Every year around Christmastime, a few million Americans sit down and watch the original version of “The Sound of Music,” starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, when it airs on tv. I thought of the movie’s final scene — the von Trapp family’s climbing over the Austrian Alps to escape the Nazis — while I was watching an advance screener of Frontline’s latest documentary, “Exodus,” about today’s global refugee crisis.
The familiar baritone Frontline narrator is absent from this two-hour movie, directed by James Bluemel. Instead, it’s told entirely by the refugees and migrants themselves, and includes footage that only they could film — hidden inside trucks or on sinking dinghies attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea.
The modern day von Trapps are a Syrian family from Aleppo, led by its patriarch Tarek. His spunky 11-year old girl Isra’a helps keep the family’s spirits alive as they make the journey from Syria to Germany. Frontline first meets them in the Turkish city of Izmir where Tarek is trying to make enough money selling cigarettes to fund the journey into Europe. With stories of families and children dying at sea, Tarek struggles with the decision to put his own family in the hands of smugglers and risk a treacherous dinghy ride to Greece. You realize he has zero good options: return to the hell of war in Syria, stay in Turkey skirting homelessness, or risk everything and travel to Europe for an unknown future.
“This is the hardest test of my life,” Tarek says.
With deep reservations, he decides to go. The family survives the boat ride and lands in Greece, ecstatic to have made it. Isra’a’s spirits are high and so were mine as I watched the family finally able to relax a little. But soon, they’re on the move — traveling in buses and on foot across Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and eventually into Austria.
In an almost perfect parallel to Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer leading Liesl, Friedrich, Louisa, Kurt, Brigitta, Marta, and Gretl up into the mountains for safety, Tarek and his family are seen hiking up a mountainous road in Austria. Tarek is pushing his disabled daughter’s wheelchair and his wife is saying how happy she is to be outside after months of being cooped up. They are climbing to freedom.
While they were most scared of crossing the sea from Turkey to Greece, it appears the most harrowing part of the family’s journey came during their hike across Europe. Along with hundreds of other refugees, they get waylaid temporarily at the border between Serbia and Croatia, and the movie shows them huddled outside at a makeshift camp, wrapped in blankets and shivering in the cold.
One of the most difficult scenes to watch is where Tarek and Isra’a recount this moment. They tell us they saw two children die from the cold. Isra’a, who is always smiling, always upbeat, the toughest of tough cookies, breaks down into tears, and is seen withdrawing into herself. Her father looks on helpless as his daughter re-lives this memory.
“She is seeing things she can’t cope with,” he tells the camera. And we can see that her light, which was burning so bright — through war in Syria, living in poverty in Turkey, in a dangerous boat ride across the Mediterranean — has been irrevocably dimmed by something that happened somewhere in eastern Europe.
The same is true for Hassan, an English teacher from Damascus. His perseverance and courage seem to know no bounds as he survives a sadistic beating while in custody of the Syrian government after taking part in a protest. He has to attempt the Mediterranean crossing more than once after his dinghy, dangerously packed with people, capsizes and he’s brought back to Turkey by the Turkish Coast Guard. After all of this, he is almost defeated in “The Jungle,” a refugee and migrant encampment outside of Calais, France. Although he doesn’t give too many details, he says, “I spent the worst days of my life in Calais.”
The movie is about these peoples’ remarkable stories, except they sadly aren’t all that remarkable. In 2015, over 1 million people smuggled themselves into Europe. And the UN announced last week that at least 5,000 people died on the Mediterranean in 2016, setting a new annual record. So there is nothing easy about this journey, which can last months or even years for some. But the movie does expose — although never directly discusses — the security problems Europe faces as hundreds of thousands of people cross European borders on foot, or hidden inside trucks, or sneaking onto trains or cargo ships, or flying with fake passports. The truth is the global refugee crisis creates an opportunity for terrorists who are happy to take advantage of the chaos to sneak into Europe. Frontline addresses this part of the story in its previous documentary, “Terror in Europe.”
“Exodus” individualizes a global crisis. Hundreds of thousands of people are leaving their homes from Gambia to Afghanistan, making incredible journeys across land and sea with the hope of making a better life for their families. Along the way, they have to say goodbye to their brothers, watch their fathers cry, see terror on the face of their children and listen to their parents fight. It’s pretty simple: Today’s refugees are just like the rest of us.
And while the horrors of the journey still haunt Tarek, Hassan and the others, the acts of kindness along the way — the sleeping bags, the buses, the warm clothes — also leave lasting impressions on how these people view their new European homes and neighbors. And there are glimpses of a better future in those moments of generosity and gratitude.
“Exodus” premieres Tues., Dec. 27, 2016 on PBS at a special time — 9 p.m. EST/8 p.m. CST.