For decades, cinema across nations has masterfully captured the universality of the immigrant experience, untouched by the disparity of time and characters. Here’s a list of five of the best movies on immigration, distinguished by their ageless humanism and tribute to the indomitable human spirit.
The rise of the astonishingly vile phenomenon of xenophobia in the 21st century would perhaps never have been, but for immigrants. Without immigrants, right-wing demagogues would have had no-one to direct their diatribe at and none to portray as an enemy they professed to fight. No fears to exploit. No hatred to foment against. This ruthless aversion to the outsider – treacherous usurpers of jobs, land, cultures in the popular imagination – is made even more insidious by its ubiquity. It is palpable in the United States electing Donald Trump, a President who vowed to build a border wall to stop the influx of illegal Mexican immigrants. In the incredible popularity of India’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party-led government whose Minister of Home Affairs referred to illegal Muslim immigrants as “termites” who’d be thrown into the Bay of Bengal. In Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán calling Muslim refugees “Muslim invaders” and formulating Europe’s most stringent anti-immigration laws. In the swelling popularity of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany. In the meteoric rise of the ultra-nationalistic Vox party in Spain. Ironically, it is immigration – triggered by civil wars, crises, genocides – that has catapulted many of these populist politicians and parties into power. Expectedly, their hate-filled narratives ignore the culpability of western nations in creating conditions for the exodus and migration of populations.
As ethno-nationalism, shaped as much by nativist aspirations as by anti-immigrant fear and fury, assumes new, sinister forms, it must be noted that the sentiments that fuel it are by no means new. Nor is the immigrant’s desperation, nor the native man’s contempt. For decades, cinema across nations has masterfully captured this universality of the immigrant experience, untouched by the disparity of time and characters. Here are five of the finest movies on immigration, distinguished by their ageless humanism and tribute to the indomitable human spirit:
Fear Eats the Soul (1974, West German film)
This heartbreaking romance between Emmi, a widowed sixty-something German cleaner, and Ali, a forty-something Moroccan guest worker, has a solidly political heart that lays bare the racial prejudice and intolerance every ethnically different immigrant must face when relocating to an alien country. Directed by ace film-maker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the movie – set in 1970s Munich – fascinates for a number of reasons. Simple powerful dialogues, framing and composition with hidden meanings, and effortless acting are just a few of them. In contrasting reticent Ali’s outsider perspective with the supercilious gaze of Emmi’s colleagues, family, and neighbours, Fassbinder lets us into the mental labyrinths of both the perpetrator and victim. When mutual suspicion and betrayal cause the two to drift apart, we are forced to introspect the devastating consequences our collective attitude can have for others who aren’t like us. The film ends on a sanguine note of reunion while underscoring the searing reality of immigrant workers in hostile foreign environments.
El Norte (1983, British-American independent film)
Directed by Gregory Nava, El Norte (The North) tells the tragic story of Enrique and Rosa, a brother and sister who flee their village in civil-war torn Guatemala and escape to the United States in search of a better life. Featuring stunning visuals, this path-breaking film touched upon a host of socio-political issues such as the Guatemalan exodus, harsh realities of living as illegal immigrants in the U.S., and exploitation of the poor as cheap labour (“strong arms” used as a metaphor) in both Guatemala and America. The scene when the siblings cross the U.S.-Mexican border through a sewer tunnel filled with screaming rats stands out as particularly harrowing, for it foregrounds the perilous journeys illegal immigrants must often make. El Norte is the sort of film you cannot watch dispassionately; the helpless rage and splintered dreams of Rosa and Enrique inevitably remind you of the swarms of dispossessed refugees who undertake treacherous voyages, only to be sucked into a vortex of unceasing struggle in alien lands.
The Joy Luck Club (1993, Hollywood film)
Based on Amy Tan’s 1989 acclaimed novel of the same name, The Joy Luck Club unravels the past and present of four middle-aged immigrant Chinese mothers living in San Francisco and their westernized Chinese-American daughters. The group meets regularly to play mahjong, eat, and exchange family stories. Though the women were all born in pre-revolution China, the old days are not often brought up and remain swathed in obscurity. As the screenplay deftly travels between past and present, we learn the stories of all four “aunties” and also how their past experiences continue to shape their present. Directed by Wayne Wang, the film remains a remarkable one for several reasons. Firstly, it is the first Hollywood film to feature an all-Asian cast, and the first to not exoticize Oriental culture or women. Moreover, the universal themes around which the plot is woven – generation gap, conflict between cultures, changed aspirations and ambitions – make it a rich, nuanced, and complex film that would not fail to resonate with first and second-generation immigrants, wherever and whoever they may be.
Baran (2001, Iranian film)
Made by legendary Iranian film-maker Majid Majidi, Baran (Rain) is unique in that it tells the coming-of-age story of a native inhabitant, as he transitions from the pettiness of boyhood to the magnanimity of manhood through a young refugee from Afghanistan. Lateef is a lazy teenager who works as a tea boy at a construction site where scores of undocumented Afghani immigrants secretly work for low wages. Though he initially resents Rahmat, the son of a fellow Afghan worker who is sent to work in his place after he meets with an accident, Lateef develops feelings of empathy and eventually love, when he realizes that Rahmat is no boy but a girl named Baran. Baran’s aesthetic brilliance, poignant love story in which the unsaid carries meaning and depth, and heartwarming message of one underdog helping another without expecting a thing in return, make it an exceptional gem of world cinema that glows and shines and moves you to tears even as it melts your heart.
The Secret of the Grain (2007, Franco-Tunisian film)
Written and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, The Secret of the Grain centres around a Franco-Arabic family whose patriarch Slimane Beiji is about to lose his job at the local shipyard. Slimane has a large family consisting of his ex-wife Souad, children, grandchildren, and lover Latifa. Encouraged by Latifa’s 20-year old daughter Rym, Slimane plans to convert a ruined boat into a restaurant that will serve Souad’s famous fish couscous which she prepares for the family every Sunday. The rest of the film focusses on Slimane’s efforts and the free dinner party thrown by him for local bureaucrats, with the hope of getting planning permission for his restaurant. Though on the surface, the film seems like any other intimate family tale with its jealousies and rivalries, it drops barely-subtle hints about race and class distinction in France, stereotyping immigrants, and difficulties faced by them in a white man’s land. The French title of the film La graine et le mulet refers to a “grain of couscous” as well as to mullet, a type of small fish – stubborn and energetic – which according to the director, is symbolic of the tenacity and adaptability of common masses, particularly immigrants.
Some of the other movies that have realistically mirrored immigrant struggles are Moscow on the Hudson (1984, Hollywood), Eve’s Bayou (1997, Hollywood), The Namesake (2006, Hollywood), and The Citizen (2016, Hungarian).
Cinema Offers Hope
Though Mexicans in America, Syrians in Germany, Italy, France, Rohingyas in India, or Sudanese in the United Kingdom present vastly different cases, they share the same bitter struggles in their foreign homelands. As borders harden and political waters the world over become more turbid with inflammatory polemics of us versus them, only literature and cinema will offer hope by means of stories that force us to ponder the realities we remain in apathetic denial of. Let us not abandon that hope. Let us cling to it with the dogged optimism of an immigrant.