Combustible Celluloid Review - Refuge (2023), n/a, Erin Levin Bernhardt, Din Blankenship, Chris Buckley, Heval Kelli, Melissa Buckley, Arno Michaelis, Kazeen Abdullah, Amina Osman
Combustible Celluloid
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With: Chris Buckley, Heval Kelli, Melissa Buckley, Arno Michaelis, Kazeen Abdullah, Amina Osman
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Erin Levin Bernhardt, Din Blankenship
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 78
Date: 03/24/2023

Refuge (2023)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Bigot Flip

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The documentary Refuge does not, and cannot, promise an end to all racism, but it does paint a moving portrait of what it looks like when hatred gives way to understanding and compassion.

In LaFayette, Georgia, we meet Chris Buckley, a U.S. Army veteran who began abusing drugs and became a member of the KKK. After a time, he had a reality check and met with Arno Michaelis, who dedicates his time to helping de-program white supremacists. Chris joined a twelve-step program and began to climb out of his hatred spiral, but unfortunately, due to his experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, he still harbored a deep-rooted hatred of all things Islam and Muslim.

Arno decides to introduce him to Heval Kelli, a Kurdish Muslim who immigrated to Clarkston, Georgia and works as a cardiovascular physician. At first, the conversation is strained, but the two men soon find common ground and decide to meet in person. Heval makes the 100-mile drive from Clarkston to LaFayette, and the meeting goes well. Eventually Chris and his family are attending a Ramadan celebration and teaming up to gives talks about hate and what can be done to counter it.

With Refuge, filmmakers Erin Levin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship were blessed with a subject that wanted to change, and indeed the movie acknowledges that, without the desire to better oneself, nothing is going to budge. But they were able to explore the process of lowering barriers and finding trust and hope.

Chris describes his automatic trigger response to anything that suggests Muslim, but admits that his knowledge of such things only goes as far as his military service. Heval also talks about how, being Kurdish, he suffered attacks and bullying from others, and yet he has somehow retained a sense of empathy and curiosity. By remaining open, and avoiding judgment, the two men succeed. (Even when Chris texts that he's about to take his young son out hunting, Heval doesn't judge; he replies "have fun!")

What's truly fascinating about Refuge, however, is the portrait of the two towns. Chris's home of LaFayette is shown as run-down, populated by Whites, many out of work and abusing drugs. Heval's home of Clarkston is a haven for refugees, all welcome with open arms, and it is seen as a thriving place. The movie may take a simplistic approach to this ongoing struggle, but it's a highly effective one.

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