Human Migration in Film
How far in the world can 10 films about migration take you? How many countries would you see? How many oceans? How many people? Take twenty seconds, close your eyes, and guess. The answer is 34 but that isn’t the only answer. Chances are, we didn’t get the same answer. Even in films, migration is hard to quantify. Just one story of forced migration can span the globe.
This list is a collection of movies and films of forced human migration. It includes films of different genres, budgets, and agendas. Even if you do not find yourself drawn to every film, each pulls you into the world of forced migration. Films are available in a variety of places. Libraries, Streaming Services, etc. You can watch them at home, on your phone, on television, nearly everywhere, anytime, and in any format. However, not everyone has access to all of any of those places. Regardless of where you find these films, their importance is always the stories they tell and places they migrate to and through.
Lion (2016), directed by Garth Davis
Mi Familia/My Family (1995), directed by Gregory Nava
Island of the Hungry Ghosts (2018), directed by Gabrielle Brady
And Breathe Normally (2018), directed by Isold Uggadottir
For Sama (2019), directed by Waad Al-Kateab and Edward Watts
The Colors of the Mountain (2010), directed by Carlos Cesar Arabealaez
Human Flow (2017), directed by Ali Weiwei
Avalon (1990), directed by Barry Levinson
Persepolis (2007), directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
Places: Sicily, Italy; Ellis Island, NY, USA; Atlantic Ocean
Compiled by Samantha Cavagnolo (Summer 2020)
Finding Voice Through Theater: Forced Migration and Self-Expression
“I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” ― Oscar Wilde
As Wilde writes, the beauty of theater lies in its ability to connect people across vast distances, circumstances, countries, languages, borders, and any seemingly insurmountable difference in worldview. Refugees have harnessed this unique ability to the fullest extent to share their life experiences and find community among people who share very little in common with the lived experiences of a forced migrant. Further, refugees have pushed the limits of theater creating fresh perspectives which showcase non-Eurocentric stories and reshape normative definitions of theater and how it should be used.
The collections of sources below showcase the work of refugees, past and present, who look to theater to reach out across that insurmountable distance between “us” and “them” and successfully build connections and mutual understanding. These examples are nothing less than triumphs of self-expression.
This section is divided into four parts to highlight four significant uses of theater by refugees around the world. Sources are separated for organization; however, it’s critical to note theater, generally, and refugees’ use of it is used creatively in many more ways than can be documented here and should by no means be limited to four.
Refugees, migrants, and displaced peoples use theater as a powerful tool for (1) self-empowerment (Theater as Empowerment), (2) the continuation of traditions and cultures of the homeland (Theater for Community Education), (3) storytelling despite humble means (Thrifty Theater), and (4) reclaiming their own narratives and belonging after migration (Theater to Create Space, Citizenship, and Belonging in the New Country).
Theater as Empowerment
This section highlights refugees who have found empowerment by creating their own narrative when the society they relocate to lacks conversation or understanding of the migrant experience and the traumas endured in the migration process. The first article showcases a number of Syrian refugees who have turned to playwriting as a means of finding their voice and utilizing humor to unpack traumas of war, displacement, and death.
