‘Pursuing the Dream’: New film festival examines plight of refugees and migrants


The stories of refugees and migrants provide the theme of “Pursuing the Dream,” the M.V. Film Center’s new film festival. It runs Friday, July 26, through Sunday, July 28, at the Film Center and the Capawock Theater. The Film Center is partnering with the Exodus Institute, co-founded by Chilmark resident Sam Feldman in 2016 with actress Sharon Stone and entrepreneur Alvin Trenk. The mission of Exodus is to address the forced migration crisis.

“We are thrilled to partner with the M.V. Film Society to bring awareness to such a central issue of our time,” Feldman said in a recent press release. Friday’s theme is “The Journey,” looking at the travels refugees and migrants undergo. On Saturday, the subject is “Resettlement,” and on Sunday, “The Future” will focus on challenges and policies ahead.

The opening film on Friday afternoon at the Capawock, “Fire at Sea” (2016), is the most riveting of the festival. It was Italy’s entry for Best Documentary Oscar in 2017. It’s set on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, halfway between Sicily and Tunisia, and a destination for African and Middle Eastern refugees escaping violence and starvation in their home countries. The islanders rescue many of those crossing the Mediterranean in hopes of finding a better life.

Director Gianfranco Rosi interweaves the stories of the refugees with those of the island’s inhabitants. They include a doctor, Pietro Bartolo, who treats both the refugees and islanders, and Samuele, the 12-year-old son of a fisherman, who shoots birds and cactuses with his homemade slingshot. Most of the islanders make their living fishing, but when Samuele goes out with his dad, he gets seasick. The film’s title, “Fire at Sea,” is also the name of a song played on the local radio station.

A Lampedusa rescue boat retrieves refugees from overpacked smugglers’ boats that are often in danger of sinking. Those who pay $1,500 ride on the top level; next down pay $1,000 and those in the hold pay $800, most likely dying from the heat and dehydration. “It’s the duty of every human being to help these people,” Dr. Bartolo says.

“Midnight Traveler” (2019), which won the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Prize, follows Friday night at the Film Center. This film, about the travels of filmmaker Hassan Fazili and his family, plays like a diary of places where they land. The Taliban has put a bounty on Fazili’s head, and the family’s first stop is Tajikistan. The filmmaker shoots the film using three mobile phones.

From Day 3 in Mazar-I-Sharif, Afghanistan, the family moves through Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, and Serbia. They spend three years in the Krnjaca refugee camp in Serbia before arriving at the Roszke Transit Zone in Hungary. When the film ends, they are still not sure where they’ll find a permanent home. Wendy Young, president of Kids in Need of Defense, and the New York immigration judge Mimi Tsankov will participate in a post-film discussion.

“This Is Home” will play Saturday afternoon at the Capawock. Director Alexandra Shiva won the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Audience Award for tracing the settlement of four Syrian families in Baltimore, Md. The International Rescue Committee there provides eight months of support, including interpreters, home and job placement, and assistance applying for financial aid. As generous as the support is, the film illustrates the challenges these families from another culture face in adapting to life in the U.S.

Two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple’s film “New Homeland” will screen Saturday night at the Film Center. Set in Canada, it describes the experiences of five boys — three from Syria and two from Iraq — attending a wilderness camp. Camp Pathfinder welcomes and supports these refugees, who learn camping skills and develop friendships with Canadian and American campers, living in an environment without their parents.

Kopple, best known for the 1976 documentary “Harlan County, U.S.A.” about a miner’s strike, will moderate the postfilm discussion. Discussants include Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society; Cecillia Wang, deputy legal director, national ACLU; Tolu Olubunmi, founder and CEO of Lions Write, an organization that empowers the voiceless; and Ed Shapiro of the Shapiro Foundation, which works to resettle and educate refugees.

“Soufra,” playing Sunday afternoon at the Capawock, is the heartening story of Mariam Shaar, who became a successful caterer in a refugee camp outside Beirut, Lebanon. Born and raised in Burj El Barajneh, she organized a group of women to begin cooking for a living. Eventually she explores how to extend their cooking business beyond the camp.

“Pursuing the Dream” culminates Sunday night at the Film Center with “The River and the Wall.” This engrossing documentary, first shown at the Environmental Film Festival in May, travels with five environmental experts 1,200 miles along the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, to the Gulf of Mexico. The goal is to examine how a wall intended to keep out immigrants would impact the area.

Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, an NGO that researches and advocates for democracy and human rights, will moderate a postfilm discussion. Participating will be Ambassador Melanne Verveer, executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security at Georgetown University; Esther Olavarria, former Obama administration DHS official; and David Shahoulian, counsel to the House Subcommittee on Immigration.


Information and tickets for “Pursuing the Dream,” playing at the Film Center and the Capawock Theater, are available at mvfilmsociety.com. Information about films playing at Entertainment Cinemas in Edgartown is available at entertainmentcinemas.com/locations/edgartown/.