Movies About Immigrants & Refugees
27 Must-See Movies About Immigrants & Refugees
Check out this list of inspiring and insightful movies about immigrants and refugees, curated by the experts at Global Refuge. From feature-length Oscar winners and documentaries to short films and children’s movies, there is a great watch waiting for anyone interested in the immigrant experience!
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Oscar Winners & Nominees
A Korean American family moves to an Arkansas farm in search of its own American dream. Amidst the challenges of this new life in the strange and rugged Ozarks, they discover the undeniable resilience of family and what really makes a home.
The film received critical acclaim, and earned six nominations at the 93rd Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Score, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor, and Best Supporting Actress.
Persepolis is based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel about her life in pre- and post-revolutionary Iran and then in Europe. The film traces Satrapi’s growth from child to rebellious, punk-loving teenager in Iran. In the background are the growing tensions of the political climate in Iran in the 70s and 80s, with members of her liberal-leaning family detained and then executed, and the background of the disastrous Iran/Iraq war.
Movies about immigrants 2
Surprised to see this instant Disney classic among movies about immigrants? After being forced out of their Colombian homeland by political unrest, the Madrigal family is blessed with magical gifts. When the family’s powers unexpectedly flicker and fade, Mirabel – the only member of the family who was not granted a special ability – takes it upon herself to bring the family together and save the magic before it’s too late. At the center of Encanto, the very real fear of being forcibly displaced again lingers within an otherwise adorable story.
Movies about immigrants and refugees
4. FOR SAMA
FOR SAMA is both an intimate and epic journey into the female experience of war. A love letter from a young mother to her daughter, the film tells the story of Waad al-Kateab’s life through five years of the uprising in Aleppo, Syria as she falls in love, gets married and gives birth to Sama, all while cataclysmic conflict rises around her. Her camera captures incredible stories of loss, laughter and survival as Waad wrestles with an impossible choice– whether or not to flee the city to protect her daughter’s life, when leaving means abandoning the struggle for freedom for which she has already sacrificed so much.
Movies about immigrants
In FLEE, Amin’s life has been defined by his past and a secret he’s kept for over 20 years. Forced to leave his home country of Afghanistan as a young child with his mother and siblings, Amin now grapples with how his past will affect his future in Denmark and the life he is building with his soon-to-be husband. Told brilliantly through the use of animation to protect his identity, Amin looks back over his life, opening up for the first time about his past, his trauma, the truth about his family, and his acceptance of his own sexuality.
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THE DONUT KING
An immigrant story with a (glazed) twist, The Donut King follows the journey of Cambodian refugee Ted Ngoy, who fled escaped the brutal Khmer Rouge and arrived in California in the 1970s and, through a mixture of diligence and luck, built a multi-million dollar donut empire up and down the West Coast.
A documentary on immigration, assimilation, prejudice, and who gets access to the American Dream—and what happens when you achieve it—The Donut King is also about how the American Dream gets handed down and evolves from one generation to the next: the film includes the current generation of Cambodian donut shop owners and the ways they have been inspired by and diverged from their parents and grandparents before them.
The Visitor is one of the most unique movies about immigrants, offering a glimpse into the U.S. immigration detention system and the people it affects. When his college sends him to Manhattan to attend a conference, Walter is surprised to find a young undocumented couple has taken up residence in his apartment. Victims of a real estate scam, Tarek, a Syrian man, and Zainab, his Senegalese girlfriend, have nowhere else to go. In the first of a series of tests of the heart, Walter reluctantly allows the couple to stay with him. When Tarek is arrested as an undocumented immigrant and held for deportation, they grapple with the issues of the treatment of immigrants and the legal process post 9/11.
THE MIDNIGHT TRAVELER
When the Taliban puts a bounty on Afghan director Hassan Fazili’s head, he is forced to flee with his wife and two young daughters. Capturing their uncertain journey, Fazili shows firsthand the dangers facing refugees seeking asylum and the love shared between a family on the run. Shot on three mobile phones, Midnight Traveler is a documentary that feels like a modern-day message in a bottle, an urgent appeal for help from a family that’s still searching for a home.
Limbo is a 2020 British comedy-drama film that centers on four asylum seekers who are staying on a remote island in Scotland, and taking cultural awareness classes, while awaiting the processing of their refugee claims.
Reflecting the complexity of the movement of people across borders has been a long-held passion for director and writer Ben Sharrock, who spent time working for an NGO in refugee camps in southern Algeria and living in Damascus in 2009 shortly before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. There, he formed a network of friends whose personal stories inspired this movie about immigrants.
Human Flow, an epic documentary film journey led by the internationally renowned artist Ai Weiwei, elucidates both the staggering scale of the refugee crisis and its profoundly personal human impact. Captured over the course of an eventful year in 23 countries, the film follows a chain of urgent human stories that stretches across the globe in countries including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, France, Greece, Germany, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, and Turkey.
This movie about refugees is a witness to its subjects and their desperate search for safety, shelter and justice: from teeming refugee camps to perilous ocean crossings to barbed-wire borders; from dislocation and disillusionment to courage, endurance and adaptation; from the haunting lure of lives left behind to the unknown potential of the future.
WEST SIDE STORY
West Side Story is the award-winning musical adaptation of the classic romantic tragedy “Romeo and Juliet.” The feuding families become two warring New York City gangs–the white Jets led by Riff and the Puerto Rican Sharks, led by Bernardo. Their hatred escalates to a point where neither can coexist with any form of understanding. Themes of migration and belonging permeate the movie, with the song “America” embodying the triumph of the spirit over the obstacles often faced by immigrants.
