10 great films about immigration and migrant experience

With the theme of immigration rippling through this year’s BFI London Film Festival programme, Manish Agarwal celebrates a selection of past greats tackling migrant life.

Manish Agarwal
Updated:

A Season in France (2017)

A Season in France (2017)

Don’t ask me where I’m from…

For those of us who are either the children of immigrants or actually made the brave decision to relocate to another country, the current resurgence of anti-immigrant sentiment can be infuriating and psychologically destabilising. Populist nativism ignores the humanitarian reasons for – and economic benefits of – global movement, plus, more fundamentally, the fact that diaspora communities become inextricably woven into and strengthen the fabric of whichever society they call home.

Hence a major talking point of this year’s BFI London Film Festival is immigration, with a raft of titles giving voice to people who are often discussed but too rarely heard from.

Screening in the First Feature Competition, Most Beautiful Island is a dark and disquieting drama about an undocumented Spanish immigrant trying to make her way in New York City, inspired by writer-director and star Ana Asensio’s own life.

Documentary Competition entry Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time was shot in secret by Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, detained by Australian authorities at the infamous Manus Regional Processing Centre in Papua New Guinea. It spotlights both the degradation endured by asylum seekers and indigenous islanders’ distress.

The festival’s Journey strand includes Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s poignant dramatic portrait A Season in France, about a Central African college professor fleeing civil war, as well as the brilliant nonfiction tapestry Abu, which documents gay Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker Arshad Khan’s struggles with identity and displacement.

In celebration of these multifaceted gems, let’s look at 10 more essential films about immigration and migrant experience…

Black Girl (1966)

Director Ousmane Sembène

Black Girl (1966)

The first internationally released feature by a sub-Saharan filmmaker, Ousmane Sembène’s groundbreaking Black Girl is about Diouana (the magnetic Mbissine Thérèse Diop), who has travelled from Senegal to work for a rich white French couple in Antibes. Trained as a nanny, she expected to carry on caring for their children, but is instead treated as a domestic servant, secluded and subjected to racist bullying.

In a mere 65 minutes, this meticulously composed landmark of African cinema artfully indicts colonial attitudes, while also crucially opening up Diouana’s earlier world via flashbacks to her questing days as an impoverished villager roaming the streets of her nation’s capital. For a contrasting vision from a fellow Senegalese pioneer, track down Djibril Diop Mambéty’s colour-saturated avant-garde road movie Touki Bouki (1973), which follows a star-crossed pair of Dakar dreamers aiming to raise funds for that all-important boat trip to France.

Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Director Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Fear Eats the Soul (1974)

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s widely adored update of Douglas Sirk’s classic melodrama All That Heaven Allows (1955) charts the romance between widowed West German cleaner Emmi (Brigitte Mira) and soft-spoken Moroccan guest worker Ali (El Hedi ben Salem), who happens to be a few decades younger. They dance, chat and delight in each other’s company, quickly progressing from friendship to cohabitation to marriage. This tenderness is contrasted with the overt bigotry displayed by Emmi’s neighbours, colleagues and relatives (Fassbinder himself has a memorable cameo as her vile son-in-law), which in turn impacts on the budding relationship.

As with its Hollywood inspiration, Fear Eats the Soul blends bountiful aesthetic pleasure with rigorous social critique. Endlessly rewatchable, it proves especially fascinating when you try to view the lovers’ fragile dynamic from taciturn Ali’s ‘foreign’ perspective, with all the uncertainty and heartache that occupying such a position entails.

Pressure (1976)

Director Horace Ové

Pressure (1975)

The first British feature by a black director, Pressure follows the teenage travails of London-born Tony (a hugely sympathetic Herbert Norville), who keeps getting rejected for clerical jobs despite being more than qualified. He’s chided by hard-working, church-going Trinidadian parents and an older brother who grew up in the Caribbean but now organises for Ladbroke Grove’s burgeoning Black Power movement. Our sensitive protagonist faces further push/pull from divergent friend groups, in a 1970s city rife with discrimination.

A lesser filmmaker would have rendered this as unvarnished kitchen sink; indeed, its honest depiction of police brutality saw the picture’s domestic release delayed by a timid distributor (yes, that would be the BFI). However, celebrated photographer Horace Ové synthesises a heady whirl of neorealist spark and atmospheric soundtrack, flavoured with choice details – check the nods to pepper sauce – and, in Tony’s final act dream sequence, tripped-out surrealism.

Moscow on the Hudson (1984)

Director Paul Mazursky

Moscow on the Hudson (1984)

From the silent misadventures of Charlie Chaplin in The Immigrant (1917) to Eddie Murphy’s bride-seeking African prince in Coming to America (1988), new arrivals to New York have provided some keenly observed culture-clash comedy. One of the best examples is Moscow on the Hudson, starring the much-missed Robin Williams as Russian circus saxophonist Vladimir, who spontaneously defects during the troupe’s KGB-controlled visit to the Big Apple.

A master of tragicomic humanism, writer-director Paul Mazursky (who died in 2014, two months before Williams) crafts a bittersweet tale in which the land of the free just has a different set of problems from the communism left behind. Tellingly, the new friends who help Vladimir adjust are themselves either immigrants or outsiders. Williams deftly cycles through catharsis, doubt, rage and hope in a performance of extraordinary nuance. He also learned to play the sax especially for this role.

