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Ten of the Best Films about Immigration

Tom Huggins-Teasdale
Ten of the Best Films about Immigration

Immigration is a topic that covers a wide variety of situations and can be experienced by many different sections of society. It could be someone choosing to move to a new country to take on work, to look for better opportunities or fleeing a dangerous situation in their country of birth. There are UK visas which cover many different scenarios.

There is a dangerous narrative surrounding immigration that seeks to criminalise immigrants and refugees, making them seem like an unwelcome element in societies of the countries they travel to. This list of films, tv shows, short films and documentaries aims to show the varied historical and modern-day reasons for immigration and the experiences of immigrants themselves.

1: Bhaji on the Beach (1993)

Starting off with this 1993 film reminds us that the journey is only one part of the immigrant experience. Once the destination has been reached, there is often a new set of challenges to face and Bhaji on the Beach reminds us of this at every turn.

The film dives into the divide that can exist different generations of migrant families, as those who were born here begin to clash with the values of those brought their traditions with them.  

2: An American Tail (1986)

This animated film tells the story of the Mousekewitz family as they leave Russia to go to America. While it may seem like an odd film to include in this list, the story it tells is full of the dangers of immigrant journeys, both in terms of the hopes and expectations for what await Fievel and his family, as well as those that wish to exploit them once they arrive.

Although it deals with a lot of more grown-up themes, this film is a great way for young people to start engaging with the realities and hardships of migrant journeys.

3: Years and Years (2019)

The dystopian tv series covers a lot of subjects through the course of it’s 6 episodes, but running through all of them is a reflection on the way asylum seekers are treated by the United Kingdom. The relationship that develops between housing officer Daniel (Russel Tovey) and Viktor (Maxim Baldry) takes us through the difficulties Viktor experiences in trying to reach a safe place in which he won’t face persecution for his sexuality.

From outsourced detention camps, being returned to his home country while still at risk and a final desperate flight across the channel; the show demonstrates the massive risk, mistreatment and prejudice that refugees can experience trying to reach safety.

4: When you don’t exist (2013)

This short film created for Amnesty International takes the idea that migration works one way and turns it on its head.

Told through the voice of a child trying to reach safety with their mother, it described the journey of a British family having to flee as violence descends on the UK and mainland Europe. While the media and popular narrative only shows refugees arriving in the UK, the film attempts to show us through this reversal that no nation is exempt from the dangers of war; or the effects it can have on its populace.  

5: Human Flow (2017)

Ai Wei Wei’s Human Flow shows us the nature of mass displacement in the modern age. Tracing stories through 23 countries, the documentary aims to portray the startling level of refugees who are forced to flee their homes across the course of a single year.

Ai Wei Wei’s film may not offer answers to, but it does show the human cost of the issues our world has created and provides those unaffected with a valuable window onto the suffering of lives that run parallel to their own.

6: Brooklyn (2015)

Set in the 1950’s, Brooklyn tells us the story of a young woman, Eilis Lacey, who makes the journey from Ireland to start a new life in America. Once there she soon finds that she misses her home more than she would have expected.

This story of economic migration and the temptation to return home shows Eilis coming to terms with the fact that no matter how much she misses the place she was raised, the reasons she left will still be there when she returns.

7: Persepolis (2007)

The 2007 adaptation of Marjane Satarapi’s graphic novel of the same name, Persopolis tells the story of Marji’s childhood through to her young adult life, set against the political backdrop of 1980’s Iran.

The film examines the political and social issues that can lead to an individuals need to leave their country of birth, due to their political views. As Marji struggles to contain her feelings towards the strict societal controls she lives under, the situation becomes more dangerous for her family, until she herself is forced to flee Iran to Austria.

8: Overseas (2019)

This documentary by Sung-A Yoon explores the economic migration of Filipino women as they prepare to travel to become domestic workers for wealthy families abroad.

The training the women experience shows them being trained in etiquette and how to clean and care for their employers family. The darker side of this kind of employment however is revealed through the roleplay exercises the women carry out in order to help them prepare to cope with abusive employers. That this is an expected part of their working lives, and that they are willing to accept it, aptly demonstrates the difficult economic situations that can lead to this form of migration.  

9: His House (2020)

On the surface this haunted house horror might seem an odd addition to this list, but the nature of the horror in His House is entangled in the journeys of those seeking safety in a new country.

The film explores a number of themes, drawing out it’s supernatural horror through grief, memories of escaping violence and persecution, the isolation and hostility of the UK immigration system and the constant fear of removal.

10: West is West (2010)

The lesser discussed sequel to 1999’s East is East builds on the themes of adaptation and assimilation in immigrant families, by showing us the experience of Sajid, the youngest of the Khan children when he is taken for the first time to his fathers home country.

His initial dislocation aptly demonstrates the way in which the children of immigrant families can struggle to exist in two different cultures, and through the difference between his brothers Tariq and Maneer explores the way in which accepting one culture may mean sacrificing another. 

Tom Huggins-Teasdale
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