Documentary Review: HBO’s “It Will Be Chaos” captures Europe’s refugee influx, mid-crisis

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I don’t know about this title. “It Will Be Chaos” suggests some calamity that is coming, parked in the future tense.

From the images we see and the stories the Italian filmmakers follow in this new migration crisis documentary from HBO (June 18 premiere), the chaos is already here — in Europe and (not shown, and to a much lesser degree) in the U.S.

Filmmakers Lorena Luciano and Filippo Piscopo emphasize compassion in their film, a look at Europe’s ongoing mass migration crisis from ground and sea level.

That’s where the movie begins and where it climaxes — at sea. The opening images are of coffins being offloaded from one of the worst tragedies to come from the dual floods of refugees, from Africa and from the Middle East. A boatload of desperate Eritreans, Somalis and Sudanese capsized off an Italian island. Over 360 drowned.

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We meet Aregai, a survivor who holds up his cell phone to show us pictures of the cousins on board with him when the boat overturned, cousins who drowned. The film will follow Aregai as he testifies in court against the inept smuggler captain, in refugee camps in Italy and on the lam as he tries to make his way into Northern Europe from the designated entry point/designated check-point and choke-hold on this human flood, Italy.

The film also follows Wael, young patriarch of an extended family of Syrians (including his wife and four very young children), desperate to get out of Istanbul and into Europe proper. They are middle class civil war refugees hoping against hope to get to relatives in Germany, where they’ll have a support system and a chance at a better life.

We meet small town Italian mayors, such as Giusi Nicolini of the island town of Lampedusa, scolding a TV reporter who characterizes the victims of that smuggling tragedy as “illegal immigrants.”

“They are refugees,” she insists, in Italian with English subtitles. Learn what they are fleeing and use the proper term because “words are important.”

Another mayor, this one of the dying village of Riace, exhibits endless patience trying to explain his budget-squeeze to hundreds of long-interned African refugees, who were moved there but given no chance to assimilate (the nearly-empty town could use the people), no further aid in starting their lives over and no chance to move on to where they could do that.

Wael, the Syrian, is impatient, as indeed are they all (some have been trapped in “the system,” such as it is, for many months). His family has been in Turkey 20 days, he’s paid the smuggler for their passage and shopped for life jackets for more than one attempt (“Remember last time?”) to escape the Middle East by sea. Wael isn’t interested in hearing about rough weather, or from relatives (by phone) to “wait” because he’s risking all their lives by putting them in an open rubber raft for a run to Greece.

“I don’t care if I die,” he bellows In Arabic with English subtitles) into the phone. “I just want to leave!”

The moment they’re at sea, his wife and others are wailing “Call the Coast Guard. Tell them we have children!”

It takes a certain amount of bending-over-backwards to “root for” this family from this point on, as they haggle with cab drivers and others on their way, refugee camp to border crossing, one after the other, on their quest north. Everybody depicted here somehow came up with big wads of cash for bribes and for smugglers.

The film samples the thought of the growing anti-immigrant movement in Italy, a movement that would sweep to power in elections after “It Will Be Chaos” was finished. That Lampedusa mayor won peace prizes all over Europe. She was voted out of office in the backlash over this torrent of refugees.

That’s one clue about the film’s title. Whatever is going on now, the “Chaos” might get worse as Europe closes its borders and struggles to stem the tide.

Then again, consider why this Italian project earned the backing of HBO. The myopic focus here personalizes the struggles of those attempting to migrate, but leaves out just enough context to make you wonder.

Yes, the filmmakers underscore, these folks are Muslims, even the supposedly secular Syrians break out the prayer mats in the third act.

Yes, they’re fleeing war and drought and hardship. And yes, humans have done this since the beginning of time. Understanding that might create even more empathy, and empathy is plainly on the retreat in post-Brexit Europe.

American viewers might reflect on how the U.S. grows more divided over the heartlessly cruel practice of separating parents from children of people caught trying to get into the country. Who can forget the haunting image of the little drowned Syrian boy, face down in his life jacket, that went viral in 2015?

But the backlash, racist or otherwise, has to be understood before empathy can truly take hold. Knowing that the “booming” economy is something of an illusion, with wages and secure full-time jobs with benefits limited to a minority, is just as important as seeing pictures of the bombed-out apartment Wael’s family (it happened after they left) used to live in.

That backlash harkening for the “good ol’days” isn’t just nostalgia, racist or otherwise. The restricting, some would say “draconian” Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 was in place for decades, limiting in-flow into the U.S., forcing quick assimilation on those few who did get in.  And during that era, a more cohesive United States wrestled with a Great Depression, won World War II, held the line in the Cold War, fought over and then embraced civil rights reform, mobilized to reach the Moon, took stock of the environment and protecting it and never enjoyed a higher status as the Beacon of Human Civilization.

Then Johnson-Reed was torn up, vastly larger numbers of immigrants poured in from Central and South America and Asia, divisions grew as the population of the U.S. cleared 300 million decades before it was supposed to.

So no, compassion alone isn’t an answer in and of itself, and certainly isn’t a winning political issue for anybody in 2018. “Wanting to come here” isn’t qualification enough, and cannot be sold politically, here or in Europe.

And waiting, doing nothing, merely putting off doing anything is one way Europe is showing the future to the United States. Do nothing, and “It Will Be Chaos,” politically and socially.

3stars2

MPAA Rating: unrated, depictions of violence

Credits:Directed by Lorena LucianoFilippo Piscopo. An HBO release.

Running time: 1:33

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