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'It Will Be Chaos': Personal stories of refugee crisis could not be more timely

'It Will Be Chaos': Personal stories of refugee crisis could not be more timely
An image from the HBO documentary "It Will Be Chaos." (HBO)

The scene captured in HBO’s documentary film “It Will Be Chaos” is a familiar one: parents seeking asylum are separated from their children at the border. They’d fled starvation, persecution and bloodshed, then during their journey survived smugglers, bandits and other nefarious entities that prey on migrants, only to lose their children once they reached the “safe” side of the border.

The panicked parents are frantic as they plead with authorities through an interpreter: How could this happen?! Please, please find our kids! They are 10, 8 and 7 years old. Oh, my God. How?

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The emotional scene is one of many poignant moments that highlight this beautifully executed 90-minute documentary. Arriving Wednesday in conjunction with World Refugee Day, the film explores the micro and macro implications of the refugee crisis, the global imbalance of wealth and the politics of immigration through the personal plight of asylum seekers.

The harrowing, on-the-ground and by-sea journeys chronicled in “It Will Be Chaos” were documented in and around Europe, but the film speaks directly to our own immigration crisis, especially now that the news is filled with images of terrified children being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border and whisked away to undisclosed detention centers.

The origin and destination of the asylum seekers of “It Will Be Chaos” may exemplify Europe’s flood of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East, but their stories and the stories of those attempting to cross into the U.S. are bound by common themes of hope for a better life, and the painful realities that await them in the land of promise.

The project from Italian filmmakers Lorena Luciano and Filippo Piscopo relies on subtitles, captions and first-hand accounts instead of narration to tell the tale of two separate migrant journeys.

We meet Wael and his large family, who’ve fled Syria with little more than a garbage bag full of belongings, as they prepare for their dangerous trek from Turkey to Greece in a shoddy raft. They buy cheap life jackets in a marketplace that also sells knock-off American and European brands of clothing and used watches.

When Wael’s small daughter parades around their temporary one-room flat in the bright orange vest as if she were in a Barbie fashion show, it’s a bittersweet moment of childhood joy and wartime misery. They are bound for Germany among a flood of other Syrians displaced by war. It’s an expensive and dangerous journey through countries both hostile and accommodating, with the constant risk that they’ll be caught and sent back.

North African migrant Aregai is already in Italy when the filmmakers begin telling his harrowing story. The smuggler’s boat carrying Aregai and hundreds more asylum seekers from Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan capsized off Lampedusa, a small Italian island, killing more than 360 people — including two of his cousins.

The cameras follow as the former Eritrean soldier, who made $10 a month back home, is processed through the courts and a refugee camp. Meanwhile, the island’s mayor struggles to deal with her region becoming a lightning rod in the immigration debate.

“They are not ‘illegal,’” she says to a crush of reporters who’ve descended on the island to cover the tragedy and the plight of its survivors. “They are asylum seekers.” She later explains that “the system was made to push them back. We need to help them with decent and adequate reception standards.”

The influx of refugees has repercussions both big and small across Europe and incites the usual xenophobic versus humanitarian protests. But it’s the footage of a hug between Aregai and the weathered Italian fisherman who saved him and others from the waters when the ship sank, or the countless coffins being offloaded after the tragedy at sea, that sets this film apart from agenda-driven debates regarding the immigration “issue.”

So did Wael and his wife find their three missing children? They did because their kids weren’t torn away by Greek authorities and stuffed into a defunct Walmart, warehouse or someplace else that was never designed to house children. The European aid workers stationed near the border used their authority and walkie-talkies to reunite the displaced Syrian children and parents, not rip them apart. And the family continued its tenuous journey, together, toward the hope of a better life.

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