Cinema reflecting reality: the Diff films focusing on the plight of refugees

The refugee crisis, which is making headlines around the world, is sensitively explored in several films showing at the festival.

A still from Joyce Nashawati’s thriller Blind Sun. Courtesy of DIFF
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More so, perhaps, than any other art form, cinema has a peculiar habit of hitting the global ­zeitgeist.

Two of the most lauded films on this year’s festival circuit – both of which are screening at the Dubai International Film Festival – explore the plight of refugees, for example, an issue that has increasingly been dominating headlines worldwide.

Dheepan, winner of the Palme d'Or at Cannes, is a drama about Tamil soldiers who seek a new home and fresh start in Paris, while the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival prize winner A Syrian Love Story explores the country's refugee crisis by focusing on the experience of a single family.

But these are far from the only films at Diff dealing with this issue. Refugees feature prominently in several films – and unlike their portrayal in certain sections of the media, or by some politicians, as, at best, opportunistic freeloaders or, at worst, outright villains, the films generally portray them as inspirational figures offering a message of hope.

Syria is rarely out of the news. The civil war, the rise of ISIS and the bombing of the country by international forces has created a refugee crisis on an horrifying scale. Millions have fled to Europe, creating disunity within the European Union. Two documentaries screening at Diff deal directly with Syrian refugees.

British documentary director Sean McAllister began filming A Syrian Love Story in 2009. He meets Amer Douad, a Palestinian activist and father of three in Damascus, who is working to secure the release of his jailed Syrian wife, Raghda. Her release is met with elation – but joy turns to heartache when the civil war forces them to flee Syria.

First in Jordan and then in Paris, their relationship suffers. Raghda wants to continue to help the fight to build a new, better Syria, while Amer wants to try to build a new life in Paris. The documentary debunks so many of the myths about Syria and refugees: it really is essential viewing.

But it’s not only ­documentarians who are telling stories about displaced individuals. Many films about refugees are fictional ­genre movies, westerns and thrillers that mix fantasy, excitement and romance with the everyday reality of not having a place to call home.

Those looking for a surprisingly entertaining exploration of why Palestinians might want to escape their homeland, should check out Muayad Alayan's neorealist caper, Love, Theft and Other Entanglements. The ­comedy-drama follows a criminal who steals a car and finds himself at the centre of a hostage crisis. Chaos and frolics ensue.

Edward Norton believes French director Jacques Audiard is the greatest living director. Audiard's latest, the sensational Dheepan, is a refugee story told with the gusto of Martin Scorsese. It tells the story of how two former Tamil fighters use lessons learnt during the civil war in Sri Lanka to survive in the suburbs of Paris. The film never fails to surprise.

The first port of call for many ­refugees fleeing to Europe has been Greece. The country started the year with a vote by its citizens voted to default on loan ­repayments to the European Union, which almost led to a European constitutional crisis. Greece also hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees and the tensions caused by these social and economic ­forces serve as the backdrop to Joyce ­Nashawati's thriller Blind Sun.

Although not directly dealing with refugees, the Balkan drama The High Sun portrays life in the Balkans over three decades, and shows us the causes of a refugee crisis, followed by people trying to rebuild their lives after being displaced. It's a remarkable film that won its director, Dalibor Matanic, a prize at Cannes. It is also noteworthy for featuring two actors playing different roles in different segments of the film, the connecting glue being that the characters they play are always lovers.

Mexican director Jonás Cuarón pays homage to the western genre in Desierto, starring Gael Garcia Bernal. He plays one of several Mexicans trying to cross the border into the United States, who are targeted by a vicious vigilante. The film highlights the animosity faced by migrants, but places the emphasis on guns rather than ­dialogue.