After the Journey: George Kurian’s ‘The Crossing’ depicts the challenging lives of Syrian refugees

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A few years ago, George Kurian was living in Cairo, working as a photojournalist and news cameraman. Much of his work was in war zones, and when he needed a respite, he turned to music. Kurian plays classical guitar. Wanting to take advantage of life in an Arab capital, he decided to take lessons on the oud, that culture’s ancient stringed instrument and the one from which the guitar is derived. Organologists date the oud to a time before written history, in Mesopotamia, modern-day Syria, Iraq and Kuwait. Kurian began searching for a teacher when friends told him about Nabil, the most celebrated oud player of his generation, and a Syrian refugee living in Cairo.

Kurian, who was born in southern India, reflects back on many pleasant evenings spent with Nabil. “We would sit in his house, downing endless coffees, and playing together,” he says, at a hotel lounge in midtown Manhattan. Kurian has just arrived in New York City from Istanbul, his present home, to attend the 2016 Human Rights Watch Film Festival. The Crossing, his debut documentary short, screens at the festival on June 15 and 16. “After the Arab Spring, Egypt quickly dissolved into military rule, and the general law-and-order situation collapsed,” he explains. “Refugees, who carried all their money and their valuables with them, became even more vulnerable. Then there was a huge influx of Syrians into Egypt.”

One evening after Kurian had arrived in Cairo from an assignment in Iraq, Nabil telephoned him to say that he was leaving Egypt with a group of Syrian friends. He invited the filmmaker to their last party in Cairo. Kurian took his camera. The group, consisting mostly of middle-class professionals, had already made arrangements with smugglers, and would soon board a boat together in Alexandria to make a perilous ocean voyage to freedom. They became Kurian’s subjects: Nabil; Rami, a computer specialist; Angela, a TV reporter and journalist; Afaf, a pharmacist; her son Mustafa, and Alia, a wife and mother of two.

Originally, the filmmaker planned to join his six subjects, but in the end the smugglers would not allow it. Rami had purchased a waterproof camera for the journey. “He came to me,” Kurian recalls, “and said, ‘If you would risk your life to tell our story, I think it is my duty to film for you on the boat. Make me a gentleman’s promise that you will use what I film in your documentary.’” Kurian agreed, and then taught Rami basic filmmaking techniques, as well as lessons learned from years of working in war zones. He did not want Rami running afoul of the smugglers. “Rami told me afterward that there was nothing to fear from that,” Kurian explains, “because people who couldn’t pay full fare steered the boat. The smugglers stayed on land.”

Rami’s footage comprises the first half of The Crossing, and chronicles the group’s eight days on the Mediterranean Sea. In addition to wry observations by Nabil and Alia about the crowded boat and its one non-working toilet, scenes with no dialogue depict the sheer boredom of the journey, the passengers’ ignorance of oceans, and the fact that many became sick or dehydrated. Later, the group learns that Afaf and Mustafa were detained in Egypt; they manage to escape prison and get to Europe a few weeks later than the others.

The remainder of The Crossing, which is a more in-depth portrait of each of his subjects, is comprised of Kurian’s interviews with them as they enter refugee camps and then are sent to different countries and given permanent housing. That portion of the short begins when, for the second time, there are scenes of the refugees landing in Italy; Kurian starts with a brief shot of that arrival to avoid the pitfalls of similar “escape” documentaries that use suspense as a device to draw in audiences. The result is a far more nuanced portrayal of statelessness that also overturns mass media’s narrative, which ends with tired but jubilant refugees reaching the shores of Italy and Greece.

Kurian had driven to Alexandria with his subjects, hoping that the smugglers would change their mind about letting him onboard. Later, he drove back to Cairo for a flight to Catania, Sicily, where the Syrians were supposed to land. Once he arrived there, he attempted to get on a Coast Guard craft, but the sailors told him it would take a month to receive permission. “After eight or nine days in Sicily with no news,” Kurian says, “and many visits to NGOs and refugee camps trying to get information, I ran into a woman who told me that there was someone she knew who contacted the ships on the open sea, and that’s how she helped refugees.” Kurian called her and, using a social-media platform, provided her with the names of his subjects.

Rami’s footage depicts an oil tanker approaching the refugees’ boat, and the crew shouting out to them to board the vessel. The refugees were reluctant; they feared being arrested by authorities and deported. What is not in that scene, because Kurian could not include it without referencing his own role in the matter, is that the captain eventually read out the names of the Syrians; he had been given them by the Sicilian woman Kurian had contacted. The refugees boarded the tanker, and Kurian shot their arrival in Italy, where they were provided with medical care and temporary shelter. Not long afterward, the friends are separated, Angela and her husband to Belgium, Rami and Alia to the Netherlands, Nabil to Germany, and Afaf and Mustafa to Sweden. “Each of them are chasing a different dream, so that’s how they end up in different places,” Kurian says.

