Stephen Arnell

Refugees in film: a cinematic guide

Refugees in film: a cinematic guide
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The tragic ongoing events in Ukraine have highlighted the plight of refugees, with over 2m people (mainly women and children) fleeing the country since Russia invaded on 24 February 2022.

Sadly, refugee crises have been occurring since the dawn of what may ironically be called ‘civilisation’, most notably the Biblical Exodus from Egypt and Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, which began when the Swiss Helvetii confederation, under pressure of Germanic tribes, sought to cross into Roman territory on their westward journey to safety.

Movies concerning refugees range from the past (Exodus: Gods & Kings) to the dystopian future (Children of Men) and are international in scope, including the UK (Limbo), Bosnia and Herzegovina (Welcome to Sarajevo) and West Africa (Beasts of No Nation).

There are also a fair number of motion pictures which follow the lives of rulers forced to exit their countries (including Leo the Last, A King in New York, The Last Emperor, The Exception, The King’s Choice, and Monsieur N), but I will concentrate on the fate of the less privileged seekers of asylum.

Limbo (2021) MUBI, Amazon Rent/Buy

Writer/director Ben Sharrock’s critically lauded comedy-drama follows four single male asylum seekers confined to a bleak Scottish island (partly filmed on Uist in the Outer Hebrides) as they await the outcome of their claims for refugee status.

During their stay, the quartet endure cultural awareness lectures from two UK officials, which only adds to the ennui, especially since guidance on how to behave in a nightclub hardly applies to their current predicament.

Limbo has drawn favourable comparisons to the work of Bill Forsyth (Local Hero), Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I) and Aki Kaurismäki (Leningrad Cowboys Go America).

Exodus: Gods & Kings (2014) Disney+, Amazon Rent/Buy

Ridley Scott’s recounting of the life of Moses is heavy on CGI spectacle, less so on interesting characters.

Christian Bale turns in his by now familiar one-note dour performance as the Abrahamic prophet, who butts heads with Joel Edgerton’s entitled Pharaoh Ramesses II, leading his people to the Promised Land.

Ben Kingsley plays Hebrew leader Nun, a contrast to his previous role as Grand Vizier Ay in the 2015 mini-series Tut.

Comic relief is provided by Ewan Bremner as Ramesses' unfortunate scientific advisor, and Ben Mendelsohn as sneaky Viceroy Hegep.

Exodus was released in the same year as Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, so a real treat for those who enjoy lengthy, glum effects-driven Biblical sagas.

Voyage of the Damned (1976) full movie available to view free on YouTube/Amazon Buy Only

Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke) applied the 1970s disaster movie practice of gathering an all-star cast for Voyage of the Damned, despite it having a much more sombre (real life) premise than the likes of The Towering Inferno.

In 1939 the ocean liner St. Louis was carrying Jewish refugees from Germany to supposed refuge in Cuba but was turned away from the island, and both the USA and Canada, forcing a return to Europe.

Some of the passengers found safety in the United Kingdom, others were not so fortunate when Hitler invaded western Europe the following year.

In his autobiography Still Dancing (1989), producer Lew Grade commented: 'I thought it was one of the most moving and important films I'd seen in a long time. I just couldn't understand why it didn't become a success; strangely enough, it did do outstanding business in Japan.'

Voyage of the Damned’s cast includes Faye Dunaway, Max von Sydow (as the St Louis’ humane Captain Schroeder), James Mason, Orson Welles, Denholm Elliott, Wendy Hiller, Malcolm McDowell, and Rising Damp’s Leonard Rossiter.

Dirty Pretty Things (2002) Amazon Rent/Buy

Written by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight and directed by UK film veteran Stephen Frears, Dirty Pretty Things is a thriller set in the world of illegal immigrants and asylum seekers eking out a living in a squalid London hotel/brothel.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Okwe, a former doctor and West African immigrant wrongly accused of murder in his homeland, plying his trade as a cab driver, medic to VD infected colleagues and the hotel’s night porter. When Okwe discovers that the establishment is also a front for illegal operations where immigrants trade their kidneys for forged passports, he is offered a more lucrative line of work by seedy manager Juan (Sergi López).

