Human migration is one of the defining issues of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Today, some 244 million migrants are searching for more robust economic opportunities, fleeing political strife, or attempting to resettle after an environmental catastrophe. Many have left their homes unwilling; 65 million of those migrants are international refugees. Over three percent of humanity is on the move, searching for a better life or otherwise unable to return to their native countries. Given the current, exponential growth of political refugees and increasingly environmentally uninhabitable lands, humanity’s future may indeed be one of constant displacement.
The expansion of displaced peoples over the past century is certainly almost unfathomable. And yet, film, video, and other kinds of visual and aural technologies have been instrumental in capturing both the global and human challenges of migration. Filmmakers from Francis Ford Coppola to Rainer Fassbinder have created powerful and intricate fictions that humanize the immigrant experience, while others such as Michael Winterbottom and Devid Fedele provide a sharp interrogation of the world’s ability to ignore its refugee crisis.
The films in this Spotlight explicitly use movement to envision the scope and human experience of migration. In one way or another, all these films focus on people who have migrated, been displaced, or are part of a larger diaspora. However, they also expressly foreground the movement that film and video provide. By emphasizing movement, the pieces show how cinema—the moving image—may be one of the best ways to conceive of the challenges of migration, displacement, or itinerant lives.
Several of these pieces use the mechanics of film or video to create a sensory experience that speaks to displacement. Abraham Ravett’s Notes on a Polish Jew (2012) use the mechanics of filmstrip projection to gesture toward familial memory. In the short piece, Ravett uses 16mm filmstrip originally taken in Łódź, Poland, in the 1980s, and recuts it to imagine his deceased father’s possible memories. The film uses the visible frames as a figure of memory. As the film sputters and scratches, it fades in and out of perceptibility; sometimes, the figure can only see a flicker of a figure or building. The mechanics of movement here gesture toward the slippery elasticity of memory.
In a similar way, Tiecorra N’daou’s Les Naufragés de la Méditerranée (2008) plays with video’s effects to reimagine refugees who attempt to boat (and swim) to safety. The video shows swimmers leaping from a dam into the sea and disappearing under the water. N’daou uses visual distortion—the shifts of video-- to abstract the figures’ identities or personal characteristics. The work’s roaring waters and highly saturated colors make it disturbing and tragic, even as it leaves the refugee’s fates a mystery.
In Best of Luck with the Wall (2017), Josh Begley uses satellite imagery to subvert the politics of erecting a wall to keep Mexicans out of the United States. Begley spliced together a series of Google Earth satellite images that lets the piece travel the line the Mexico-US border from California to Texas. The images change distance and direction, and they occasionally spin out of control. By making the border immaterial—an almost imperceptible line along a natural bounty river and through mountains—the piece abstracts boundaries and questions the intent and applicability of hyper-nationalism.
Unlike the other films, which emphasize movement through image, Il Silenzio (Asgari and Samadi, 2016), uses the movement of sound to construct the gaps between refugees and their host countries. On the one hand, the film is a universal story of a young daughter having to come to terms with her mother’s mortality. On the other, it’s an exploration of sound, language, and translation. Though an exploration of the depth of sound in film, Il Silenzio highlights the cultural gaps and silences that shape the refugee experience.
Finally, as the title suggests, the feature film The Unreturned (Fisher, 2010) foregrounds stasis through movement. The vérité-style documentary follows several Iraqi refugees in Syria as they attempt to get work permits, legal papers, and permanent residences. The film’s handheld camera work means that the camera is always moving; moreover, the refugees themselves are constantly in spaces of movement: cars, lines, buses, etc. And yet, the film returns again and again to the same bureaucratic spaces as the subjects try, futilely, to fix their status. Today, the film is even more resonant, as so many refugees have found not stability in Syria but more national upheaval. In the film (and still today), refugees are in the grip of static movement, going from one apartment, or city, or country, to the next, but never able to elude their liminal refugee status.
Kirsten Strayer is a writer, curator, and film scholar who has published in academic journals, anthologies, and pop culture magazines. Her recent anthology, Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, was published in 2014 by Routledge Press.