Immigration is an important and highly relevant topic of our time, so it’s no wonder that it is a source of inspiration for many filmmakers in their storytelling. Of course, there is no singular immigrant experience. However, through these stories, filmmakers have the power to give a voice to the underrepresented. Films can challenge stereotypes, opinions and mindsets. By telling stories of immigration, they can open dialogue on the multifaceted, emotional and sometimes controversial subject. Here is a list of five films that, in my opinion, did so in moving and thought-provoking ways.
1. Brooklyn (2015)
Brooklyn is a 2015 film by Irish director John Crowley. Saoirse Ronan stars as Eilis, a young Irish woman who emigrates from a small town in Wexford to Brooklyn. It offers an in-depth and perhaps slightly cynical look at small-town Ireland in the 1950s – a very different version of Ireland than many of us know today. When Eilis returns to Ireland, everything and everyone has changed a little. She no longer feels as at home there as she once did. We witness her struggle of having her heart in two different places. She has two very different paths of life available to her, and both have their different appeals.
2. The Big Sick (2017)
The Big Sick is an independent, romantic comedy film about Pakistan-born Kumail (played by Kumail Nanjiani) and American grad student Emily (Zoe Kazan), and their struggle with cultural differences as they fall in love. The film was written by Nanjiani and his real-life wife Emily Gordon and based on their real-life relationship. The Big Sick is a charming, witty movie and despite being the only comedy on this list, might also be the most tear-jerking. The film doesn’t depict the process of immigration. Rather, we witness Kumail’s struggle to balance the two very different cultures of the people he loves most. He must learn to rely on his own values in the midst of what those two cultures tell him to value.
3. Paddington (2014)
Paddington is a fun, family movie based on the iconic, good-natured and ever polite Paddington Bear. The film tells the story of his migration from a jungle in Peru to London. He must leave his aunt Lucy in a home for retired bears and find a new life in an unfamiliar city. Poor Paddington endures confusion and homesickness as he adjusts, but soon learns that a home can often be found in people, rather than in a place. Paddington was released in 2014 and its sequel, Paddington 2, has also been released since.
4. In America (2002)
In America, directed by Jim Sheridan, depicts an Irish family moving to New York following the death of their son, Frankie. Culture shock isn’t too much of an issue for them, but the move is still difficult. While the parents struggle to find work, and their two girls struggle to make friends. “We don’t want to be different”, says little, outgoing Ariel, “we want to be like everyone else”. It’s only when they befriend a reclusive neighbour, Mateo, that everything begins to change. The film explores how human connection can transcend cultural clashes, and alleviate the family’s profound grief, at least a little. Be warned, this is another tear-jerker.
5. The Farewell (2019)
In The Farewell, Chinese-American Billi (Awkwafina) visits her grandmother Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen) in China. The plot follows the family’s extensive ruse to keep Nai Nai from learning she is terminally ill. Like The Big Sick, The Farewell doesn’t depict the process of immigration but examines some of its consequences – for example, the fractured identity Billi endures. The film doesn’t pit two cultures against one another; it explores the space between them. Director Lulu Wang revealed that before filming, American investors wanted to “Americanise” the movie. Meanwhile, Chinese investors didn’t want Billi to be the central character, fearing this would make the film too American. This need to categorize made Lulu, an Asian-American director, question, “where is there room for me then, as a filmmaker, in this country?” The Farewell welcomes cultural clashes, generational clashes and fractured identities with open arms, without for a moment attempting to resolve them.
Bonus: Fatima’s Drawings (2016)
Fatima’s Drawings is a five-minute short film by Magnus Wennman, telling the emotional story of a 9-year-old Syrian refugee called Fatima, and her journey to Sweden. Soft narration and Fatima’s own hand-drawn animations create a delicate structure through which the shocking tale is told. You can watch Fatima’s Drawings for free on Vimeo here.
Check out our Irish movie guide for more film recs.