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network 18/08/2017 - 01:00PM


George Kurian’s THE CROSSING follows a group of Syrian refugees fleeing war and persecution with the hope of finding refuge in Europe. Often neglected in mainstream depictions of refugees re-settling, Kurian’s film provides an important and complex portrait of the obstacles faced by refugees after finding refuge.

Cinema Politica’s Stefan Christoff interviewed filmmaker George Kurian and they spoke about his doc, engaged filmmaking and mainstream representations of the refugee crisis. Read the interview or listen to it recorded below! THE CROSSING is now available to Canadian locals in the CP Network so make sure to add it to your fall programming.

Stefan Christoff : I am here in Montreal with George Kurian, who’s the filmmaker behind a beautiful documentary that just screened at Cinema Politica Concordia: THE CROSSING. It shares the migration story of a group of Syrian refugees traveling from Egypt to Europe. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us...

George Kurian: Thank you.

First to start, maybe we could just look at your drive to make this film. Unlike other narratives we see a lot about Syrian migration stories and the stories of Syrian refugees, the voice and the direction of this film is really driven by the experience of Syrian refugees. If you could maybe start by talking about that choice and also describing generally a bit about the film for people who might not have seen it yet …

In general, I kept noticing how refugees are constantly spoken for, categorized one way, or another, often described either as a problem, or something that needs management, but it's always vis-à-vis ourselves, we talk for them, we describe them, we categorize them, we box them. This is kind of the standard narrative around it and I thought what was being lost in that is who these people are as individuals. These are fellow human beings escaping war and persecution, the same way that we would have wanted to had this been us in that same circumstance. So it was very important to tell the story from that perspective, up close and personal, in terms of what matters to them. Why are they leaving? What are their dreams? What do they want? Heard from their very unique perspective and hence the film.

On a geographical level, you see the crossing and you see that journey on the sea. Maybe if you could talk a bit about that aspect of the film, the experiences on the boat, but also your relationship with the group of Syrians featured in the film. How did that come about ? Also the process of how the filming took place, directly by the characters, how did that take place ?

So I was living in Cairo at this point, when I met all the people in the film. I met Nabil, the musician, because I am interested in music and wanted to study the oud and people sent me to him saying that he was one of the most talented oud players and composers of his generation and as soon as I met him I understood that there was a story here, you know, that I would love to make a film about. Nabil is an artist, a prodigious composer and artist, who’s had to take his art into exile. And then Nabil introduced me to his friends, the women in particular were such powerful and articulate people, that shattered all the stereotypes about women in the Middle East and I quickly realized that the film has to be more than just Nabil.

All the people in the film bring very different angles, in terms of what forces people into abandoning where they have thrived all their lives, you know the country where they have dreamt and had aspirations, the place where they fell in love, all of that. What makes them move to a very uncertain future ? To tell that story, but from the perspective of the people doing it, was actually what made me make THE CROSSING.

The initial plan was that I would go on the boat with them and we were trying to negotiate with the smugglers to get me on board the boat and some of the smugglers were just like : ‘ya, ya, just pay up !’ and you would be able to go, but as it came closer to the date and when we reached Alexandria, the smugglers finally turned me down, cause the smuggling operation is a huge operation, with politicians, coastguard, police officials, all involved, so some of them got panicky about the fact that someone’s getting in there with a camera and I was told that I couldn’t board the boat.

That’s when Rami stepped up and said : ‘If you were willing to risk your life to tell our story, I think it's my duty to film,’ because on the boat you know there are no smugglers, it's just people who can't pay the fair who man the boat. This is the other tragic part of the boat experience, which is that people with absolutely no sailing experience are sailing boats that never have left coastal waters and hence the many tragedies we keep hearing about. So, Rami did a fantastic job filming on the boat, doing daily digital diaries on what his experience was and the experiences of his friends was also. I waited for them in Italy and then followed them and went undercover with them into the camps and lived in various camps across Europe to tell the rest of the story.

Well in about the middle of the film, the boat is met at sea, in the middle of the night, by a ship going toward Italy, an oil tanker who picks them up and eventually they arrive.

It's a very interesting story behind that you know because I couldn’t get on the boat with them, I took a plane and flew to Sicily, which is where they were meant to come. Normally these boats take about two-to-three days, if delayed four, but I was waiting for them, for five, six, seven days and there was no sign of them, I was contacting everybody from the Italian coast guard, to SOS, to the Red Cross, but no one had any clue about this particular group. Then I was lead to this woman who helps refugees by making contact with ships out on the open sea, by telling them : ‘Hey you are going to come across a boat, pick them up.’ This person isn’t seen very favorably by the Italian police, but this is what she continues to do anyways.

I got in touch with her and she said : ‘Oh tell me the names of your friends,’ so I sent her a list, with the full info, names, age, gender and she put it out over the open sea and then an oil tanker, going from Singapore, to Genoa, met them and stopped them, inviting them to come on board, but because they were going to Sicily, and Genoa is in a different direction, they panicked and didn’t want to get on the boat because the last thing they want is to be taken back to Libya, or Egypt. So hence that scene where they keep demanding of the oil tanker : ‘Please tell us the truth, are you really going to Italy ?’ and finally the captain of the tanker starts calling out the names, at which point they realize that they are in good hands and they come on board and are rescued.