THE KITE RUNNER
The Kite Runner is based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Khaled Hosseini. It tells the story of Amir, a well-to-do boy from Kabul, who is tormented by the guilt of abandoning his friend Hassan. The story is set against a backdrop of tumultuous events, from the fall of the monarchy in Afghanistan through the Soviet military intervention, the mass exodus of Afghan refugees to Pakistan and the United States, and the Taliban regime.
Saint Judy tells the story of Los Angeles immigration attorney Judy Wood, who advocated for United States asylum law to include women as a protected class. Wood’s victory is believed by immigration advocates to have saved the lives of tens of thousands of female immigrants from around the world. The film starts from her move with her son from New Mexico to Los Angeles, her work in an immigration law office, then in her own law office. The film highlights the case of an Asefa Ashwari, a teacher from Afghanistan facing deportation and her historic win in the 9th Circuit.
Sayra, a Honduran teen, hungers for a better life. Her chance for one comes when she is reunited with her long-estranged father, who intends to emigrate to Mexico and then enter the United States. Their journey crosses paths with Casper, a young man struggling to reconcile his membership of a gang and his personal life. The film is an ode to those who put their lives on the line for weeks or months to come to the United States, searching for what we so easily describe as the American Dream.
THE GOOD LIE
Four Sudanese children orphaned after their village is massacred in the Second Sudanese Civil War make an arduous, dangerous trek through the plains, enduring hardship, death, and sacrifice all the way until they reach safety in a refugee camp in Kenya. Given the chance to resettle in the U.S., they arrive in Kansas City, Missouri, where their encounter with an employment agency counselor, played by Reese Witherspoon, forever changes all of their lives.
Amreeka is a drama centered on the trials and tribulations of a proud Palestinian Christian single mother named Muna and her teenage son in small town Indiana. Although tested to her limits, Muna’s good humor prevails, and it is her remarkable resilience that provides a small glimmer of hope in the film’s surprisingly abrupt and open-ended conclusion.
Monsieur Lazhar tells the story of an Algerian refugee in Montreal who steps in as a substitute at an elementary school after the tragic death of a teacher. The school doesn’t know he’s still coping with his own tragedy. Neither do the children they hire him to teach. And teach them he does — not so much about reading and arithmetic, but about the more important things they’ll need to become good human beings. This movie about immigrants is in French, but can easily be watched with subtitles.
After moving from Calcutta to New York, members of the Ganguli family maintain a delicate balancing act between honoring the traditions of their native India and blending into American culture. Although parents Ashoke and Ashima are proud of the sacrifices they make to give their children opportunities, their son Gogol, portrayed by Kal Penn, strives to forge his own identity without forgetting his heritage. One of many worthwhile movies about immigrants, their children, and the immigrant experience.
Marion Cotillard stars as Ewa Cybulski, who sets sail from Poland to New York along with her sister Magda in search of a better life. However, the sisters are separated at Ellis Island and Ewa is forced into prostitution. She endeavors to navigate the treacherous American waters filled with corrupt officials, hustlers, social taboos, cultural differences, and over-crowded tenements. Through extensive historical research and powerful performances, the film is a rich portrait of 1920’s New York through the eyes of a young Polish immigrant.
Parvana is an 11-year-old girl who lives under Taliban rule in Afghanistan in 2001. After the wrongful arrest of her father, Parvana cuts off her hair and dresses like a boy to support her family. Working alongside a friend, she soon discovers a new world of freedom and danger. Drawing strength from the fantastical stories she invents, Parvana embarks on an epic quest to find her father and reunite her family.
THE JOY LUCK CLUB
In San Francisco, a group of aging Chinese women meet regularly to trade familial stories while playing Mahjong. In a series of sixteen vignettes that spans generations and continents, this adaptation of Amy Tan’s bestselling novel explores cultural conflict and the often-turbulent relationships between four first-generation Chinese-American women and their mothers. The film reveals the hidden pasts of the older women and their daughters, and how their lives are shaped by the clash of Chinese and American cultures as they strive to understand their family bonds, and one another.
Tracing the fortunes and misfortunes of an extended family of Jewish immigrants, Avalon centers on the Krichinsky family as they settle in Baltimore during the early 20th century. The patriarch, Sam, cannot understand the methods his grandson Michael’s teachers use in school, or why Jules and Izzy have changed their surnames to Kaye and Kirk as they launch their business careers. But when various crises develop, including an armed holdup and a devastating fire, the family gets through the problems together.
A man reflects on the lost love of his youth and his long-ago journey from Taiwan to America as he begins to reconnect with his estranged daughter. Tiger Tail is a movie about immigrants that is relatable regardless of whether you or your family share the experiences documented within it – all of us have regrets, most of us are just hoping for stronger bonds with those around us and a better life for those who come after us.
UNDER THE SAME MOON
Single mother Rosario leaves her young son Carlitos in the care of his grandmother and crosses the border into the U.S. Though she hopes to eventually make a better life for herself and her son, she toils in a dead-end job as a cleaning lady in Los Angeles. When Carlitos’ grandmother passes away some years later, the boy begins a difficult and dangerous journey to join her. At its core, Under The Same Moon depicts the challenges that immigration policy brings about, and how the love of a mother knows no borders.