- Bart Pitchford, “From Loss to Laughter: Syrian Refugees Write Plays,” American Theater, a Publication of Theatre Communications Group, April 27, 2016
- “Love Boat, A Theatrical Crossing of the Mediterranean,” (video), directed by Nawar Bulbul, 2015
- “Shakespeare in Zaatari (English Subtitles),” (video), from Nun Kreativa Studio, directed by Maan Mouslli, 2018
- Ben Hubbard, “Behind Barbed Wire, Shakespeare Inspires a Cast of Young Syrians,”The New York Times, March 31, 2014
Theater for Community Education
“The task of art is to answer the question ‘What can we do to make it better?’… The more important ‘it’ is, the more valuable the work will be.” — John O’Neal
- Beyond the Mirror Excerpts (video), The Bond Street Theatre, 2005
- The Exile Theatre and Bond Street ensembles, Beyond the Mirror, directed by Joanna Sherman & Mahmood Shah Salimi, 2005
- Margo Jefferson, “Telling Tale of Afghan Wars by Any Means Necessary,” The New York Times, November 26, 2005
- The Bond Street Theatre (website)
- Alexis Greene, “Theatre Against Violence Against Women,” American Theater, a Publication of Theatre Communications Group, December 10, 2014
- Bond Street Theatre: Theatre for Social Development in Herat, Afghanistan(video), The Bond Street Theatre, 2011
- “Rights Are Not Given, They Are Taken: Performance Excerpts,” (video), directed and performed by The Bond Street Theatre and The White Star Theatre of Kabul’s joint all-women theatre troupe, 2011
“Peacebuilding performances… are powerful events that can be crafted to engage people compellingly, but noncoercively, in the issues that confront their communities. They are laboratories for exploring relationships, memories, questions, and meanings, for experimenting with cross-cultural encounters, and for discovering what might be possible. They provide ways of integrating narratives at the intellectual, emotional, and physical levels—a dire need in violent contexts where narratives likely have been torn apart. Performances can be constructed in theatres and shrines, to be sure, but also on buses, in abandoned houses, in prisons and refugee camps, on the sites of battles and massacres, and in public plazas—anyplace where human beings gather and where there is someone to bear witness.”—Cynthia Cohen, Polly O. Walker, and Roberto Gutiérrez Varea (p.192)
- Good Chance Theatre (website)
- Cynthia Cohen, Polly O. Walker, and Roberto Gutiérrez Varea, Acting Together II: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict: Building Just and Inclusive Communities (2011)
Theater to Create Space, Citizenship, and Belonging in the New Country
- Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, The Jungle (play) (2017)
- Alexandra Schwartz, “‘The Jungle’: A Play that Conjures Life Inside a Refugee Camp,” The New Yorker, January 3, 2019
- William Jones, “‘The Jungle’ Tells The Stories Inside A Real Refugee Camp In Northern France” (audio), National Public Radio, Morning Edition, December 14, 2018
- Riham Alkousaa, “Ancient Greek Tragedy Tells Timeless Story of Syrian Flight,” Reuters, January 15, 2018
- Simi Horowitz, “The Refuge of the Stage,” American Theater, a Publication of Theatre Communications Group, 2018
- Euripides, Queens of Syria, based on The Trojan Women. Directed in Amman, Jordan by Omar Abusaada, performance by Anwar, Reem, Manar, Khalwala, Qamar Alomar, and others, The Trojan Women Project, Refuge Productions and Oxfam, 2013
- Charlotte Eagar and William Stirling, The Trojan Women Project, 2013
Compiled by Violet Cenedella (Summer 2020)
Literature of Displacement
Literature forces us to recognize the humanity of other people, even fictional people, and it can sometimes unearth deeper truths than non-fiction can. Literature’s capacity to generate empathy — rather than sympathy, or worse, disgust — makes it an indispensable source for understanding forced migration, particularly when we read works by people who have themselves experienced displacement. In the media, in politics, and in history textbooks, there is no shortage of xenophobic ideas about migration. Even well-meaning narratives from humanitarian actors or nations can flatten the humanity of people who’ve experienced displacement and present them as victims of history, traveling wordlessly through the world.
Literature by people who have experienced life as a refugee or migrant can eat away at the crusted, calcified layers of learned xenophobia, condescension, or garden-variety ignorance that cake our minds. The works of fiction that follow, published in the last twenty-odd years, do not pretend to constitute an exhaustive list — far from it. They represent but a tiny sample of the many novels, collections of stories, and poetry about movement and displacement, by people who have experienced these processes firsthand, that present a bevy of human characters, staged on the flat page in multidimensional joy and pain and in the context of their relationships with other human beings.
Please note that because the books that follow are all about displacement, their pages contain potentially disturbing scenes and traumas. Please also note that no one is (or should be) defined by their most traumatic set of experiences, and the talented wordsmiths featured here (and their equally talented peers whose work is not listed below) have written many other books that are about topics other than forced migration. Writers who have experienced displacement, like all writers, have much to teach us about the full spectrum of human experiences and emotions, and we would do well not to pigeonhole the writers that follow as only “useful” for thinking about displacement.
