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Review: We Were Not Born Refugees


- From the very outset, Claudio Zulian’s documentary refutes the word “refugee”, insisting that these are individual people with personal stories and recounting eight of these intersecting in Barcelona

Review: We Were Not Born Refugees

We see them fleetingly on TV, clambering out of deflated dinghies, squeezed into bright orange lifejackets, wrapped in thermal foil blankets. A world’s worth of different lives pared down to a single word: “refugee”. A political status formalised by worldwide institutions and sparking debate in newspapers and across social media. And it is this definition that Claudio Zulian’s documentary We Were Not Born Refugees [+see also:
film profile
refutes from the get-go by way of its title. There’s no such thing as refugees, there are only people. Enjoying its world premiere at Bologna’s Biografilm Festival, the film focuses on the stories of eight refugees whose lives overlap in Barcelona: musicians, lawyers, interpreters, security guards, call centre employees, who were all, one day, forced to take the road of exile to escape persecution, war and oppression.

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Iryna was a project manager in a financial services firm when conflict broke out in the Ukraine. It became impossible to find the fluids required for her husband Sergei’s dialysis, which was essential to his survival. The two of them fled by car so that they could take the dialysis equipment with them. Now in Barcelona, Iryna studies Spanish and takes care of her husband. Mahmoud, for his part, very literally saw people blown to pieces by Israeli army bombings in Palestine and decided to become a nurse. Hamas, however, didn’t approve of the sex education project he ran for women, threatening to kill him and ultimately imprisoning him. He managed to escape to Cairo and then Spain. The director lends visual form to Mahmoud’s recurrent nightmares by way of amateur and archive images; he films him as he calls his parents and as he makes himself useful helping new arrivals in Barcelona. His past and present life come to life, thanks also to the cinematography of Sergi Garriga and the editorial skill of Dani García Benavides.

Boris was an actor, but one of his films offended the President of his country Cameroon and the director was abducted and tortured. Now he works for a real estate agency, composes music and sings in various venues. "Exile destroys your relationships, your ties, your roots - all the things that make you who you are in society", he explains. "But I don’t feel guilty for having had ideas and for paying the price for it".

The eight stories told in Zulian’s film – in a version of Barcelona which is sometimes resplendent, sometimes ordinary, but always welcoming could each form the focus of their very own film, so rich are they in humanity, courage, passion, awareness and lucidity. They are all proof of Europe’s transformation, the director explains, "because our continent has already changed, and refugees confirm this for us: they come from far away but with the same desires and aspirations as Europeans. They’re not ‘other’".

Italian-born Spaniard Claudio Zulian has always moved between cinema, TV, visual arts, music, theatre and literature, and has always shown the same sensitivity towards social issues, with one of his recent documentaries, Fearless, focusing on the fight fought by the families of “los desaparesidos” at the time of the Guatemalan dictatorships.

We Were Not Born Refugees is produced by the director’s firm Acteon alongside Films 59, Spanish writer-director Pere Portabella’s production company, which has supported works by some of the great masters over the past 60 years, including the likes of Luis Buñuel, Carlos Saura and Marco Ferreri. The film is also produced by Televisió de Catalunya.

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(Translated from Italian)

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