Intimate cellphone footage gives 'Exodus' a powerful first-person view of the global refugee crisis

The sheer scale of the migration crisis in Europe, the largest since World War II, can make it easy for many of us, particularly in the United States, to view the issue as a distant abstraction.

It often takes an individual tragedy, particularly one conveyed through potent imagery — like the photo of the body of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian boy who drowned attempting to cross to safety in Greece in 2015 —  to awaken public consciousness.

On Tuesday, PBS’ “Frontline” presents “Exodus,” a two-hour special documenting the experiences of refugees fleeing Syria, Afghanistan and Gambia for what they hope will be safety and prosperity in Europe. Directed by James Bluemel, the film provides a powerful first-person perspective of refugee journeys over many months, thousand of miles and dozens of international borders. 

Fittingly, the special arrives two days after Christmas, a holiday celebrating the birth of a child whose parents were fleeing persecution. “Exodus” avoids delving into the fraught politics surrounding the migration crisis, which helped fuel the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote to leave the European Union and has emboldened the nationalist right across the continent. The only Islamic extremists mentioned in “Exodus” are the ones back in Syria. 

Instead, the documentary tells intimate, personal stories of decent people caught in dire circumstances well beyond their control. It offers a vital counterpoint to often dehumanizing rhetoric about “bowls of Skittles” and comprehensive Muslim bans.

The film cuts between five subjects, who seem carefully chosen to represent an array of experiences. All are Muslim and relatively young, and most are men, but otherwise their circumstances, personalities and backgrounds vary. 

Isra’a is a plucky 11-year-old girl whose home in Aleppo, Syria, was destroyed by bombs. She is traveling with her family, including a disabled sister and her kindly father, Tarek, who used to run a falafel shop.

She is one of three Syrians featured in the documentary. The others are Hassan, a former English teacher from Damascus, and Ahmad, a student whose wife and daughter remain in their home village, which has been overtaken by militants. Both men speak impeccable English, are well-educated and do not seem vulnerable in any particular way, except they happen to be from Syria. As Hassan observes, “Anyone can become a refugee.”

“Exodus” also includes two subjects from elsewhere in the world. Alaigie journeys to Italy from Gambia in West Africa in search of work to support his younger siblings, while Sadiq, an electrician, flees the Taliban in Afghanistan with dreams of relocating to Finland.

The film, expertly shot in large part by Bluemel, includes harrowing footage, some of it captured on smartphones by the refugees themselves, aboard overcrowded dinghies or stuffed into rickety vans with broken doors. (Smartphones play a major role in “Exodus,” helping the refugees track their progress and keep in touch with family members.)

Much attention has been paid to the dangers of crossing the sea, but it is just one of the obstacles faced by the refugees in “Exodus.” Alaigie is held for $1,000 ransom in Libya; Hassan spends months in the squalid camp known as “The Jungle” in Calais, France; Ahmad stows away in the back of a freight truck, sitting motionless for days to avoid detection. (Never mind the bigotry and red tape they have to deal with once they’ve finally reached their destinations.)

The documentary highlights the ruthlessness of the smugglers and human traffickers who callously exploit the desperate masses.  Alaigie and nearly 30 others are packed into the back of a pickup truck designed to hold 10 people for a four-day journey across the Sahara Desert. When the truck begins to sink in the sand from the excessive load, the smugglers dump the remaining water.

“The word sympathy, he’s not having that in his blood,” Alaigie says of his driver, in broken but strangely poetic English.  (Later, he observes that in Libya, “gun is their food.”)

As one might expect, “Exodus” sometimes makes for wrenching viewing. At the border between Serbia and Croatia, Isra’a’s family and hundreds of other refugees are blocked from passage and forced to sleep in the mud. Several children freeze to death. Hassan sobs recalling how he was savagely beaten by pro-government forces in Syria.  

For all its emphasis on life and death, “Exodus” also includes moments of joy, humor and everyday trivialities. Sadiq sifts through a pile of donated clothes, casting aside articles he deems “too feminine”; like any preteen, Isra’a’s biggest concern is the safety of her smartphone. The true accomplishment of “Exodus” is that it never loses sight of what makes each of its subjects human.

TV news may be increasingly substance-free these days, but “Frontline” continues to be the exception to the rule, consistently producing some of the most worthwhile journalism in any medium. “Exodus” is yet another example of its urgent reporting. 

‘Frontline: Exodus’

Where: KOCE

When: 9 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

On Twitter: @MeredithBlake

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