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Oscar nominates two documentary films portraying the plight of refugees

Fire at Sea by Gianfranco Rossi has been selected in the Documentary category and 4.1 Miles by Daphne Matziaraki has been nominated in the Short Documentary category

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oscar nominated two documentaries portraying refugee crisis, courtesy- VOA
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Italy, 19 Feb, 2017: Two documentaries on the plight of refugees off the Italian coast and the Greek coast, respectively, have received Oscar nominations this year.

Fire at Sea by Gianfranco Rossi has been selected in the Documentary category and 4.1 Miles by Daphne Matziaraki has been nominated in the Short Documentary category.

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Rossi’s stunning camera frames the island of Lampedusa as one of the characters in his film. Remote and rather desolate, its rocky shores are forbidding to any who would attempt to swim ashore. But over the past 20 years, this tiny Italian island, 120 kilometers off the Sicilian coast and 70 kilometers off the coast of Tunisia, has become a gateway to Europe for close to half a million refugees from Northern Africa and the Middle East. Twenty-seven thousand people have lost their lives there.

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Constantly searching

The Italian Coast Guard is constantly searching the open sea for makeshift boats overflowing with hundreds of souls, most of them women and children.

Rossi’s documentary captures the drama. In one instance, one member of the Coast Guard receives a desperate call from a woman who is pleading for help. Time is of the essence; if the Coast Guard does not get to them immediately, they will drown.

Rossi’s documentary shows the migrant drama unfolding next to the quiet lives of unassuming islanders.

In an interview with VOA, Rossi said that these two communities, the islanders and the migrants, never meet. He says he wanted to show Lampedusa not only as an actual place of migration but also as a metaphor of what’s happening in the world. “Two forces that barely touch each other, and they never meet,” he says.

Migrants sit outside the immigration center on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa Feb. 19, 2015.

Migrants sit outside the immigration center on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa Feb. 19, 2015.

Samuele is the focus

He centers his film on Samuele, a Sicilian boy living on the island. A professed hunter among seafaring people, Samuele is hunting birds, pointing his imaginary automatic rifle to the skies and shooting unseen enemies, training his expert slingshot on hapless cacti. Rossi likens him to a humanity that has not yet reached maturity. Samuele is exuberant and destructive but also tenacious and introspective when he is called to train his lazy eye by covering the good one.

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“Samuele is a constant metaphor. The little kid is a coming-of-age film, the capacity of this little kid to face life. The anxiety of Samuele is our own anxiety. The wonder of Samuele is our own wondering. The lazy eye of Samuele is our lazy eye.”

Voice of reason

On the other end of the spectrum is a doctor, Bartolo. As the only physician on the island, Bartolo is the person in which the two worlds meet. He examines every single refugee coming to Lampedusa and confirms the dead. Bartolo is the film’s voice of reason and compassion. He decries the indifference of the world toward such humanitarian crises.

“All this leaves you so angry. It leaves you with emptiness in your gut, a hole,” he says.

The refugee crisis is also at the center of Matziaraki’s 4.1 Miles. The film chronicles around-the-clock rescue missions off the Greek island of Lesbos. Kyriakos, a member of the Greek Coast Guard and the main character in the story, says that he and his team are called to rescue 200 people per hour.

Kyriakos a quiet hero

According to the film, in 2015 and 2016, 600,000 migrants crossed the 6.1 kilometers — 4.1 miles — of water between Turkey and Lesbos.

Matziaraki’s documentary is visceral. Often shooting with cameras attached to rescuers’ heads so that we experience the moment-to-moment rescue, she conveys how every second of pulling someone out of the water makes a difference between life and death.

Kyriakos is a modern-day hero, quiet, collected, but also dismayed by what he has witnessed. The camera often closes in on his tired face, describing what we cannot see. 4.1 Miles is also more openly critical than Fire at Sea of the world community that, as the inhabitants of Lesbos say, has abandoned both islanders and refugees.

“I was proposing Lampedusa and Lesbos for the Nobel Prize, you know,” says Rossi during his VOA interview. “These two special islands in the middle of nowhere that welcome migrants from all over the world.”

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Focus on refugees’ ordeal

He has arrived in our Los Angeles studio straight from the airport, after a 17-hour flight from Japan. Talking about the recognition of his film by the Academy, Rossi says, “The idea that we brought the Sea of Lampedusa to the desert of California was an incredible arrival for me because ultimately migration is a transverse tragedy. The Sea of Lampedusa is the desert of California. People here die in the desert as much as people die crossing the water in order to reach freedom.”

