DAVID BIANCULLI

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ERIC GOULD

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LINDA DONOVAN

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KARLE DUNBAR

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ALEX STRACHAN

GERALD JORDAN

CANDACE KELLEY

TOM BRINKMOELLER

MONIQUE NAZARETH

GABRIELA TAMARIZ

DAVID SICILIA

NOEL HOLSTON

JONATHAN STORM

 
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'Frontline: Exodus' Takes a Close-up Look at the Refugee Crisis
December 26, 2016  | By Alex Strachan  | 2 comments
 

It was just the latest in a seemingly endless parade of sad news stories. A trickily timed evacuation near the Syrian city of Aleppo was tossed into doubt this past weekend after six buses assigned to help civilians flee to safety from six years of war were set ablaze.The burned buses threatened to scuttle what little hope was left for a people still reeling from six years of war and deprivation.

It’s the middle of the holiday season, here. Despite social media, TV and the 24-hour news channels, Syria still seems far away, somehow. Intervention, always a messy prospect, may have been possible back in 2010. Today, with Russia, Iran and the Hezbollah militia group in Lebanon involved in what has become a regional proxy way, intervention is next to impossible.

As the two-hour PBS Frontline documentary Exodus shows, though, the bigger story is the human story. It’s the harder story to tell, and the hardest to accept — especially in the middle of a holiday season that’s all about giving and feeling charitable toward are fellow human beings. (Exodus premieres Tuesday, December 27 on PBS, 9 p.m., ET, check local listings.)

A Frontline documentary about others’ misery may seem oddly timed, but if ever there was a program that underlined the old adage, “There but for the grace of God go I,” this is it. Some may see it as a downer. Others, though, may see glimmers of hope, as people with seemingly nothing to their names show courage, strength, resilience and even dignity where there’s seemingly none to be had.

According to UN relief agencies and non-governmental organizations like Oxfam, Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontiéres, we are now witnessing the largest collective mass migration of refugees from their homes in recorded history. As recent news reports out of Aleppo have shown, even the basic norms of human decency and the traditionally accepted definition of what constitutes a war crime is now in play. We’re living in the age of CNN, Facebook and Twitter, where something that happens half a world away is relayed instantly, in real time, as it happens. And yet, even power brokers as connected as President Obama and UN ambassador Samantha Power seem powerless to do anything about it.

Exodus is an assemblage of video, some of it harrowing, much of it moving, all of it human, as refugees and migrants the world over tell their stories themselves, in their own words, as they leave behind what they’ve known their entire lives and step forward toward an uncertain future. Exodus was more than a year in the making, and was filmed across 26 countries. Refugees and migrants made videos with smart phones, as the voice-over tells us in the program’s opening minutes, “to record the places no one else could go.”

This is the story of the migrant crisis, of the people who risked everything for the dream of a better life in Europe and points beyond. It’s powerful stuff — but, and this is important, is also serious film making, not some cheap cable-news package thrown hastily together on a shoestring budget and a skeleton staff. And because it’s PBS, you won’t have to watch it in glimpses and flashes between seven-minute commercial breaks for financial services, insurance companies and boner pills.

The title Exodus is itself is a reminder of the human diaspora that followed the Holocaust, and how the mass movement of people fleeing their homes can shape and change the world we live in.

Little more than a year ago, in the deeply moving Children of Syria, Frontline followed a single widow, her wise-beyond-her-years teenage daughter and brother as they fled Aleppo and set out for a new home in Germany. Children of Syria was hard to watch, but it was also a story of hope, in the same way Malala Yousafvzai became a symbol of hope. This one battered family made it to safety, but it was just one family and it seems a long time ago, now. The scope is wider in Exodus, the crisis more immediate — and more intractable.

To the filmmakers’ eyes, the current political situation facing the US is irrelevant and barely worth mentioning. This isn’t a guilt trip, intended to shame American viewers into being more accommodating of refugee quotas. Exodus views the refugee crisis in terms of its worldwide impact, and the result is both harrowing and profoundly moving.

It’s also surprisingly personal. And intimate. It’s one thing to watch relentless bombing and the flattening of entire neighborhoods on the nightly news, from the remove of drones and news helicopters choppers tricked out with the latest in camera technology; it’s quite another to hear a young father frantically mulling over whether to pay human traffickers thousands of euros to smuggle his children across the Mediterranean.

The smart phone has changed everything. In the Second World War, during the Holocaust, it was possible — not likely, but possible — for well-meaning people in other countries to say they knew nothing of what was happening in Europe.

As Exodus shows, smart phones are inexpensive, even people with very little left to their names, can afford one — and the video quality is light years ahead of where they were even a few years ago. The big legacy-news organizations, thanks to fake news and the black market in video footage, are reduced to placing a disclaimer on nearly  every piece of unaltered footage they show — “This video cannot be verified” — usually at the insistence of company lawyers. As Exodus shows, there’s something visceral and real about ordinary people who are plainly suffering telling their own stories in their own words, through their own hand-held video. The sheer scale of different stories in different voices, all sharing a common thread, is something that cannot be faked.

Exodus is oddly uplifting. Exhilarating, even. For all the suffering and  desperation it depicts, it also shows human beings at their best — young girls looking after their grandparents, fathers sacrificing their lives so their children may have a better future, a young man — fit, healthy, confident in his ability — trying to save a young child he doesn’t know, sitting just in front of him in a sinking boat in the middle of the Mediterranean. Exodus may sound like a downer, but it isn’t, really. It’s a paean to the strength of the human spirit.

 
 
 
 
 
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2 Comments
 
 
Dave D
This is one of the best 2 hours of TV or Cinema I have ever seen. Had me in tears a few times, and could not turn away from it.
Dec 29, 2016   |  Reply
 
 
Jo-Ann Nicola
Thoroughly enjoyed Exodus. Felt very frustrated that I cannot give a family a home until they get on their feet; I would love to. Have had many, many foreign students from all over the world room with me while they were at university. Wish there was someway the US could provide refuge.
Dec 28, 2016   |  Reply
 
 
 
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Good news, TVWW readers: David’s new book from Doubleday, The Platinum Age of Television: From I Love Lucy to The Walking Dead, How TV Became Terrific is available on Amazon for under $20.

Doubleday says: “Darwin had his theory of evolution, and David Bianculli has his. Bianculli's theory has to do with the concept of quality television: what it is and, crucially, how it got that way."

"The Platinum Age of Television is an effusive guidebook that plots the path from the 1950s’ Golden Age to today’s era of quality TV. For instance, animation evolved from Rocky and His Friends to South Park; variety shows moved from The Ed Sullivan Show to Saturday Night Live; and family sitcoms grew from I Love Lucy to Modern Family. A high point is the author’s interviews with Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Bob Newhart, Matt Groening, Larry David, Amy Schumer and many others...Bianculli has written a highly readable history." —The Washington Post

 

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