In 2015, at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, British filmmaker Alexander Farrell embarked on the expedition of a lifetime. Determined to document the unfolding realities and the individual stories of the largest mass migration since World War II, he joined a family of Syrian refugees on their journey across 10 countries in an effort to find sanctuary. “REFUGEE” tells a story of separation and loss, but also one of incredible resilience. It is a testimony to the one thing that binds us all together, no matter where we come from or where we’re going — our humanity.
We sat down with Alexander to discuss the making of “REFUGEE” and how he hopes his experience will resonate in a world that must learn to celebrate its similarities rather than condemn its differences.
How did it all start? Where did the idea for the film come from?
I actually began my journey as a volunteer. I spent some time lending a hand with a group of friends in the Calais Jungle, a refugee encampment just outside the Port of Calais, in northern France. We were tasked with building makeshift shelters for new arrivals, who were pouring in by the thousands. Naturally, I began developing relationships with those inhabiting the camp.
One gentleman in particular, who went by the name of David, had quite a tale to tell. One night, over a traditional Syrian dinner in his tent, he revealed that he had broken out of an ISIS prison, where both he and his wife were being held captive. After they escaped, they began their long journey to Europe in hopes of reaching safety. On the last day of my stay there, he pulled me aside and said, “If you really want to do something, Alex, go to the beginning of all of this. Get as close as you can without dying, and tell our story.”
And, with that, “REFUGEE” was born.
Why did you decide to focus on the Alali family?
It was my last day in Idomeni, Greece, around the time the borders had just closed and thousands of people were left trapped. I was in the process of packing up the gear when a gentleman waved my team and me over. He introduced himself as Nazem Alali, offered us a seat and a cup of coffee and began to speak. My translator, Sami, relayed the conversation back to me — what unfolded what was both absolutely devastating and quite remarkable.
Nazem’s wife, Rafa’a, had left Syria ahead of him and their two young sons. At the time, Nazem was bed-ridden — a combination of illness and never-ending back problems rendered him completely immobile. The family decided it would be best if Raf’aa left first, while Germany was still accepting refugees. She would file for asylum and, as soon as Nazem could move again and had managed to raise more capital, he and the boys would follow. At first, all went according to plan. Rafa’a made it over to Germany safely, Nazem recuperated, and he and the boys set off to rejoin her. However, when they arrived in Greece, the Republic of North Macedonia had closed its borders — everyone was trapped. The family’s story starts here, with their battle to reunite.
How long were you with them?
The process of filming took just over two-and-a-half years. However, the original journey from Turkey to Germany took around three-and-a-half months to complete.
What was the experience of being on the ground like? Were you prepared for it?
Certainly not. Honestly, I’m not sure anybody was. This was the first major mass migration since World War II — it was a shocking experience for everyone involved, to say the least. The general consensus on the ground was: What in the world is happening here? It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
Filming also involved several risks. One one occasion, I was arrested by the military and taken to a place of “holding,” which is probably the most diplomatic way of putting it. I also had a run-in with the riot police in Croatia, who held me down while they destroyed my camera equipment. Strangely enough, they crossed into Serbia to grab me, then threw my equipment over the border into the Croatian side. Needless to say, I wasn’t prepared for a lot of it.
As a filmmaker, how did you decide what to include or focus on during filming?
The purpose of the film is to make such a distressing reality relatable. I attempted to do this by focusing on aspects of the crisis that most of us have already experienced or circumstances that we can imagine ourselves in, at the very least. “REFUGEE” captures moments of loss, separation, and desperation, as well as moments of joy and hope. These are universal emotions, essential to our humanity.
Did you find it challenging to balance your role as a filmmaker and as someone who was immersed so deeply in such a poignant reality? And, if so, do you believe this impacted the nature of the film in any way?
When you see a boat-load of frightened people heading toward you, your first instinct is to jump in and help — or, at least, it should be. My team and I felt the effects of that constantly, and it definitely impacted the film. I would say that in those particular situations, we spent more time helping than filming, something I am incredibly proud of. I believe the reason that this documentary is so honest and hopefully so impactful is that we spent a great deal of time getting to know the people around us and connecting with them as much as possible.
What were some of the realities you witnessed being faced in the camps?
