‘I wanted to humanise those lost in the statistics’: four directors on their new movies depicting refugee journeys | Film

The telling of stories is an act of profound hospitality. Story is an ancient form of generosity, one that will always tell us everything we need to know about the contemporary world. It is fundamental to the communicative survival of the human species and has always been a welcoming-in; always, one way or another, a gracious meeting of the needs of self and other. The narratives we exchange don’t just validate all of us, they represent us much more truly than data or statistics or a passport ever will. Our individual selves transform in the telling into something shared and communal. This is because story is the opposite of an exclusion zone; by its nature, it’s always an inclusion zone, because a story that sets out to exclude won’t work as a story at all, its agenda being something else altogether.

A glance at recent UK news is as telling about the inhumanity of our country’s treatment of refugees as ever. If I’m an asylum seeker here living in the care of the Home Office, and I die, then no one in the Home Office will care to notify my family. If I’m a rough sleeper on the streets of England, then the chances are more likely than not I’m a refugee who’s been evicted from Home Office temporary accommodation. (That’s just last week’s news.)

Nothing in this country’s divisive political rhetoric wants to tell anyone anything about what it means to be, say, a boy of 16 crossing thousands of miles of desert, then sea, to arrive at the edge of another continent; or what it’s even remotely like when everything’s been violently taken from you, by war, climate change, political crisis or the government of the country you live in ruling that someone like you, for reasons of religion or ethnicity or sexual/gender orientation, will be jailed or summarily executed. Refugee is a word politicians are keen to bankrupt of its original root meaning: an individual seeking safety from danger, difficulty or persecution. There’s a lot of power in transforming individual human beings into mass political pawnage, and our own politicians are more intent now than at any other time in living memory on weaponising for divisive political ends – rather than working to help solve – the pressure of the millions of people who’ve been de-homed because of poverty, violence or climate disaster and are crossing the world to ask for help.

Here are four new films, ranging from the urgent to the majestic, that tell the stories of what it means to be a person whose life has been made contingent, narrated with a detail and care that gives back complexity to each person whose histories they tell.

Each of these films is a great story. Each is an indictment. Each tells the hidden narrative, the dismissed narrative. Each rewrites expectations of courage, heroism, loss, survival against unbelievable odds. Each one makes visible, in all its exigency, the real story not just of our time but of our species. Ali Smith

Io Capitano, directed by Matteo Garrone

Beatrice Gnonko and Seydou Sarr in Io Capitano.

In July 2014, Fofana Amaro, a 15-year-old west African, was forced by people smugglers to steer a migrant boat from Libya to Sicily with 250 people on board. Having successfully made the crossing against all the odds, Amaro proudly greeted the Italian coastguard who boarded the vessel with the words “Io Capitano” (“I am the captain”), only to be arrested and incarcerated on charges of human trafficking.

“He was a hero who saved the lives of so many people, but he immediately became another victim of the system that demonises migrants for seeking a better life,” says Matteo Garrone, the Italian director whose new film, Io Capitano, is based directly on the testimony of Amaro and two other migrants who made the perilous journey from Africa to Europe. For most of its two-hour duration, it tracks its Senegalese protagonists, Seydou and Moussa, on the less-documented, but equally perilous, land journey that precedes the sea crossing: the arduous trafficking route by lorry and on foot across the Sahara, where the inhospitable terrain is patrolled by private militias that exploit, imprison and, in some cases, torture those they capture.

“I wanted to give visual form to the part of the journey we don’t see in the media,” Garrone tells me over the phone from Los Angeles, where he is on a pre-Oscar publicity campaign, the film having at that point been nominated for best international feature. “And I also wanted to humanise those who are lost in the statistics, including the 50,000 people who died on the journey in the last 10 years.”

The film’s two main characters are played by young newcomers Seydou Sarr and Moustapha Fall, neither of whom had travelled out of Senegal before they began filming on location in Morocco. Sarr – who had already gained a degree of fame as a TikTok star through his vibrant Afropop songs, which also feature on the soundtrack – is a revelation as the more impressionable of the two, despite having no previous acting experience and initially passing up an audition, in favour of playing football.