- Alain Mabanckou, Blue White Red, translated by Alison Dundy (1998)
- Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing (2017)
- Yuri Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World, translated by Lisa Dillman (2015)
- Dinaw Mengestu, The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears (2007)
- Aura Xilonen, The Gringo Champion, translated by Andrea Rosenberg (2017)
- Behrooz Bouchani, No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison (2018)
- Sulaiman Addonia, Silence is My Mother Tongue (2018)
Congolese French author Alain Mabanckou’s Blue White Red, recently translated into English, follows the protagonists, exiles living without documentation in France, as they try to strike it rich in the former colonial metropole — a novel by turns grim and witty, and always empathetic. Ghanaian American author Yaa Gyasi lays out a multigenerational narrative, following the descendants of two women, Effia and Esi, through enslavement, dislocation, the knitting together of families, and the resonances with the past that not even an ocean and centuries can keep at bay. Mexican American author and political scientist Yuri Herrera’s brief but powerful novel tells of journeys both physical and mythological. Dinaw Mengestu’s sterling debut novel inhabits the gentrifying Washington, D.C. world of a man forced to flee Ethiopia and who is, in many ways, still inwardly on the run. At just 19 years old, Mexican filmmaker and writer Aura Xilonen crafted a tale of sports, the journey from Mexico to the United States, and the sustaining power of books is built on her experience living without documentation in Germany and her refreshingly inventive use of language. Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrooz Bouchani smuggled his prize-winning debut book out of the detention camp on Manus Island, Australia, via WhatsApp; the result is autobiographical, but its literary merit is unmistakable. Sulaiman Addonia, born in Eritrea and residing in Belgium, weaves a growing-up story set in a refugee camp in Sudan like the one in which Addonia grew up, as his protagonist, Saba, tries to make a home for herself amid strong sibling bonds, restrictive gendered expectations, and the possibility of escaping to the West.
Collections and Short Stories
- Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, ed., Go Home! (2018)
- Edwidge Danticat, “Children of the Sea,” in Krik? Krak! (1996)
- Nyuol Lueth Tong, ed., In Their Faces a Landmark: Stories of Movement and Displacement (2018)
Asian diasporic writers reflect on the many meanings of home in Rowan Hisayo Buchanan’s edited collection Go Home!. Edwidge Danticat’s “Children of the Sea” meditates on flight, African diasporic history, and more; the other stories in Krik? Krak! are equally excellent. In an issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Nyuol Lueth Tong positions a collection of stories by 17 migrant authors on home, belonging, and movement as the gravitational center of global literature.
- Patrice Vecchione, and Alyssa Raymond, ed., Ink Knows No Borders: Poems of the Immigrant and Refugee Experience (2019)
- Video of featured poet Yosimar Reyes reading “The Legalities of Being”
- Warsan Shire, Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth (2011)
- Video of Shire reading her famous poem “Home”
- Jehan Bseiso and Becky W. Thompson, eds. Making Mirrors: Writing/Righting by and for Refugees (2019)
- Video about the collection
Ocean Vuong, a Vietnamese American poet, explores the aftermath of war and how memories can haunt and inspire at the same time. Javier Zamora’s debut book of poems retraces the journey he made, by himself, from El Salvador to the U.S.A., and each poem evokes both what is left behind and what lies ahead. Patrice Vecchione and Alyssa Raymond highlight the creative powers of young people who have experienced displacement in this collection of poetry by first- and second-generation young adult refugees and migrants, including Vuong and Zamora. Acclaimed London-based poet Warsan Shire’s debut pamphlet is a moving meditation on exile, womanhood, and what is passed down through family ties that span continents. Jehan Bseiso and Becky Thompson deliver a compact grouping of work by over forty poets on their experiences of displacement, exile, and belonging.
Created for children, but right for everyone
- Thanhha Lai, Inside Out & Back Again (2011)
- Edwidge Danticat and Leslie Staub, Mama’s Nightingale : A Story of Immigration and Separation (2015)
- Yuyi Morales, Dreamers (2018)
- Dia Cha, Chue Cha, and Nhia Thao Cha, Dia’s story cloth: The Hmong People’s Journey to Freedom (bilingual) = Diav daim paj ntaub dab neeg = Dlav dlaim paaj ntaub lug nruag (2002)
These books for younger readers feel lighter in the palm than the volumes above, but are no less hefty intellectually. Thanhha Lai uses poetry to chronicle a young girl’s journey from Vietnam to Alabama in 1975, mirroring Lai’s own journey. Through Edwidge Danticat’s words and Leslie Staub’s illustrations, we see a young girl find her voice as a writer, inspired by the cassette tapes of Haitian folklore her mother sends her from immigration detention. Based on her own experiences, author and illustrator Yuyi Morales tells of a mother and son crossing from Mexico to the U.S.A. and finding joy in a library. Finally, Dia Cha uses a story cloth stitched by her aunt and uncle (co-authors) to tell the story of the Hmong people’s many journeys in search of freedom, across land and sea.
Compiled by Matthew Brill-Carlat (Winter 2021)