Film Reviews

Review: ‘The Valley’

Hot Docs 2019


The Valley
(Italy/France, 72 min.)
Dir. Nuno Escudeiro
Programme: International Spectrum (World Premiere)

Many docs are using the power of the camera to provide snapshots of the global migration crisis. These films, which are often brutally depressing, tour refugee camps to observe some dire circumstances that reveal humankind at its worst, while other docs stick Go-pros to the stern of a boat to get up close to masses of refugees risking their lives while crossing the Mediterranean Sea or another body of water. What these films often amount to is something between cinematic hand wringing and emotional exploitation. Even Ai Weiwei’s somewhat disappointing The Rest, also screening at Hot Docs this year, marks the director’s second consecutive film about the crisis that ends up with him all but throwing his hands up in the air to ask, “Whatever can one do?”

Here come the subjects of The Valley to take the situation by the horns. This compelling film goes to the front lines of the refugee crisis as a handful of citizens in the Roya and Durance Valleys, near the French-Italian border, do their part to help fellow citizens of the world seek asylum. At a time when safe and supposedly democratic countries are trying to keep the needy out, these ordinary people step in to save lives by committing acts of humanitarianism or civil disobedience depending on how one frames the matter. The police take the latter assessment and the doc goes behind the scenes with the network as they take asylum seekers into their homes and assist them in asserting their asylum status.

Featuring some striking shots of the Alpine landscape, director Nuno Escudeiro situates the audience within the perilous journey the migrants face as they traverse the valley, evading roadblocks and checkpoints, to find refuge and aid with members of the network. The doc accompanies the valley residents as they go to the front lines fighting for change. The doc focuses not on the horrors people escaped or the perils of their travels—those narratives have been covered elsewhere—but on the individual actions that seek to remedy the solution. The Valley shows the efforts of the network as members teach asylum seekers the proper procedures to establish claims in France. Being so close to the Italian border, many of the migrants who try to enter France through the network are shuttled back to Italy if arrested, given that the Dublin Regulation requires asylum seekers to register in the country through which they enter the EU. (The points about the Dublin Regulation are somewhat vague in the doc and may require some research afterward.)

No money changes hands between the migrants and the valley dwellers, yet the film feels like the documentation of a human trafficking ring as the subjects evade the police and plan their clandestine efforts. The police treat them like traffickers, too, as many of them face charges simply for helping someone in need and carrying out actions that are perfectly in line with legal practices. Escudeiro captures some incredible footage as the police detain asylum seekers, like an Eritrean family of three, and deport them to Italy on the sly without even informing the family’s lawyer. Similarly, one member of the network, Cedric, is arrested and charged for transporting migrants, as the authorities decide that the satisfaction he receives for helping people serves as “compensation,” thus making the act illegal. These people should be celebrated for their efforts, but they’re treated like anarchists and criminals.

The Valley calls to mind another doc, Lindsey Grayzel’s The Reluctant Radical, which tells the story of environmental activist Ken Ward, who successfully fought charges on grounds of “necessity” when he shut down a pipeline to prevent ecological damage. When governments prove ineffective at responding to crisis situations, perhaps the only solution is for individuals to assume responsibility and do the right thing by any means. The Valley is a refreshing call to action that challenges audiences to go rogue if they can no longer stand idle as the situation worsens.

The Valley screens:
-Sun, Apr. 28 at 5:45 p.m. at TIFF Lightbox
-Mon, Apr. 29 at 10:30 a.m. at TIFF Lightbox
-Sat, May 4 at 3:15 p.m. at Hart House

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!