On the shoot, the director deftly played on the pair’s inexperience, drip-feeding them parts of the script at the start of each working day. “For most of the time that we were making the film, they did not know the bigger story, or if they would even succeed in reaching Europe,” he says. “Through the adventure of doing it step by step, they grew as actors.”

To add to the authenticity, many of the extras in the film, including those who appear in the culminating scenes of a crowded boat crossing, were former migrants, several of whom also helped with the screenplay and were present on set as advisers. “I would go as far as to say they co-directed certain scenes,” continues Garrone, “I was a listener and sometimes the first spectator of what we created.”

The film begins in Dakar, where Moussa convinces his cousin Seydou that their only real hope of fulfilling their ambition to become famous pop performers lies in Europe. Together, they plot their escape from the small world of family and community and, with barely a notion of what dangers lie ahead, seek spiritual protection in the ritual blessing of a local shaman. All too soon, their naivety gives way to a brutal getting of wisdom as they are herded on to a truck that recklessly negotiates mountainous Saharan sand dunes, the driver refusing to stop even when the frantic cries of his passengers alert him that one of their number has fallen from the overcrowded vehicle. “They begin the journey as complete innocents,” says Garrone, “but soon realise that they are trapped in a deadly journey from which they cannot turn back.”

The director, who is best known for his gritty Sicilian mafia crime thriller Gomorrah and a recent ambitious version of Pinocchio, tells me that Io Capitano combines elements of both films. He describes the new film as “a coming-of-age story that adheres to the classical Homeric structure and recounts the hero’s journey from innocence to hard-won experience”.

Throughout, the contrast between the brutality the characters experience and the often breathtaking beauty of moonlit desert landscapes and vast empty seas is striking, and sometimes jarring. There is an audacious fantasy scene in which a heartbroken Seydou imagines himself returning to a woman who has been abandoned to die in the desert in order to transport her to safety by guiding her floating body across the sand. When the film was screened in Dakar, Garonne tells me, the audience whooped and laughed with delight.

“It is a way of showing the pain Seydou feels inside, but it also highlights his childlike innocence and imagination. He is still a kid at heart but, by the journey’s end, through the many moments that wound his soul, he will become a man.”

Seydou, as Garrone is keen to point out, somehow maintains his goodness throughout, even when separated from his cousin, who is left maimed by the torture he endures at the hands of his captors. “He remains pure until the end despite the brutality and exploitation he experiences. Like Pinocchio, he is an impressionable youth looking for a land of joy, who discovers too late that the world is a very violent place.”

In its daring mixture of brutal realism and adventure, Io Capitano brings classic storytelling techniques to bear on one of the most pressing – and divisive – issues of our time. Garonne’s hope is that it will be screened in schools across Europe and Africa, as it has been in Italy. “The students can identify with Seydou and Moussa because they are the same age and have the same interests, the same passion for music, the same family worries. Hopefully, it can help them see this ongoing tragedy from a different point of view than the one portrayed by rightwing politicians and media organisations.”

While Io Capitano did not pick up the Oscar for best international feature, it did win Garrone the Silver Lion for best director and Sarr the best young actor award at last year’s Venice film festival. One senses that Garrone is most proud of another less glitzy accolade: his and Sarr’s meeting with the pope, who hosted a screening of the film in the Vatican just a few weeks after its Italian release. “He showed it to the cardinals and invited us there for a one-hour audience,” says Garrone. “He has always been on the side of the migrants. For him, they are heroes, not people to be demonised.”

