In her 2022 Toronto curtain raiser “The Swimmers,” telling the true story of two Syrian sisters and their emotional and gruelling journey to Europe to escape the civil war, director Sally El-Hossaini went to great lengths to ensure authenticity, using real-life refugees both in-front of and behind the camera.

For Counterpoints Arts, the U.K. charity that focusses on culture and migration, “The Swimmers” offered a great example of how projects involving refugees and migrants could — and should — be developed. As the organization’s co-founder and director Almir Koldzic explains to Variety, El-Hossaini made sure that “people with lived experiences were represented on every level of production and were respected in that process.”

Since it launched in 2012, Counterpoints has worked alongside the U.K. arts scene as part of its efforts to “inspire social change and enhance inclusion and cultural integration,” putting on numerous film screenings concerning the subject, many during the annual Refugee Week, which has become a major international event.

Even before “The Swimmers,” Counterpoints had begun actively getting involved in the development process of film and TV projects, having been approached by various production companies who wanted its expertise. But with interest growing, the organisation last year established a new initiative dedicated to working with the industry to bring greater authenticity to refugee stories on screen, PopChange Consultancy.

With the issue of immigration having become one of the most pressing of the modern age — and refugees regularly demonised by politicians — the subject has increasingly been finding its way into TV and film, often from filmmakers fighting back against the anti-migrant rhetoric. At last year’s Venice Film Festival, two high-profile features tackled the subject matter in Matteo Garrone’s “Io Capitano” — which won the Italian filmmaker the Silver Lion for best director — and Agnieszka Holland’s jury prize-winning “Green Border.” Both were highly praised for their truthful depictions of the refugee journey and efforts to humanise those involved.

“In the last couple of years, the number of things that have come out that either we are involved or not involved in has just exploded,” says Laith Elzubaidi, Counterpoints’ pop culture and social change producer. “And it makes sense, because it is the top story.”

Several of these projects, particularly more recent ones, have come from diverse voices who themselves have lived experiences. Syrian activist and filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab, for example, fled Aleppo and sought asylum in the U.K., where her documentary “For Sama” — chronicling her life raising a child during the civil war — won a BAFTA film award in 2019 (her 2023 doc “We Dare to Dream,” followed members of the Olympic refugee team and was produced by Angelina Jolie). Likewise, Hassan Akkad filmed his own journey from Syria to the U.K. for the documentary series “Exodus Our Journey to Europe,” which won a BAFTA TV award in 2017 (Akkad has since worked on several film and TV projects and served as exec producer on “The Swimmers”).

But for filmmakers looking to bring to life such stories without any lived experience themselves — or even for those where the experience doesn’t directly relate to what they want to show on screen — Counterpoints is hoping it can step in to deploy the expertise of its growing pool of creatives.

Through its PopChange initiative, aimed at leveraging pop culture to change perceptions of immigrants and migrants in the U.K., it had already consulted on various projects. Most notable is the upcoming Netflix feature “Exit West,” adapted from Mohsin Hamid’s novel about two migrants fleeing an unnamed war-torn country, being directed by Yann Demange, starring Riz Ahmed and produced by the Obama’s Higher Ground, The Russo Brother’s AGBO, and Ahmed’s Left Handed Films. Then there was last year’s short film “Matar,” directed by Akkad and following an asylum seeker in England confronted with a hostile immigration system. 

For “Exit West,” which is still in development, Counterpoints was invited to put on a two-day learning experience for both Netflix staff and the production companies. So it brought along a group of creatives with lived experience of displacement who “looked at the script, dissected some of the ideas presented and informed the future of the development of the film,” according to Koldzic. 

“And what we realised, based on those two days, was that it was a fascinating conversation that was beneficial for everyone,” he says. “I’ve been doing this for a long time and found it to be one of the most interesting and rewarding workshops, just as a listener, because people were getting so much from both angles, as refugees and people with experience of displacement, but also as creatives who had a lot of creative suggestions and ideas to share.”

From this, the idea to create a dedicated consultancy that could work with film and TV productions was borne. “We just realised that was wasn’t anything similar out there in this space,” adds Koldzic. 

PopChange Consultancy, which lauched in 2023, now has a number of projects, including three feature films — one being produced and co-written by an Emmy nominee — and a TV series in the pipeline. Most of these it can’t discuss due to the sensitive nature of the subject matters (some are based on real-life stories). But it is consulting on “Papers,” Akkad’s feature adaptation of “Matar” he’s developing with BBC Film. It should be noted that, while Akkad has experience as a refugee, he was never undocumented and wanted to ensure that specific experience was captured correctly. “You can never have too many experiences to help inform what you’re writing,” says Elzubaidi. 

While the aim of Counterpoints isn’t to “come out and scold” productions not using its methods, Elzubaidi does note that “if you look at the history of how refugees and migrants have been represented on screen, it’s been outrageously bad.” And he claims that this has had a “very real” effect on society. 

There have even been concerns with productions that do come from a place of sympathy and understanding. Koldzic notes that while Gianfranco Rosi’s Berlinale winning documentary “Fire at Sea” was a “fantastic film,” it represented the refugees as a “sea of faces, from a great distance, without a story or any background attached to them.” 

And there have also major productions that have addressed the issue using more subtle manners. For all the furry high-jinx and marmalade sandwiches, beloved family feature “Paddington” is, at its heart, the story of a refugee and his efforts to integrate into U.K. society.

Alongside helping improve the authenticity of what’s seen on screen, actually ensuring those that have helped bring this authenticity are properly credited — and paid — for what they do is a central tenant of the PopChange Consultancy, which also charges a facilitation fee to cover its own costs. Koldzic says that some of the filmmakers who have contacted them for advice are actually more concerned with this practical element — how do you go about correctly paying and crediting those who have lent their expertise? — than anything on the creative side. 

Ultimately, Elzubaidi claims one of the key aims of PopChange Consultancy, working alongside its other initiatives, is to promote and grow and develop its network of talent. Maybe someone they brought on board to consult on a project will then be hired as a writer, cultivating a relationship with the production company that leads to further opportunities down the line. Maybe they’ll even be able to bring a story of their own to screen rather than working on someone else’s. 

As he notes: “Our ethos is to build up creatives from refugee and migrant backgrounds to the point where they don’t have to consult and where they can make their own projects.”

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