Rossi hopes Fire at Sea helps bring awareness about the refugees’ ordeal.

“There is a voice in my film, at a certain point, of migrants. They ask for help: ‘Please help! Help!’ They are dying in the middle of the sea, and the Coast Guard asks, ‘What’s your position? What’s your position?’ This is a very important moment. I wanted to reverse this and have people ask themselves, ‘What’s my position towards this tragedy? Where do I stand?’ This is what I want the film to do.”(VOA)

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US Painted in New Colours By A Refugee Artist

"There's so much talk in the news now about refugees, and how many people we should let into the country, and what are they contributing," Weiss said.

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Ahmad Alkarkhi has started painting with a whole new color palette since he came to the U.S. These colorful horses represent refugees who come from all over and work and live together. VOA

Refugees carry few material possessions when they flee war, violence or persecution in their homelands. But they do bring talent and skill to their new countries.

At the Sandy Spring Museum in Sandy Spring, Maryland, that talent is on display in an exhibit of six refugee artists from Iraq, Ethiopia and Somalia.

Some of the displayed works depict the refugee artists’ memories of their homelands.

“My hometown is Wollo,” explained Ethiopian artist Fetun Getachew. “There is a marketplace once a week. People meet there at the markets for not only buying or selling, [but] just meet together for so many purposes.”

Six artists from Iraq, Ethiopia and Somalia exhibit their work at the Sandy Spring Museum in Maryland, which bills itself as the "heart of the community."
Six artists from Iraq, Ethiopia and Somalia exhibit their work at the Sandy Spring Museum in Maryland, which bills itself as the “heart of the community.” VOA

Iraqi artist Ahmad Alkarkhi contributed a landscape of his country. “I want to show Americans good things about my country,” he said. “This beautiful landscape, no war or different things.”

But coming to a new country inevitably changes the work. For Alkarkhi, it has added color.

“In my country, we don’t have a lot of color there, just gray and brown,” he said. “Here, I saw four seasons clear. I saw many colors. This … change[s] my art, and I need to add more colors to my painting.”

In an unincorporated community of about 6,000 people near Washington, D.C., the museum considers itself a “living history museum,” but not in the conventional sense in which museums employ re-enactors to depict history.

Iraqi Exhibition
Visitors study some of the works on display in the refugee exhibit at the Sandy Spring Museum in Maryland. Many of the works depict scenes from the artists’ home countries. VOA

Rather, Sandy Spring is a place where the community can gather and “have unexpected encounters,” according to the museum website. “It means having cultural artists create experiences for the entire community to enjoy.”

Museum executive director Allison Weiss thinks this particular exhibit says a lot about the contributions of refugees.

“There’s so much talk in the news now about refugees, and how many people we should let into the country, and what are they contributing,” Weiss said. “And I think this exhibit shows that there’s individuals behind the word refugees and they have all sorts of talents that maybe we’re not hearing about from the news.”

Dancing with colors

Alkarkhi works in maintenance at an apartment complex in Riverdale, Maryland. But at night and on the weekends, he can be found in front of a canvas set up in the living room of his small apartment.

Iraq
Iraqi artist Ahmad Alkarkhi paints a landscape at a park near his home in Riverdale, Maryland. VOA

“Painting for me [is] like music. Each painting, different music. I just tell myself, ‘Let me dance with colors on the canvas,'” he said.

Alkarkhi graduated from the University of Baghdad, College of Fine Arts. He was a well-known artist in Iraq until violence forced him to flee to Syria in 2006. But war came there, too. Once again, he was uprooted, relocating three years later to Riverdale with his wife and two children.

Alkarkhi said creating art is his way to give back to America for helping him and his family build a new life in safety.

“America gives refugees a lot of things. I want to do beautiful painting, and I give it to this country and to the people to enjoy with my art,” he said.

Alkarkhi is also painting his experiences as a refugee in his new color palette, as in his piece, “Colorful Horses.”

Also Read: Fear Rise of ‘Lost Generation’ as More Syrian Refugee Children Out of School

“These horses are like refugees. Some from Europe, some from Africa, some came from [the] Middle East. And they come here, they work together, live together, do many things together,” he explained.

“Then, after like 10, 20 years, everybody say I am American. And everybody try to do something good for this country.” (VOA)