For all that, Io Capitano ends uncertainly at the moment when Seydou – the captain – sights land and his excitement spreads throughout his rickety and overcrowded vessel. It is a bittersweet finale, given the continuing trials and humiliations that undoubtedly lie ahead for him, his beloved cousin and his desperate passengers. “For me, we need open borders, but with control,” says Garrone, when I ask him what propelled him to make his epic modern odyssey. “We should help people when they arrive, but also acknowledge, as the film does, that the arrival is a heroic achievement in itself.” Interview by Sean O’Hagan

In UK and Ireland cinemas 5 April

Green Border, directed by Agnieszka Holland

Talia Ajjan (left) and Jalal Altawil in Green Border. Photograph: Agata Kubis

Agnieszka Holland is no stranger to the very darkest moments of European history. The veteran Polish film-maker has previously tackled the Holocaust, with In Darkness, the Oscar-nominated Europa Europa and Angry Harvest; Poland’s repressive communist era in To Kill a Priest; and Ukraine’s Holodomor famine in Mr Jones. But her latest picture, the superb, scalding Green Border, is different: it captures, with urgency and palpable anger, a bleak period in history almost as it happens. Using multiple perspectives and interwoven strands, Green Border looks at the refugee crisis in Europe through the situation at the border between Poland and Belarus.

Agnieszka Holland

In recent years, desperate asylum seekers found themselves pawns in a geopolitical crisis engineered by the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko and inflamed by Poland’s government. As a provocation to Europe, Lukashenko spread propaganda promising a safe passage into Europe at the border, but once there, refugees were met with unimaginable cruelty and were passed back and forth by the border police of each country. Some died at the hands of the authorities; others were lost to the treacherous swamps in the forest.

“It became a laboratory of absurd violence,” Holland said in a radio interview after the film’s premiere at the Venice film festival, where it won the special jury prize, “which was hidden from the population because the zone was closed. No media, no humanitarian organisations, no medical organisations – they didn’t have access to that zone when things were most cruel.

“I decided with my collaborators to tell that story through a fictional movie, because a documentary was impossible. We couldn’t give a voice to those people – they had been made voiceless. We had to create the voice and the channel for them, and for ourselves, to express what we feel and what we know and what we believe about the situation.”

The migrant crisis, says Holland, is now the biggest challenge to Europe. She argues that while a film can’t, on its own, change the course of history, cinema has a crucial role in that it can give a face and voice to migrants and refugees. “If you don’t see their faces, their suffering, their destiny, their choices, their children, their wives, their hopes, it’s very easy to stigmatise them or dehumanise them.”

Holland anticipated that the film would be controversial within certain sections of the Polish government and society, since it challenges the carefully managed official narrative on the Polish-Belarusian border situation. But what she hadn’t anticipated, prior to its release in Poland last September, was what she described to Screen International as “a tsunami of hate. And such an organised hate campaign coming from the highest authorities.” The then minister of justice, Zbigniew Ziobro, compared the film to second world war Nazi propaganda; Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, joined in, denouncing the film’s audiences as Nazi collaborators, having admitted that he hadn’t watched the picture.

Holland is defiant: “It was before the elections in Poland, and the rightwing nationalistic government believed that they could make some points by attacking me and by creating the atmosphere of Poland being the fortress attacked by enemy forces. And me at the front of these forces. But they overdid it. The reaction of most people has been: ‘What are they talking about?’”

In fact, the government’s outrage had an unintended consequence: “It made awareness of the movie very high and helped our box office as well. And a film like this needs support.” Wendy Ide

In UK and Ireland cinemas 21 June

Drift, directed by Anthony Chen

Cynthia Erivo (front) and Alia Shawkat in Drift. Photograph: Nikos Nikolopoulos/Giraffe Pictures/Utopia Films

The first English-language feature by Singaporean director Anthony Chen, Drift differs from some recent refugee-focused dramas in the tightness and intimacy of its attention – largely shorn as it is of political commentary. Its protagonist, Jacqueline, played with haunted terseness by British actor and singer Cynthia Erivo, seeks solitude as much as she does sanctuary. A once well-to-do Liberian woman, educated in England, she finds herself penniless on a Greek tourist island after being driven from her homeland by civil war. She resists handouts and allyship; human connection is a threat.