Because the Syrians were educated, and had researched the bureaucracy that they knew they would encounter, they moved more easily through what Kurian calls the “Kafkaesque system” that included their stay in refugee camps. He filmed them undercover, posing as a refugee, to provide a rare glimpse of that experience. “No doubt it helps the documentary that this group is all middle-class,” the filmmaker observes, “because the empathy is so much easier than if they were women wearing headscarves who refused to talk, or men with beards or things of that nature, not that those people would be less deserving of our empathy.” Kurian nevertheless despairs over the way in which even human suffering must be packaged and consumed.

“We are all consumers now, and everybody, distributors, marketing people and audiences, want something that is palatable, even when they are watching wars,” he says. “We want the fish cleaned out of the bones and the innards, so to speak.” Kurian, who has lived in Afghanistan and has recently been on assignment in Syria, understands the need of human-rights filmmakers to strike a balance between authenticity and marketability. He often faces similar conflicts as a photojournalist—and he confronted difficult choices when seeking funding for The Crossing, which was originally conceived as a feature-length documentary. Potential funders wanted him to end the documentary with the landing in Italy; others asked that he edit out the brief scenes at the beginning so that the sea journey would be more thrilling, and still others wanted to add narration. In the end, Kurian kept The Crossing to broadcast length, only managing to garner funding for post-production. It screened this week on Swedish TV.

The Crossing is distinguished by its journalistic style and intent, and by Nabil’s incredibly beautiful composition for the oud, portions of which weave through the documentary like wisps of hope. “Once they went to Europe and entered all these refugee camps,” Kurian says of his subjects, “they were nervous about me following them. This was their last chance, and they didn’t want to run up against the European authorities.” The filmmaker eventually returned to Cairo and waited for the Syrians to get assigned permanent housing, all the time speaking with them via cellphone and Skype.

“The shock to me during that time was that they were all beginning to get depressed,” Kurian says. “There were weeks when they did not want to talk at all—and these are people who had been so brave! Every single one of them crashed after they reached Europe.” During a conversation with Rami, who was in Holland, he says to Kurian: “This freezing state makes you freeze from the inside out.” Angela begins to talk about remembering “who I was then and who I am now,” but suddenly turns away from the camera, finding it too painful to finish her sentence. The language barriers made it impossible for any of the Syrians to get work, although slowly Nabil was able to gain a footing in Berlin because his musical talent transcended that impediment.

At the end, Kurian can only strike a few optimistic notes, the loneliness and desolation of his subjects so palpable that a brief shot of Afaf, for instance, pensive, agitated and unable to even dress for the day, a woman who was once a respected citizen of a small Syrian village, shatters every notion of what it means to “rescue” refugees. In fact, a sense of loss lingers long after screening The Crossing, as it would after a brief but intense conversation with a stranger. “The dignity of the subject is the benchmark for me at all times, whether I am photographing or filming,” Kurian says. “I did not want to portray these people in my documentary as victims in this voyeuristic way. There is a point where something becomes porn.”

Asked about how he achieves that balance, of preserving the integrity of his subjects while exploring their most profound, fragile and often embarrassing emotions, he replies: “There is a sense of respecting your subject’s personhood. Angela, for instance, is a very strong woman and it would be slander not to represent her that way.” Kurian then remembers his last shoot with Angela, who had been given an apartment in a small town in the outskirts of Brussels that had no running water or power or heat. In winter, she and her husband stayed with another Syrian refugee family who lived nearby. That is where they were when the filmmaker arrived to interview them. Realizing it would be impossible to stay in the capital and drive to the location each day, Kurian asked if he could use the apartment while he was there.

One evening, after a day’s filming, Kurian settled on the apartment’s thin mattress, wrapping the blanket tightly around his body for warmth, but then he had an idea for the next day’s shoot and reached for his notebook. It was across the room from him. “I thought if I get up, all of the warmth I had under this blanket is going to go away, and I am going to be shivering for another five minutes before I get warm again, but suddenly, it dawned on me that this was the difference between being a refugee and not being a refugee,” Kurian observes. “I had something to get up for. All that cold and that discomfort I had could be set aside because of this idea that I had to chase. In that moment, all the sad faces of every refugee I had ever seen came to me, and then the documentary made sense. I had to make sure that I got these thoughts across in my film.”