This year’s Academy Award acceptance speeches will likely include some honorees honing in on President Trump’s executive order on refugee resettlement and travel from seven mostly Muslim countries. They may note that director Asghar Farhadi, whose Iranian film “The Salesman” is up for best foreign language film, is subject to the restrictions. But the most arresting testament from the film industry is actually two Oscar-nominated documentaries about the migration crisis itself.
“4.1 Miles,” up for a short-subject award, chronicles Kyriakos Papadoulous, a Greek Coast Guard captain on Lesbos, the small island that’s played a large part in the global diaspora drama. Papadoulous and his courageous crew have heroically helped scores of scared refugees trying to cross in rickety crafts not meant for the treacherous 4.1 miles from Turkey.
The 22-minute film may be brief, but it leaves a lasting impression of the desperate refugees’ struggle for survival. In a rare rest between rescues, the captain reflects that, “In a way, I panic, too. I’m scared. I can’t reassure them. It’s impossible. When I look into their eyes, I see the memories of war. They come from war. They escape the bombs on their homes. And we see these families ... in the Greek sea. Losing each other in the Greek sea. In the sea of a peaceful country.”
A peaceful sea also surrounds the placid Italian island that’s the focus of “Fire at Sea,” whose Oscar nod is for feature-length documentary. But village life in Lampedusa, like Lesbos, is jarred by migrants fleeing conflict and economic collapse in flailing, or failing, African states. And like their Greek counterparts, the Italian Coast Guard intrepidly intercepts packed rafts and overloaded boats to try to save refugees and migrants from drowning.
As in “4.1 Miles,” there are vivid images in “Fire at Sea.” But one of the most chilling scenes can barely be seen since it takes place on the dark deck of a Coast Guard ship searching for a distressed vessel. Voices paint the picture instead.
“How many people?” asks an officer operating a Coast Guard frequency.
“250 people,” a scratchy voice on the radio responds.
“Your position?” asks the operator.
“Please we beg you!” a voice cries.
“Your position?” the officer respectfully responds, helpless without coordinates.
“In the name of God …” the panicked passenger implores.
“Your position?” is answered with a garbled response, with only “Please, we beg you” decipherable.
“Your position? My friend — hello,” the officer tries again.
But the line goes dead.
“Your position” took on new meaning in America after Trump’s executive order caused disorder for some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Many of the president’s core supporters back the ban, polls show. But others considering it unconstitutional and unconscionable spontaneously took to an array of airports in the second major protest in the first week of Trump’s tenure.
The demonstrators were soon joined by several significant individuals and institutions stating their position.
Twelve Twin Cities Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious leaders urged the order be rescinded. “God commands us to love, welcome and seek justice for refugees and other immigrants,” said Carl Nelson, president of Transform Minnesota, a network of Minnesota’s evangelical churches.
From church to State Department diplomats and even the United Nations, positions were clear.
“I think that those measures violate our basic principles,” said new U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
U.S. envoys seemed to agree. About 1,000 diplomats signed an official “dissent memo” that stated, “This ban stands in opposition to the core American and constitutional values that we, as federal employees, took an oath to uphold.”
Acting Attorney General Sally Yates also took an oath to uphold the Constitution. When her interpretation of the president’s executive order led her to advise the Justice Department not to enforce it, Trump fired her.
Minnesota’s DFL Attorney General Lori Swanson made this state’s position clear when she joined attorneys general from four states in suing the administration over the order. “It does not pass constitutional muster, is inconsistent with our history as a nation, and undermines our national security,” Swanson said in a statement.
Several Silicon Valley leaders spoke out, and in the case of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, joined the protest. “I’m here because I’m a refugee,” the Soviet Union-born Brin told a writer from Forbes.
Starbucks backed its position with a pledge to hire 10,000 refugees in 75 countries during the next five years, which sparked a boycott call from some Trump supporters.
Another iconic beverage purveyor, Budweiser, didn’t address the current controversy, but will reflect the role of immigration in a Sunday Super Bowl spot depicting Adolphus Busch’s harrowing immigrant story. “You’re not wanted here — go back home!” Busch is told upon arriving, in words heard by some immigrants today. Super Bowl commercials are months in the making, and Bud claims it didn’t intend to enter the political fray. But that makes it more powerful, since the beer that jingoistically renamed itself “America” for portions of last summer reminds Americans of the hostility immigrants have historically faced and the extraordinary contributions they’ve made.
“Our state and our country is made a better place by the arrival of these people,” said Curt Goering, executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture, one of the many locally based/globally focused humanitarian organizations stating their position.
Goering, who said that about 44 percent of refugees living in the U.S. have survived torture, added that, “The very people who we are shutting out now as a country are those who have left because they are targets of persecution and torture, so slamming the doors to those who are most in need is such an affront to basic decency. Are we going to be accomplices to such callousness and such cruelty? And if we are, we lose our own humanity in the process.”
Goering’s essential question is one we all should consider.
Capt. Papadoulous’ description of “a sea of a peaceful country” could describe America’s blessings, too. Will its citizens be as valiant as Italians and Greeks in responding to refugees?
Or, in the words broadcast by selfless rescuers in Italy:
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.