The Joy Luck Club (1993)

Director Wayne Wang

The Joy Luck Club (1993)

Adapted from Amy Tan’s bestselling 1989 novel by the author herself and veteran screenwriter Ronald Bass, The Joy Luck Club remains a rarity: a Hollywood studio project with an Asian cast and director. Wayne Wang had helmed a string of well-regarded indie flicks before signing on to make a Disney-backed movie out of a book that houses 16 stories involving eight major characters.

The result is a vivid tearjerker that delineates the complex anxieties and memories of a quartet of Chinese women who’ve settled in San Francisco – founders of the titular mahjong club – and their respective adult daughters, all of whom were born in the USA. Blessed with performers able to elevate earnest source material, it launched the careers of future action heroine Ming-Na Wen and animation voiceover stalwart Lauren Tom. Wang’s facility with ensembles would be later seen in his superb Paul Auster collaboration Smoke (1995).

Bhaji on the Beach (1993)

Director Gurinder Chadha

Bhaji on the Beach (1993)

Gurinder Chadha’s award-winning feature debut explores the desires, fears, secrets and dreams of an all-ages, multi-faith group of British Asian women from Birmingham taking a day trip to Blackpool. Empathetic and entertaining, Bhaji on the Beach highlights tensions between senior community members – the ‘aunties’ who originally came from India – and subsequent generations who’ve only ever known the UK and simply can’t abide by their elders’ prejudices or so-called traditional values (particularly in affairs of the heart).

Meera Syal’s ambitious script skilfully foregrounds several protagonists, yet also captures the kind of leering, snide, local curiosity that occasionally spikes into outright racism or misogyny (which the women smartly face down, or ignore, as each situation demands). Visually, the film distills Blackpool’s unchanging seaside essence – windy beach, promenade, tower, rides, illuminations – with an effectiveness that will trigger a wave of nostalgia in anyone who’s not been for a while.

I Can’t Sleep (1994)

Director Claire Denis

I Can't Sleep (1994)

An underrated early effort from the peerless Claire Denis (whose latest film, Let the Sunshine In, screens at LFF 2017), I Can’t Sleep is ostensibly based on the real-life saga of serial killer Thierry Paulin. However, genre conventions prove secondary to atmosphere and characterisation, as we’re gradually shown how the murders traumatising Paris intersect with the hidden, lonely, parallel lives of citizens who are struggling and marginalised.

Théo (Denis regular Alex Descas) is a violin-playing carpenter desperate to return to Martinique with his young son, against the wishes of estranged French wife Mona (Béatrice Dalle). Lithuanian hotel maid Daïga (the sadly departed Yekaterina Golubeva) wants to be an actor, but she’s let down by the theatre director who seduced her. These elliptical plot strands and the horrific criminal mystery are resolved through a slow-burn assurance suffused with naturalistic dread. It’s subtly thrilling, without merely being a thriller.

Last Resort (2000)

Director Pawel Pawlikowski

Last Resort (2000)

Concise, lyrical and sincere, Last Resort is about Tanya (Dina Korzun), a young Russian who has flown over to England with her 10-year-old son to meet up with her fiancé. When the latter fails to show, she claims asylum, and the pair are placed in a run-down holding centre on the desolate south-east coast. Waiting for their application to be processed by the system, Tanya tentatively develops a relationship with amusement arcade manager Alfie (Paddy Considine).

Gracefully acted and shot, Pawel Pawlikowski’s personal-political love story has gained in resonance since its initial release, serving as a quiet rebuke to the xenophobia unleashed by Brexit. Pawlikowski’s acute understanding reflects his own peripatetic existence – he was raised in Warsaw, then lived in Germany, the UK and France before returning to Poland. He would go on to win 2015’s best foreign language film Oscar with the sublime Ida.

Head-on (2004)

Director Fatih Akin

Head-On (2004)

Head-on begins with rock’n’roll fortysomething widower Cahit (Birol Ünel) intentionally ramming his car into a brick wall, hence the title. Taken to a psychiatric clinic, he meets fellow Turkish-German patient Sibel (Sibel Kekilli), who tried to commit suicide to escape a repressive home life. Two decades his junior, she proposes that they marry to satisfy her conservative parents, while really living as roommates. Cahit comes round to the arrangement. Cue chaos.

Fatih Akin’s full-tilt Golden Bear winner dives deep into the neuroses of a second generation torn between secular ideals and their immigrant families’ traditionalism. These conflicted identities are further blurred by drugs and alcohol. The principals commit to their parts with ferocity in a narrative that continually upends expectations, alternately exhilarating and shockingly transgressive. Swerving judgement and easy answers, it’s a uniquely wild ride of eroticism and violence, with potent glimpses of romantic clarity.

Paddington (2014)

Director Paul King

Paddington (2014)

A worldwide box office smash, the big screen adaptation of Michael Bond’s beloved literary bear posits Paddington as a potential migrant – Aunt Lucy and Uncle Pastuzo have been nurturing their nephew’s Anglophilia since they met a British geographer years ago – who’s forced into refugee status by natural disaster. When an earthquake destroys his native rainforest, the youthful Peruvian is stowed away on a cargo ship for the voyage to England, where a middle-class family eventually gives him shelter.

Beautifully voiced by Ben Whishaw, our CGI hero’s ursine charm is complemented by such seasoned human players as Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Peter Capaldi and chief antagonist Nicole Kidman (channelling Cruella de Vil with relish). Writer-director Paul King imparts a welcome message of tolerance, though his take on London largely omits its actual diversity. The imminent sequel, wherein Paddington finds employment in low-wage austerity Britain, will hopefully fix that.

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