden cameras and interviews with asylum seekers and detention center workers, Orner takes us inside Australia’s controversial detention facilities on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea and the Republic of Nauru. When it’s become a crime to be a whistle-blower at either location – even for a doctor or social worker to report a sexual assault – this hidden camera footage gives us an inside look at the detention facilities at how the asylum seekers are being treated and at the policies in place.

Through interviews with current and past employees – mainly social workers, though also a former director and a former security adviser – Orner highlights the human consequences to the government’s policy in terms of the mental and physical health deterioration of those in detention. As well as detailing the human cost, and the lack of compassion shown by those in the government, it also highlights the absurdity of the fiscal cost of the programs. The absurdity of paying such ridiculously high figures per asylum seeker in detention versus what could be spent on improving conditions in home countries, or on resettlement, truly highlights the willingness of the government to pay any price possible to keep those in need out, and treat the desperate with callousness and cruelty rather than compassion.

Screening with Chasing Asylum was director Natasha Pincus‘ Missy Higgins: Oh Canada (you can watch at that link). This five minute short film is a song, performed by Missy Higgins, accompanied by animation of the story of Alan Kurdi, the young boy whose family was denied asylum in Canada and who subsequently drowned while crossing the Mediterranean sea, as well as by images drawn by refugee children of their fears and their hopes. It is a truly heartbreaking story, and is only more heartbreaking in this form.

George Kurian‘s The Crossing uses hidden cameras and phone calls to follow a group of middle-class Syrians as they take their chance escaping Egypt for Europe. The group includes journalists, an engineer, and a musician, as well as children. They risk smugglers and death at sea in a cramped and dirty boat, only to arrive and realize that the asylum process is not as they had hoped. Throughout the ordeal the individuals talk about what it means to be a refugee, and what refuge means to them.

The film offered a close up view to what some refugees face. At the same time, we know that this is a solidly middle class group. The fact that this is a privileged experience of seeking asylum makes it even more heartbreaking when you read about how many are displaced and in need of refuge.

At Home in the World by director Andreas Koefoed followed children in a Red Cross school for refugee children in Denmark. Children come to this school as their families asylum cases are being heard, and here they learn the language and begin to get used to the new culture. It highlights the effects of asylum seeking on children, and both their resilience and their struggles as they cope with being in a new country.

Lastly, one film which explored the idea of refuge within your own country was When Two Worlds Collide by directors Heidi Brandenburg and Mathew Orzel. This film shows on the ground footage of clashes between the government of Peru and Indigenous Peruvian minorities who are clashing over the government’s attempt to open up protected tribal lands to corporate clear cutting, mining, and drilling. The film explores both sides of the conflict and displacement that can occur within one’s own country.

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