Short Film ‘Jonah’ Highlights Refugee Crisis, Relates It to World War II

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Michael Maschina at the Burbank International Film Festival. (Photo courtesy of Micahel Maschina)

Jakarta. In 2015, the Austrian police found 71 dead migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan inside a truck near the Hungarian border. A report by The New York Times said the truck, which belongs to Slovak poultry company Hyza, had no open air ducts and cooling system. They died of asphyxiation. Six people from the smuggling ring were arrested and sent for trial.

The tragedy that killed 59 men, eight women and four children — including a baby girl — left Austrian filmmaker Michael Maschina with no words. Soon after it took place, he decided to make a short film for refugees and the daunting and inhumane mobility that they go through. He combines the 2015 tragedy with a similar event that took place in 1943, when Jewish refugees were found dead inside a truck after fleeing a camp.

“Jonah,” which was screened at the Balinale film festival in Denpasar, Bali, earlier this month, centers on the biblical story of Jonah and the whale, as told by two different women in two different periods of time. The film begins with a Syrian woman and her little daughter as they board a truck to flee their country. To reduce her daughter’s fear, the woman begins to tell the little girl the story of Jonah and the whale. Maschina then cuts the scene, moving it to a different setting: a Jewish woman inside a truck in 1943, telling the same story to her little boy.

The 14-minute film ends when both women reach the part of the story where Jonah sees the light from the whale’s mouth. The truck stops, but no one is left alive.

Maschina said he spoke to several refugees from different ethnic groups in his research for the film.

“Nobody is interviewing refugees and asking them what happens inside the trucks,” he said.

“I want to show people what happened … Everybody knows how they got into the truck at point A, and got out of it hopefully at point B. What happened in between is unknown, because refugees don’t want to talk about it.”

The story of Jonah, a prophet for Jews, Christians and Muslims, serves as a common ground in the film that connects two women from different ethnic groups and ages. By comparing current events to the World War II, the director highlights the fact that history likes repeat itself, and something must be done to prevent it.

Maschina said the film aims to spread awareness about the refugee crisis and encourage people to start talking about it. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention and European Union legislation, European countries must grant protection to migrants who face serious threats to their lives in their home countries.

However, Maschina said, the far right movements in Europe have been taking advantage of the crisis to push their own agenda. That is why, he hopes, Jonah could become an inspiration to those out there.

“Jonah” won best international short at the Manhattan Film Festival in the United States, but it has not been screened in Austria. Maschina prefers to bring his film overseas, because he thinks European film festivals are already saturated with films about the refugee crisis.

The filmmaker also hopes to secure financial support to turn the short into a feature-length film.

More information about the film: