London's Refugee Week celebrates the creativity of filmmakers
What does a refugee look like? What are their experiences of displacement? The common images in Western media tend to present an oversimplified, singular story of a homogenous group.
On 25 June, Counterpoints Arts – a charity that supports cultural works by refugees and migrants – aims to shatter these misconceptions with an evening of short films screened at London’s Southbank Centre, showcasing works by refugee and asylum-seeking filmmakers.
The event is part of Refugee Week, an arts and culture festival celebrating the creativity of refugees and those seeking sanctuary, which has been running for 25 years in the UK.
The screening includes projects from BAFTA-winning director Hassan Akkad and Counterpoints Arts’ pop culture and social change producer, Laith Elzubaidi, followed by a panel discussion with the creatives.
"The programme presents cultural narratives that are as inventive as they are emotive. Many of the films venture beyond the borders of reality into fantastical realms; they contort reality in a way that magnifies the dehumanising impact of displacement"
Curated by actor, writer and presenter of the BBC documentary The Holy Land and Us, Sarah Agha, the programme showcases not only the artistry of the writers and directors but how varied refugees’ experiences are globally.
“I wanted to make the programme diverse to reflect that refugees come from all over the world and their stories are different,” says Sarah.
She is also the founder of the Arab Film Club, a project launched during lockdown which celebrates and explores cinema from the Arab world. She has tapped into this community that shares her love for Arab cinema in the curation process.
The line-up consists of five films, no more than 30 minutes long, telling individuals’ experiences across the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.
Soudade Kaadan’s Aziza tells the story of a Syrian couple as they navigate their new life in Lebanon; a South African man searches for his childhood friend who was forcibly removed before he is also forced to relocate to Anton Fisher’s Address Unknown; Yellow by Elham Ehsas is set in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where a young woman shops for her first full-body veil; sci-fi short Panic! by Laith Elzubaidi follows two sisters protecting themselves from an ominous threat; in Hassan Akkad’s Matar, the title character is a Syrian seeking asylum in England and facing a hostile immigration system.
Sarah chose each film for its ability to “tap into the human condition in a way that is nuanced,” as well as the authenticity and integrity of the storytelling.
Aziza stood out for its ability to inject humour into a sombre topic. “I watched it at a screening, and it was refreshing to hear the audience laugh. That’s how you win over hearts and minds when you present a story that’s nuanced and tackles a serious and painful subject creatively. I didn’t want the event to be all doom and gloom – you can play with the tone and take the audience on a journey that might take them by surprise.”
Yellow approaches the issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan with delicacy and avoids “pandering to the Western gaze,” she says. In just 12 minutes, director Elham Ehsas – who also wrote and stars in the film – depicts the precarious future for women in the country with a simple, pensive story. “Because it’s a short film, the audience can share that uncertainty with the character.”
Set in South Africa, Address Unknown offers a lens into the forced removal of communities in the 1970s. “The whole way through I was thinking of Palestine,” Sarah says, drawing parallels with her own country. “It reminded me of what’s going on there today with evictions, illegal house demolitions, colonisation and an oppressive regime. I knew I wanted to put it on the bill because people often forget about internal refugees, who exist all over the world.”
Panic! directed by Laith Elzubaidi and starring Safia Lamrani and Nadia Nadif – all fellow Arab Film Club members – is the most obscure title in the programme, exploring issues of transgenerational trauma through a science-fiction story. It is another example of “the diversity of Arab cinema and coming up with creative ways to tackle the theme,” she says.
Hassan Akkad’s Matar is perhaps the most recognisable narrative of an asylum seeker attempting to rebuild his life in the UK. The story is no less significant for its familiarity, especially as Hassan draws on his own experiences of fleeing war in Syria.
With so many refugee narratives on the screen told by Western filmmakers, who are often removed from the reality of such experiences, Sarah was moved by the authenticity of Hassan’s film. “He is telling the story in his words and on his terms.”
"Sarah chose each film for its ability to “tap into the human condition in a way that is nuanced,” as well as the authenticity and integrity of the storytelling"
The programme presents cultural narratives that are as inventive as they are emotive. Many of the films venture beyond the borders of reality into fantastical realms; they contort reality in a way that magnifies the dehumanising impact of displacement.
Yet, it is the “humanness” of these stories that is most affecting, says Sarah. “I think people find compassion when they are presented with human stories, not facts and figures. That’s why film is so powerful because you can raise awareness about a situation through the lens of one or two people and their hopes, desires, flaws, quirks.”
The characters in each film embody this, from Matar’s resourceful and intelligent lead to Yellow’s quietly empowered woman, and the fiery yet frightened pair in Aziza.
Some viewers told film-maker Soudade that the couple “don’t look like refugees” – driving a bright red Beetle, Alya is a fiery woman with choppy auburn hair, dressed in a short white dress and sneakers; her husband Ayman’s grey shirt and black jeans match his salt-and-pepper hair.
The pair, like all of the stories and characters on the bill, reject and subvert misconceptions of refugees: who they are, what they look like, and how they live.
Screening these films is a form of cultural resistance, says Sarah, that she hopes will encourage viewers to continue to engage with cinema made by marginalised creatives.
Through their art, the filmmakers in this programme cross geographical and political borders to tell stories of survival, resilience and freedom.
Refugee Week short films screening takes place on Sunday 25th June, 5 pm, in the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre.
Dalia Dawood is a British-Iraqi freelance journalist and editor based in London and a lecturer of journalism and publishing at the London College of Communication.
Follow her on Twitter: @dda_wood