During the height of the crisis, thousands of people were passing through each day so, although nobody was expecting five-star accommodation, those that were forced to remain in the camps for prolonged periods of time definitely felt the consequences of the less-than-ideal living conditions. Many camps were running low on aid, food, and medicine, and keeping warm during the winter months was certainly a struggle. Once the borders closed for good, those caught between them suffered, and continue to suffer a great deal.
What are some misconceptions you’ve encountered surrounding the topic of refugees and the Syrian crisis in particular?
I interviewed a local boat captain in Lesvos, Greece, who summed it up perfectly. He said, “When the world sees hundreds of people running toward them, they get scared. They ask themselves, ‘What is it these people want?’ But if someone finds themselves having to put their child on a boat and setting off into the sea without the slightest certainty or guarantee, it most likely means they have no other choice. So, the world shouldn’t be afraid — these people are just like us.”
At the end of the day this is a human crisis being experienced by hundreds and thousands of men, women, and children. Each one of them is different, just like you and me. Each one of them has their own unique story, but just like everyone else, they want to find a safe place to call home. It is very easy to fear the word refugee and switch the television off when individuals are being portrayed as numbers, but it is important to remember that any one of us could find ourselves in this situation and we would expect to welcomed into safety.
What are some of the most memorable moments from the journey?
I keep coming back to a specific moment that took place at the very end of my trip. We were finally on the border of Austria and Germany — spirits were high, children were playing in the fields, and people were stretched out and sleeping on the grass. I noticed a man around the same age as my father unpack something from his bag and lay it out on the floor. I began walking toward him to get a closer look and realized that he was laying out a suit, one he had clearly brought with him all the way from Syria in preparation for that exact moment. After putting it on, he took out a razor and began shaving the beard from his face. I started to cry. It was the first time I had let myself decompress after many months on the road. I realized that I was staring dignity in the face. More importantly, I understood how truly valuable dignity is to a human being — when it is stripped away, there is nothing left but shame.
These people were forced to leave their dignity in the war-torn country they once called home. Only upon reaching their final destination and settling into their new lives, could they expect to find it again.
“REFUGEE” captures such a distressing reality — one full of struggle, loss, and fear but also hope. What was the psychological toll of telling this story?
One of the greatest psychological challenges of my journey was having to leave the Alali family in multiple instances.
I would document Nazem and his two beautiful little boys, Hamoudi and Ahmed, for weeks at a time, but eventually, I would have to return home. The Alalis were living in Frakapor — a camp located in Thessaloniki, Greece — that was notoriously dismal and had little-to-no aid whatsoever. It also happened to be situated next to a sewage factory, which made the smell and the number of flies inside the camp unbearable. Whenever my taxi would arrive, Hamoudi and Ahmed would chase it down the road and Nazem would beg me not to leave.
I have no idea if you’re supposed to develop that kind of kinship with the subjects you’re documenting, but I certainly did, and knowing that I was leaving them behind hurt me every single time.
That said, I would like to point out that ultimately, this experience was not about me. Any emotional or psychological impact I underwent was nothing compared to the realities being faced by those who were trying to make it to safety.
Why do you believe it was necessary to create this film?
I think it was necessary to focus on the human side of the crisis. The news barely skims the surface, most of the time highlighting moments of great distress, anger, or dispute. But there was a multitude of other realities happening, ones that I feel are imperative to showcase if we hope to truly understand the situation at hand.
The film explores separation and longing; surely we can all imagine what it must feel like to be thousands of miles away from a loved one with no prospect of being reunited. Nazem’s love for his children is profound — even in the most intense moments of despair and frustration, he made an effort to put on a brave face for their sake. “REFUGEE” is important because it highlights our humanity — it is a vital reminder to celebrate our similarities rather than condemn each other for our differences.
How has this experience impacted you personally?
The filming of “REFUGEE” reminded me of how privileged I am to be able to hold my family near and not live in constant fear of an attack on my home and loved ones. It helped me realize that, like most people, I live a very fast-paced and stressful life. It’s so easy to get caught up in our own preoccupations and forget that there are others around us who are just trying to make it through the day. I now make a point of slowing down, looking around, appreciating everybody else’s existence, and really taking the time to listen to those around me.
What do you hope people take away from this film?
Firstly, I would like for people to come into it with an open mind. That said, I hope it brings an understanding of common humanity to those who are fearful and unsure of their position in our current time. I hope “REFUGEE” does away with the notion of “us versus them.” The way I see it, there is no them; there is only us. A collective in search of a better tomorrow.
To learn more about the film, click here.