The action in “Refuge,” directed by Federico Spiazzi and produced by Federica Belletti, is deceptively simple. A woman sits behind the counter of an almost empty bakery, watching the hubbub of the street. Suddenly, a downpour pushes a dozen people into the shop. Among this crowd, a potential customer wants to know what’s in one of the pastries, but he only speaks English and German, while the shopkeeper speaks only Greek. It takes teamwork, a few minutes of confusion and a string of translations that includes Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic to get the international crowd to give him the answer.
As the flow of refugees and migrants to Europe increased in 2015, police began cracking down on passenger documents on trains passing through Verona, where Spiazzi is from; border control between Austria and Italy had been tightened to stem the number of refugees trying to reach Germany. Further south, in Firmo, Belletti felt overwhelmed by media coverage of refugees and disappointed that most news reports treated individuals as mere statistics. Many of these people had survived horrors on their way to Europe, but the media “immediately turned all these stories around these people into numbers,” Belletti told me. Spiazzi and Belletti met at Columbia University film school, and in 2016 they decided to make a film about the crisis.
“Refuge” was filmed in Athens in 2017 over three summer days, and the filming itself involved language barriers similar to the script. Only a few of the actors in the film are professionals; the others are friends and acquaintances that Spiazzi and Belletti brought together in Athens. There were actors from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Turkey. Refugees â several families from Syria and a man from Iraq â also joined. “To say it was a challenge is an understatement, but we had to accept it,” Belletti told me. The mix of languages âârequired a very specific approach to directing, Spiazzi said. He used cues and facial gestures as much as possible â âjust direct, non-verbal communication.â
When Spiazzi first started thinking about making a film about the refugee and migrant crisis, he imagined making something that would follow their treacherous journeys. But, while in Athens, he became close to two families who had recently arrived from Syria and, observing their daily lives, Spiazzi realized that he might never fully understand what they were up to. had lived. He could make a film that reflects a small part of their experience – navigating a cultural crossroads in a bustling city – from his perspective. âSometimes that complexity comes down to just kind of such funny, simple â you know â awkward human interaction,â Spiazzi said. The bakery scene is not a vision of perfect international cohesion. Some customers jostle; some look annoyed. In the end, however, the linguistic phone game works and they find out what’s in the dough.