Like good literature, a good film gives us a greater understanding of the experiences of others. We found these three films to be a valuable watch because they take us inside the turmoil, danger and hope of the refugee experience. 


WARNING: If you're wanting a light, fun watch, then none of these films fit that description. But if you're okay with feeling shaken up and uncomfortable afterwards, then keep on reading.  

Cartel Land: Lawless violence. It's an experience that's almost impossible for us to understand here in the states. While we may occasionally have protests and riots that get out of hand a bit, they're nothing like what is experienced in other countries. Cartel Land, a documentary by Matthew Heineman, gives us a small, but terrifying glimpse of the reality that many around the world live in. The film takes an unflinching look at the drug-fueled violence of our neighbors to the South, focusing on two vigilante groups who are fighting the drug cartels.

One group, on our side of the border, is working to stop drug traffickers from crossing over. The second is a group of Mexican citizens working to stop the drug cartels from wreaking havoc in their cities and communities. The film definitely provides a fascinating look at taking the law into one's own hands, but even more than that, it helps us better understand why people are so desperate to flee violence. The film is graphic. You see decapitations, you see shootouts, you hear stories that sound like they came from nightmares. Children and families being caught up in violence they want to avoid, but can't, as there's nowhere else for them to go.

Remember the flood of undocumented young people that came into the country last year from Central America? After you watch this documentary, you'll understand how parents can be so desperate as to send their children alone and illegally into our country. If you were faced with your child being killed, raped, or drawn into drug gangs versus the hope of providing them a place of safety, which would you choose? The violence shown in this film is reflective of the experiences of refugees around the world, except in some cases, even worse as there are no police or government forces to ever intervene. 


The Good Lie: Starring Reese Witherspoon, this narrative film follows the story of a group of South Sudanese refugees. It starts with the conflict that displaced hundreds and hundreds of children. When their parents were killed, these kids had to travel almost a thousand miles alone and on foot in order to find safety, braving weather, hunger, wild animals and Northern militia in order to reach the refugee camp. 

The camp is safe, but not a great place to live and grow up. 13 years after arrival, they finally get the chance to be resettled in the United States. When they arrive, it's culture shock, both for them and for the woman assigned to help them. The film takes an honest look at what it's like to be thrown into a new culture where everything that was comfortable is gone, where people don't try to understand you and have no idea what you've been through. 

As a side note, there are some schmaltzy moments that might make you roll your eyes, as well as lots of language and a bedroom scene that might make you think twice before showing it to your middle-schooler. But all in all, this film is a powerful watch. While Sudanese refugees are no longer being resettled here, we now receive refugees from the DRC, Somalia, Burundi and other African countries that are as war-torn and violent as South Sudan was (and is becoming again). 

Nickel City Smiler: Another documentary, this one focusing on the refugee experience here in the United States. It follows a family from Burma who have been resettled in one of the worst neighborhoods in Buffalo, New York. 

Unless you've gotten to know refugee families, you probably don't realize that most every family is resettled in neighborhoods that many middle class Americans tend to avoid. These neighborhoods usually have failing schools, high crime, unjust landlords, gangs, etc. Plus, as funding for resettlement agencies continues to be cut, many refugees don't have all the help they need to navigate their first year in the United States. 

The documentary takes you into these struggles through the eyes of Smiler Greely, a refugee from the Karen tribe and a leader in his community. Greely works to help new arrivals adapt and tries to connect them to sources of help. But sometimes that help is hard to come by, and you feel his frustration. In one particularly sad scene, he talks with a refugee woman whose husband has just died. She has no phone (not uncommon for new refugees) and because of how rough the neighborhood is, she didn't know who to go to for help. Her husband ended up dying in bed, and she weeps, asking, "What are we going to do? What are we going to do?"

Greely has his own struggles with prejudice from neighbors and break-ins by local derelicts. But when he has opportunity to move away into a better neighborhood, he refuses. He doesn't want his kids to suffer, but he also realizes that if he leaves, many of the Burma refugees will be left without anyone else to advocate for them. His leadership and care for fellow refugees is inspiring. 

Parts of the story move slowly. I feel it could have cut out 20-30 minutes and had a much tighter storyline. But it's still worth a watch. Just skip through some of the slow parts! 


And that's our roundup! Any films about the refugee experience that you'd recommend? Leave them in the comments section below. Want to learn more? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to stay up to date on how you can make a difference in refugees' lives. 


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