Actress and Global Goodwill Ambassador Sara Alavi addresses the general public’s top-rated most controversial misconceptions around global forced migrants and refugees in What Do We Know About Refugees?
Timing is everything when it comes to releasing a film. You could have made the next Godfather but if there is no appetite for the subject then you may not find an audience. Sarah Alavi’s documentary What Do We Know About Refugees? comes to us at a time when in the UK at least, migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers have once again become a hot political topic. This week, Albania’s prime minister accused the UK’s home secretary Suella Braverman of fuelling xenophobic attacks against his people after she described people crossing the English Channel in small boats as an “invasion”. While previously. Braverman had tried to push ahead with her Rwanda policy idea of deporting Channel crossing migrants to the East African country, stating that it is her “dream” and “obsession” to see the first flight take off for Rwanda. Meanwhile over in the US ‘illegal aliens’ during the Trump years were always a major talking point.
Focusing on the US system, Alavi’s 60-minute documentary takes a look at some of the biggest issues that concern US citizens when it comes to their thoughts on refugees. She then sits with actual refugees to find the underlying cause of each issue in order to not only debunk them but to also tell us the tragic and triumphant stories that each refugee has.
Opening with aerial shots of the bombed-out ruins of countries that people flee from, along with photographs of the lines of people who are trying to leave, Alavi begins by introducing us to herself, her team, and some of the people she will be speaking to. This is an interesting direction and different from most other documentaries in the sense that Alavi tells us what she is going to be doing and to whom she is going to be talking. This method tends to bring to mind Televisual documentary shows as opposed to anything cinematic, but there isn’t anything to criticise with Alavi’s choice of style here because it works perfectly.
We spend a lot of time with the directors and volunteers of the South Texas Office for Refugees, these sections open some eyes because Texas is a famously red state, yet within this office, there is a lot of empathy on show, especially from executive director Kimberley Haynes. Along with Alavi, they begin to unravel the falsehoods that have grown into political hot potatoes. Alavi highlights the issues on a black title card and then debates them with Kimberley in a talking heads style. There is a lot of interesting discussions to be had and Alavi’s narration throughout the documentary is knowledgeable and bright as she focuses on the evidence using stats, graphs, and tables while also showing us imagery to incite feelings of compassion and understanding.
There is a lack of any soundtrack during the documentary and, although it is noticeable, it is not to the detriment of the film, it just leaves things feeling a little spacious as if there should be more, however, the one song there is, entitled A Refugee’s Christmas performed by Alavi herself, does leave an impression. During her interviews with the refugees, Alavi’s questioning style manages to garner a lot of feelings and emotions from her subjects and it enables us to understand their situations a lot more; with some more imaginative framing though, these sections could have been even more fascinating.
Overall, What Do We Know About Refugees? manages to embolden its subject matter and certainly helps its cause. If Alavi wanted to tell the world that there are a lot of misunderstandings around refugees, then her film has successfully achieved this with flying colours.