Children of Men (2006) Amazon Rent/Buy

Set in 2027, Alfonso Cuarón’s (Roma) downbeat dystopian adaptation of P.D. James's novel posits a vision where mass infertility means that the human race is on the verge of extinction. For some reason the UK is amongst a small band of countries that retains some kind of government and as such is a destination for refugees from the many failed states.

In reaction to this, the country has become an authoritarian society where immigrants are imprisoned or even executed.

But there is a glimmer of hope when asylum seeker Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) becomes the first woman to become pregnant in 18 years. Cuarón draws fine performances from a strong cast, especially Clive Owen (more committed than usual), Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, and Danny Huston.

Beasts of No Nation (2015) Netflix

Idris Elba picked up rave notices for his portrayal of the vicious West African warlord known only as The Commandant.

Boys fleeing from the conflict are forcibly recruited to The Commandant’s battalion, where they are raped, given drugs (Brown-brown, a mixture of gunpowder and cocaine) and encouraged to join in the orgies of violence instigated by their leader.

Understandably, Beasts of No Nation is not an easy watch, but worth persevering with as an object lesson regarding the depths humanity can descend to. If you didn’t already know or suspect that.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga went on to helm 2021’s 007 adventure No Time to Die.

District 9 (2009) Netflix, NOW, Amazon Rent/Buy

Neill Blomkamp has (so far) never bettered his feature film debut, the sci-fi actioner District 9.

With distinct echoes of Alien Nation (1988), the film sees a crash-landed cargo of alien slave workers confined to a fenced ghetto on the outskirts of Johannesburg in the year 1982.

Fed up with the unruly behaviour of the downtrodden ‘Prawns’ the government decides to relocate the camp further outside the city, with dim bureaucrat Wikus van de Merwe (an excellent Sharlto Copley) assigned to handle the move.

When an accident with extra-terrestrial tech infects Wikus, he begins to morph (Fly-style) into one of the aliens.

In doing so, he gains an insight into their plight, forming a bond with leader Christopher and his wee son CJ, empathising with their desire to escape from earth, which they regard in a not very favourite light. Justifiable, you might well think, considering their circumstances.

Tears of the Sun (2003) Amazon Rent/Buy

This big-budget action movie stars Bruce Willis as a US Navy SEAL commander Waters, tasked with extracting US (by marriage) Dr. Lena Fiore Kendricks (Monica Bellucci) from a civil war-torn Nigeria. Kendricks insists that those patients who are mobile enough to walk should accompany her, which is where Water’s travails really begin.

Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) is a dab hand with the frequent battle scenes, but Tears of the Sun failed to make an impression at the box office and was given the bum’s rush by critics.

For many, Blood Diamond (2006) was a better take on a similar theme.

A Bigger Splash (2015) BFI Player, Amazon Rent/Buy

The flight of Libyan and other sub-Saharan immigrants to the Tunisia-adjacent Italian island of Pantelleria forms the backdrop for Luca Guadagnino’s (Call Me by Your Name) tale of the self-involved rock royalty holidaying there.

The refugees form a pivotal part of the picture’s denouement after the ‘accidental’ death by drowning of manically hyper-active record producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) in the pool of his ex-lover, retired world-famous singer Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton).

Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) Amazon Rent/Buy

Based on Natasha's Story by the late ITN correspondent Michael Nicholson, Michael Winterbottom’s intense war drama takes place in the besieged capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

The picture is shockingly relevant in featuring the indiscriminate shelling of an orphanage which prompts an UN-sanctioned bus-borne evacuation of the children to Italy.

Unfortunately, the convoy is halted, and the Bosnian Muslim orphans are taken away, presumably to be killed by the resurrected Chetnik militia.

Henderson (played by GoT’s Stannis Baratheon - Stephen Dillane) manages to escape to London with abandoned Muslim child Emira, whom he eventually adopts.

The cast also includes Woody Harrelson (as photojournalist Jimmy Flynn), Marisa Tomei, Kerry Fox, Goran Višnjić, James Nesbitt, and Emily Lloyd.

If you have the fortitude for watching more films in a similar vein, you may want to check out Peter Kosminsky’s BBC TV movie Warriors (1999), which depicts a group of British soldiers serving with the United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia during the Lašva Valley ethnic cleansing of 1993.

The harrowing drama stars Matthew MacFadyen, Damian Lewis, and Ioan Gruffudd.