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In new documentary 'Refuge,' empathy overcomes racism
LISTEN: GPB's Peter Biello speaks with the directors of the documentary film "Refuge."
A new documentary film set in Georgia explores how racial hatred can be unlearned through empathy. Refuge tells the story of Heval Kelli, a cardiologist and Syrian Kurd who fled oppression in his country, and Chris Buckley, a man from northwest Georgia who joined and then left the Ku Klux Klan. Screenings at the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta begin Friday, March 24th. It's also available on-demand. Filmmakers Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship spoke with GPB’s Peter Biello.
Peter Biello: So this film alternates between the perspectives of these two men Heval Kelli and Chris Buckley. I'd like you to tell us about each of them, starting first with Chris Buckley, the white man from Northwest Georgia. Let's start with you, Din. Who was he and what was his life like?
Din Blankenship: Chris Buckley was living in north Georgia in a small town called Lafayette, and he's a guy that had experienced a lot of trauma throughout his life, throughout his childhood, and was living with some pretty severe PTSD from his time in the military. And so when we met Chris, he had just left the KKK. He was the No. 2 guy in the KKK in the state of Georgia. And a lot of his hatred was specifically targeted at Muslims. Some of that was unexamined trauma from 9/11. And a lot of that was from trauma from his experience in the military. And so Chris is also a recovering meth addict. And so when we met him, he was sober. How long was he sober at that time, Erin? Six months?
Erin Bernhardt: Not long.
Din Blankenship: Not long. So recovering meth addict who had just left the KKK is — was Chris Buckley when we met him.
Peter Biello: A man with a very difficult life. And Heval Kelli also had some challenges in his life. Can you tell us about him?
Erin Bernhardt: Actually, his life started out really beautiful and wonderful. He is a Syrian Kurd, a Muslim Kurd from Syria, and he would call it a really privileged childhood that he had. His dad was an attorney. But what happened to Heval was when the Assad regime was attacking — and still, to this day, a lot of people are attacking the Kurdish people — his dad was an attorney that was supporting Kurds and they were openly Kurdish and persecuted for that. And so when he was in elementary school, he remembers he was sitting in the living room with his mom and dad and his brother and the Assad regime stormed his living room and came and kidnapped his dad and took him. That was a really, obviously, a traumatic experience and that made them be forced to flee Syria. And so that led them to Germany, where they became refugees in Germany.
Peter Biello: When he was in Germany, that's when he was in refugee camps, right?
Erin Bernhardt: It was sort of a refugee camp. Yeah, it was like a refugee apartment. Germany was going to try to send them back to Syria, which would have been a death sentence for his dad. And luckily, they found asylum in the United States as refugees.
Din Blankenship: When you meet Heval in our film, he's just kind of recognizing, "Wait a minute, America feels really different right now in 2017-18. It doesn't feel like the welcoming place that welcomed me."
Peter Biello: At one point in the film, Heval is really troubled by the racism he sees in America, not just directed at Muslims, but at people like Mexicans, for example. And then he has this to say. And I think this really kicks off the arc of the film. This is what he said:
Heval Kelli: "I have to get out of my comfort zone, go to the other side, understand why they're doing it, because this division and hate's not going to go away."
Peter Biello: At this point in the film, it seems as though Heval is the stand-in for the viewer. We want to know, along with Heval, why Chris is the way he is and whether this understanding can help Heval and help Chris. Were those questions on your mind as well, whether or not this understanding can be helpful? We'll start with you, Erin.
Erin Bernhardt: Yeah, that was very much on our mind. Din and I made this film in direct response to what happened with the riots and murder in Charlottesville in August of 2017 with the Unite the Right rallies. And so we really were looking to answer that question: Why are people so full of hate against "the other" and what can we do to address that?
Peter Biello: What about you, Din?
Din Blankenship: You know, I love — I feel like that's such a generous view of America right now that we have a curiosity about each other, because I think, you know, if I'm honest, both about myself and I feel like what we've been seeing so much in our country in the past, I don't know, five, six, seven years, is a lack of curiosity, of like, "Why do people hold the positions that they hold?" You know? And, "Is there something human beneath the anger and the hostility that I'm observing?" And so, you know, I hope that more of us can walk out of this film — and I know I certainly have in terms of our relationship with Chris and Heval — but with a sense of curiosity and with a sense of compassion and empathy towards people I may not understand, but who I might have a lot of opinions about that aren't based on actual — an actual relationship. And so I hope that we can all take that posture of curiosity that we see in Heval into the world after watching this film.
Peter Biello: I want to play another clip from this film. After Heval and Chris meet, and they spend some time together, they share what they learned from the experience, separately. First Heval speaks then Chris. After spending a day with Chris, Heval says it's not fair that Chris has to live in poverty.
Heval Kelli: Chris is like a reflection of the forgotten America. They are living in a camp that doesn't have no borders called poverty. When people watch and immigrants are successful, now I understand the other side why they're getting angry. Because if they live like this and they see their own people are still hungry and struggling, they're like, "Why are we not getting the help?"
Chris Buckley: I look at him and it's like, look at what he did with his opportunity, you know, and look at what I did with mine, you know? I squandered it. It's some s*** I did it myself. Like, I don't blame anybody. I blame myself.
Peter Biello: What do you make of their realizations at the end there? Maybe we'll start with you, Din.
Din Blankenship: You know, I think something that was so powerful for us in those moments was seeing how it was through a personal relationship with a person that understanding and empathy were possible. You know, before Chris and Heval met, they're thinking about somebody like that person: You know, a Muslim refugee who's become really successful or a white man living in rural poverty, were not based on evidence, were not based on a relationship. And so it was through a relationship with one another that they were able to walk away and have a better and real tangible understanding of each other. But the fact that they were able to first and foremost approach one another as individuals with joys and hopes and fears and pain and families — you know, those are the things that are going to enable healing in our country. And it was really amazing to just witness that unfolding in front of us.
Erin Bernhardt: Yeah, I mean, I totally agree. I think one thing that Heval says in the film is that it's hard to hate something you know, and that really embodies all of this. Peter, what did what did you learn? What is your takeaway?
Peter Biello: When you think about how hard it is to make friends in general and then you see people cross enormous cultural divides like that, it gives you a little bit of hope that maybe our species isn't doomed. And that's something I'd like to see personally that that, you know, we're going to make it as a species and our capacity to love each other is a sign of that.
Din Blankenship: We are encouraged by that. Thank you. And we feel the same. You know, we're still navigating this incredibly fractured world, too. And I feel like even when I feel myself getting kind of pulled into it and feeling really frustrated by the state of things, I'm constantly going back to like just remembering what we witnessed in Chris and Heval and feeling hope for what is possible and feeling like in what way is their journey replicable for me. And so we hope everyone else can kind of take this similar a similar approach as they walk out of the film.