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11 Essential Movies About the Lives of Immigrants and Refugees

Through cinema, we can find empathy and understanding.
movies about the lives of immigrants Godfather Part 2
Paramount Pictures
By  · Published on January 31st, 2017

“Relating a person to the whole world;” Andrei Tarkovsky wrote, “that is the meaning of cinema.”

It’s easy to feel that movies are a frivolity, a way of escaping into fantasy and neglecting the problems of the real world. But as Tarkovsky suggests, the meaning of cinema exceeds mere escapism. Unlike the language of politics, cinema has the power to cut through the defenses of ideology and bring us into empathic communion with the characters onscreen. Taken alone, this power is ethically neutral; it has been wielded in cinema history for both good and ill. That is why it’s essential to prop up those filmmakers committed to expanding our circle of moral concern and giving a voice to the voiceless.

The function of storytelling is twofold: it binds a society together, unifying them under a shared mythology, and it binds different societies to one another, pointing to the shared humanity that transcends culture. Given the division we face both domestically and internationally, it’s vital to use our most powerful storytelling tool to bridge these divides. Whatever your politics, the following films provide a reminder that the world is made up of individuals, each of whom has a face, a name, and aspirations very much like your own. Watch them yourself, or show them to a relative in need of some perspective – then go out and make things better.

An American Tail

“There are no cats in America!” The Mousekewitzes dream of that mythical land of the free, where the pain of daily life is rewarded with riches, not religious persecution. Don Bluth’s An American Tail was the first film to stir my sense of patriotic pride. Watching these cartoon mice flee from the terror of their native lands, and into the hopes and dreams of New York City reinforced my daily pledge of allegiance. America as “The Land of the Free” is one of the first ideals we cling to as children, and the result is a serious fear of those other mysterious countries on the map where children don’t have the luxury of choosing Nintendo over Sega. So of course, us kids totally understand the desperation of these mice to make it to our shores. The simple act of crossing our borders offers an opportunity at a fresh and fair start. (Brad Gullickson)

A Separation

Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi picked up an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film as well as a Best Screenplay nomination for this tensely wrought masterwork. Like all of Farhadi’s work, the film weaves its social themes subtly into the narrative, never judging the characters or forcing moral conclusions upon the audience. It is sometimes easy for Americans to view Iran as a monolith, reducing the widely varied views of its populace to the inflammatory rhetoric of its leaders. Farhadi complicates this perspective, showing that modern-day Iran contains both progressive and conservative forces; it is, as he put it in his Oscar acceptance speech, “a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics.” A Separation treats even complex issues like honor culture, which we in the West find reprehensible, with such penetrating empathy that our judgment is temporarily arrested. That Farhadi, one of the finest filmmakers working today, will not be attending this year’s Oscar ceremony is a tragic shame to say the least. (Jake Orthwein)

The Godfather Part II

Even the dark side of American opportunity is more appealing than the alternative. Many have argued (correctly, I might add), that Francis Ford Coppola’s sequel manages the impossible, and surpasses the original film. This is achieved by garnering our sympathy for Vito Corleone via his immigrant quest into infamy. Theft, murder, and tyranny may fly in the face of Superman’s Truth, Justice, and the American Way, but we love a good rags-to-riches story. As important as American Freedom was to us as children, American Capitalism is even more glorious in adulthood. Witnessing Robert DeNiro’s underdog takeover of the criminally arrogant is absolutely thrilling even when we flash-forward to the inevitable doom of his offspring. We all still want to believe in the America that birthed Vito. Work hard, and fortune awaits. (Brad Gullickson)

Where is the Friend’s Home?

When the news broke that Asghar Farhadi would be unable to attend the Academy Awards, where he is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, I was incredibly disappointed. Iran has given us such a wealth of beautiful and breathtaking films worth celebrating. While exceptionalism is not a requirement for compassion, cinema often is able to transcend boundaries in a way words and even images often cannot. Many of the films listed here give vital insight into the human element of the refugee crisis but in thinking of Iranian cinema, I couldn’t help but recall Abbas Kiarostami’s beautiful look at childhood friendship and loyalty, Where is the Friend’s Home?

The story is simple but powerful. Ahmed, a young boy living in rural Iran, realizes he has brought home his classmate’s notebook. Worried that his friend will be expelled if he does not turn in his homework the next day, he begins a journey to a neighboring village to find his friend’s home and return the notebook. On one hand, Where is the Friend’s Home? shows viewers the inherent commonality in the hard-working families who push their children to achieve more than they were able to. Here are mothers juggling infants and bales of laundry, children trying to wriggle out of homework to play with their friends, grandparents who believe they know what’s best for the next generation.

