I think perhaps It Has Been Chaos should have been considered as a title, since this isn’t happening in the future.
Here’s a mostly-verbatim conversation I recently had with my friendly neighborhood superconservative:
“Well, but people can’t just sneak across the borders by the thousands.”
“Clearly, if they are in detention centers, they are not sneaking anywhere. These people are presenting themselves at borders.”
“But not legally.”
“Is it illegal to seek asylum?”
“Of course not, but we can’t automatically know who’s really doing that.”
“How about starting with if that’s what they claim they’re doing?”
“Well, but obviously, everyone’s trying to come here.”
“Actually, that’s not obvious. Just because your social studies teacher in seventh grade told you this is the greatest country in the world doesn’t mean everyone agrees. Lots of people prefer not to leave their homes and walk from El Salvador to Texas. And not everyone comes here. Italy. Germany. Greece.”
“They’re endangering their children.”
“Yes, so it seems likely that it isn’t a whimsical decision, right?”
“They can’t just sneak in.”
“Oh, my God: Requesting asylum from a genocide or a war or targeting by sicarios is not sneaking! They have the right to do that! Most of our ancestors did at some point! If you thought your children risked imminent death if you stayed where you were, are you saying you wouldn’t try to get them to somewhere safe?”
Eventually, I had to get off the carousel. My neighbor isn’t a bad person, and in real life probably would risk her own life to get her children out of danger. Happily for her, she was born in San Francisco, not Damascus, and she’s not impoverished, so oddly, it really hasn’t come up for her.
It was weird because I had just seen It Will Be Chaos, a rather exhausting documentary about the repatriation of refugees. I’m not going to say it’s fun to watch; it’s not. I’m not going to say it is the great and definitive documentary achievement of our time; it’s actually pretty chaotic in its own right. But wow, is it timely. It cuts, sometimes awkwardly, between two main characters: Wael, a man with a large family who’ve fled the Syrian genocide and are trying to get to relatives in Germany, and Aregai, an Eritrean ex-soldier fleeing poverty and oppression whose ship capsizes off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy, in a wreck that kills more than 300 people, including his two cousins.
The Mayor of Lampedusa is in a tough spot. The island cannot physically assimilate this many people—indeed, they’re in over their heads trying to dispose of the dead. There is not enough of an economy there to provide for them or give them stable employment. But she wants to help. She can’t do all that much; the situation is overwhelming. But at least she pushes back on reporters asking her about illegal immigrants. “They are not illegal,” she says sternly. “They are refugees. The words matter.”
Meanwhile, Wael’s young family waits to be smuggled into Greece on a treacherous looking raft. From there, they have to make their way through Macedonia, Croatia, Hungary and Austria, much of it on foot. At a transfer point on Lesbos, it happens. The kids disappear. A harrowing, frantic search ensues.
Oh… nah, this is Greece, folks. The government didn’t detain the children, they just got separated in a crowd. (“I’m glad we got lost,” the maybe-nine-year-old girls says cheerfully. “We saw so many beautiful sights!”)
I mean, what did you think I was going to say happened?
The documentary follows Wael’s family, and Aregai, in a slightly choppy and haphazard manner, checking in along the way with beleaguered government officials, angry townsfolk, and the occasional refugee in a rant about pay disparities. Everyone’s situation, everyone’s life, is exhausting. Exhausting. I found myself unclear on why the filmmakers chose these two particular stories, what it was they represented. There was something diffuse and a bit random about the choices and the progression of their stories. However, if you need a wake-up call about the bigger picture of “the immigration problem,” this is a good place to parachute in. Since it doesn’t focus on the United States (other than a random and clearly very educated elderly Italian dude who insists America invented this problem), it might take any partisan issues out of the mix for some American viewers. These are people fleeing war, genocide and poverty in Africa and the Middle East, and the impacted destination countries are in Europe. So it might not excite people at the same level as a documentary about the Texas border.
Here’s the deal. Unregulated mass migration is not unproblematic. It is not uncomplicated. Small towns with high unemployment and economic stagnation and limited infrastructure cannot simply absorb an infinite number of people with whom they cannot even communicate. That’s a reality. Even large, affluent nations have a tipping point. A given piece of dirt can support, sustain and shelter a number of beings that is not infinite. That is a reality.
When, for example… oh, let’s just throw out Syria as an example. When Syria’s government creates an endless genocidal disaster that kills hundreds of thousands of civilians and prompts a massive exodus (by some reckonings, 50% of the nation’s surviving populace has fled in the last few years; it’s likely we will never have totally solid numbers because so many dead are unaccounted for), those people have to go somewhere. Because human beings are social animals, we will tend to go where we have family, or a community of people who speak our language, share our experience and our culture. Even if we manage to do that, it’s a traumatic and terrifying thing to have to choose between probable death and repatriation to a strange and potentially hostile place. People don’t do it on a whim. For a lot of Syrians, that’s been Mediterranean-facing European countries like Greece and Italy, beautiful, culturally rich countries who don’t have the most scorching reputations for efficient government and humming economies. When this happens at an unsustainable rate, expect anger to start erupting on all sides! Because it will. Sometimes because people are xenophobic or racist. Often, perhaps much more often, because they are confused, overwhelmed, and worried about their own families. (In the film, we definitely see both.) Maybe not the apex of Jesus-grade selflessness, but not incomprehensible.
Governments collapse. Wars are declared. Plagues descend. Earthquakes, fires, volcanoes, storms. Some destabilizing forces are human-driven; some are not. Some are arguably preventable; some are clearly not. Displacement happens. And it is chaos. Not in the future, but now. It Will Be Chaos is pretty freaking QED on its own premise. We can sneer at people who see things differently than we do until the cows come home; it doesn’t change anything. Immigration is complicated when it happens in a huge surge. You’d have to be awfully fey to pretend it isn’t. Good news, bad news: We’re not the only country making a mess of it, and it’s fairly easy to see why. Other news: We can’t change that it will happen, and we need to adapt and look for humane, reasonable, pragmatically valid compromises that minimize suffering.
The Italian migration minister puts it nicely when she faces down an angry, agitated crowd and calmly says (rough translation), “The planet belongs to everyone.”
And it is true that there are no political borderlines visible from outer space. Those are constructs. Whatever your vantage point, this film should make it pretty clear that we need to be a lot more agile about handling humanitarian crises. It doesn’t offer any clear answers, but the whole issue is that there might not really be any.
It Will Be Chaos premieres tonight at 8 p.m. on HBO.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.