Anthony Chen

“I’m not a refugee,” says Chen, speaking over Zoom from his current home in Hong Kong, “but there is something about displacement that I feel a personal connection to, and that I don’t think I will ever find an answer to.” Born and raised in Singapore, Chen moved to the UK to study film-making at the National Film and Television School, remaining here as he made his name with films set and shot in Asia. Though his wife’s job recently took them to Hong Kong, he still regards London as home. “I’ve always been that outsider trying to find a sense of identity. And though you don’t psychoanalyse yourself so much on your first film, when I start looking at my work, it’s always about the outsider, about displacement, about strangers forming very deep bonds and connections.”

Chen’s celebrated 2013 film, Ilo Ilo, which won him the Camera d’Or for best debut at Cannes, centred on a Filipino domestic worker settling in Singapore and integrating with a wealthy local family; his 2019 follow-up, Wet Season, on a Malaysian Chinese language teacher struggling to fit into Singaporean society. Though it takes him far from his roots, Chen doesn’t see the British/Greek-produced Drift as much of a departure. Upon reading Alexander Maksik’s source novel, A Marker to Measure Drift, he was drawn to Jacqueline’s plight, and her story only gnawed at him further as the project began development in the early stages of the pandemic.

“It was very cathartic, because we were all in lockdown and it felt like the end of the world – it felt like Jacqueline and the pandemic became the same thing, and the film became a starting point to heal our wounds. But since we’ve made the film, with what’s happening in Ukraine and Gaza, with so much displacement and so much hurt, to me it’s become more poignant than ever.”

He’s wary of presenting the film as one about the refugee crisis, however, hoping viewers will see the relatable human story at its heart. “I’m slightly worried that audiences are shying away from challenging films – that they think, if they’ve been reading about the refugee crisis in the Guardian for the past few years, they don’t want to spend £12 watching a film about an African refugee,” he says. “Because when you discover the film, you might realise that it’s worth your time.” Guy Lodge

In UK and Ireland cinemas 29 March

Opponent, directed by Milad Alami

Björn Elgerd (front) and Payman Maadi in Opponent. Photograph: MetFilm Distribution

“There’s this place that’s kind of a limbo between going to a new life and staying in the old.” Iranian-born and film-maker Milad Alami , now based in Denmark, is talking about the aspects of the refugee experience that he explores with his impressive, empathic second feature, Opponent. “I wanted to show that world from within, both the beauty of it and the expectations for a new life to begin, but also the difficulties of adjusting to that life and the baggage that you bring with you.”

Milad Alami

The baggage carried by Iman (played by Iranian-American actor Payman Maadi, best known for Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation), the central character of Opponent, is also the reason that he and his wife and family have to leave Iran in the first place. A professional wrestler, Iman has long denied his attraction to other men, something that in Iran is illegal and punishable by death. When his relationship with a fellow wrestler becomes public, Iman must flee the country immediately. But while a new life in Sweden would seem to offer him the chance to be his true self for the first time, Iman struggles to reconcile his identity as a gay man with that of his status as a loving husband and father. “It was important,” says Alami, “to have a character that on the outside was in a situation where he could say whatever he wanted and do whatever he wanted. But inside, he felt that he had to choose between different parts of himself rather than accepting all of the parts.”

Although Alami was just six when he arrived in Sweden with his family at the end of the 1980s (they fled the country for political reasons: “My dad was politically involved and against the Iranian regime”), he drew on his memories of being an Iranian refugee when writing the screenplay.

“A lot of the things in the film are my own experiences. I wanted it to be set in the same place I came to in the late 1980s. And that’s the north of Sweden, very much like in the film, a lot of snow and in the middle of nowhere. My own memories are good memories. I remember being in a refugee centre. It was fun, playing, meeting people, being out in the snow. Everything was new. And kind of having this feeling of there’s something good about being here, but also an anxiety and stress over something I can sense in my parents. And that was basically, can we stay here or not?”

The aim of the picture, which casts real asylum seekers in the supporting roles, is to offer a complex and humanistic view of refugees rather than the black-and-white political view that tends to dominate the headlines. “Sometimes it’s difficult to change yourself. You come to a place that has, on paper, everything you need. You can do whatever you want, say whatever you want, but sometimes it’s much more difficult than you think. And that’s the complexity I hope that the film conveys.” WI

In UK and Ireland cinemas 12 April