But at its core, Ahmed’s fruitless search represents something sometimes forgotten but not lost in us all: compassion for our fellow man so powerful we would go to great lengths to protect and fight for one another. This is the bedrock of humanity and the key to survival. It is the spark of hope in every protest unfolding around the country and it is why the message displayed in Where is the Friend’s Home? must not be forgotten when the hour seems the darkest. (Jamie Righetti)


Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film has been lost in the jumble of so-called “network narratives” from the mid-2000s, but it’s extraordinarily powerful. Babel traces four different globe-spanning narratives, loosely connected to one another by plot, each of which deals with the problem of communication. The film’s title alludes to a biblical story in which God, in reproach for humans’ Promethean attempt to build a tower as tall as the heavens, confounded human language so as to prevent us from understanding one another. Beneath the film’s scattered plot lies a strikingly simple and profound idea: that failures of human cooperation are, at some level, simply a failure of communication. Babel speaks the universal language of cinema, pointing to the common denominator of emotion that unites us. (Jake Orthwein)


Roger Ebert famously said that a movie is “a machine that generates empathy.” Cinema is our quickest way to understand a life outside of our own, and as such, we need to continually feed ourselves this art. Put more movies in front of more eyes, and the result will be a better understanding of our world. What could this suburban white male have in common with a young girl from Tehran? American pop culture – it’s infected the universe. Marjane Satrapi and I will be forever connected through our idolization of Bruce Lee, Iron Maiden, and Michael Jackson. Her rebellion in the face of political fundamentalism should spark our own desires to crusade for what we cherish. (Brad Gullickson)

Sin Nombre

Before Cary Fukunaga conquered auteur TV with True Detective and broke new distribution ground with Beasts of No Nation, he picked up the Directing Award at Sundance for this adventure story about a Honduran immigrant girl named Sayra and her harrowing trip to the U.S. Fukunaga brings his signature blend of humanism and intensity to the tale, which also follows a gang member named Casper who joins Sayra on her trip but struggles to escape his past. Here are captured both archetypes of the immigration debate: the earnest opportunity-seeker, and the criminal gang member. Fukunaga offers no glib solutions, but rather the expanded perspective that only art can provide. (Jake Orthwein)

District 9

Very few of us belong here. But since we’re lucky enough to have had our ancestors do the dirty work of getting us here, we’re now going to fight damn hard to not let others replicate our family’s saga. This land was your land, this land is now my land. We keep it that way by staying scared of the other. Creating categories, sticking them in their reservations, in their borders. We take our fellow red-blooded humans and demonize them. They don’t think like we do, they don’t feel like we feel. Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is the ultimate cinematic metaphor of our ability to de-humanize the unwanted. It’s certainly heavy-handed social science-fiction, but the seemingly fantastical can be the fastest form of education to both the tyrannically ignorant and the young. (Brad Gullickson)

Children of Men

As was noted in a recent Vulture article, Children of Men is fast become the most relevant film of our era. Alfonso Cuaron’s bleak near-future, in which women become unable to reproduce, contains many alarming parallels to the present day. Most notably, the film describes a massive refugee crisis that sweeps not merely the so-called “third-world” but the whole of Europe. Virtuoso work from DP Emmanuel Lubezki highlights the environment in every scene, forcing the audience to reflect on our own ignorance of what’s going on around us. The images of white European refugees in cages are both damning and starkly clarifying: but for a change in historical circumstance, the makeup of the refugee class could change. The solution? Get to work building a world you’d want to inhabit if you had no idea where you’d be born. (Jake Orthwein)

Ali: Fear Eats The Soul

We have to take love where we find it. It is not a choice. It’s a collision. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s racial reworking of All That Heaven Allows pulls Brigette Mira’s 60-year-old widow out of the rain and into the comforting embrace of Moroccan migrant worker, El Hedi ben Salem. Their romance is a quickly calculated covenant. They simply make each other feel good. Left to their own devices they’d spend the rest of their lives together warmly smiling at each other. Of course, Polite German society will have none of that, and Mira’s family will rage even further. Their relationship pushes and pulls with heartbreaking necessity, but Fassbinder refuses to allow tragedy to consume them. Sometimes, a hand to hold is all we need to survive. (Brad Gullickson)


Jacques Audiard’s Cannes-winner is disarmingly simple. The plot follows three Tamil refugees, a man, woman, and child, who pose as a husband, wife, and daughter to gain asylum in France. Audiard traces the gradual development of love within the makeshift family, as well as the threats posed by the drug dealers in the housing project they settle in. The film’s star, Antonythasan Jesuthasan, is himself a former child soldier who underwent a similar migration process to the character. Much of Dheepan’s magnetism as film consists in reading Jesuthasan’s face, stoic and yet bottomless in its experience. Like many films on this list, Dheepan eschews the political for the personal, the intimate, the human. Watch it, then recognize that each refugee’s experience is this complex, their humanity this total. (Jake Orthwein)

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