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Refuge: A Film About Cyber-Warfare, Privacy and Immigration

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REFUGE from MKSHFT/CLLCTV on Vimeo.

REFUGE from MKSHFT/CLLCTV on Vimeo.

What happens when a cyber-terrorist attack in the year of 2020 on America's immigration database leaves thousands of Iranian immigrants vulnerable to deportation? The exploitation of one woman's powerlessness by giving her the choice of participating in a research program to create genetically modified humans in exchange for a Green Card, or going back to Iran and facing imprisonment or worse for her political activism. This is the premise of the film Refuge, written and directed by up-and-coming Iranian-American independent filmmaker Mohammad Gorjestani. Featured as an episode on the PBS FutureStates series at http://futurestates.tv/episodes/refuge, Refuge explores the dilemma of self-preservation verses the moral greater good, and asks each of us to decide which choice we'd make when faced with the impossible.

With a gritty, realistic tone and style, Gorjestani successfully sucks you in with the bitter truth that the 'American Dream' of old is no longer viable and the protagonist Sonia could be your beloved next door neighbor or the grocer you buy your bread from or your daughter's college roommate, that it can happen to anyone at any time when technology obliterates privacy and there's no real place to hide. With the broader political implications of this film that are being debated today, I met with Mohammad Gorjestani via Google email chat to get his thoughts on the film and the thought-provoking message, and in my view warning, inherent in Sonia's story:

1) For me, the film was about the escalating use of technology in warfare. In this case, you touched on cyberwar. The GM embryos, though their purpose wasn't actually stated, appeared to be about the creation of super-soldiers. Is that right?

I think everyone takes away different elements from the film that resonate with them the most. For me, the presence of technology in the film, from cyber warfare to facial identification, is part of the picture of a possible future -- one in which security is prioritized over personal freedom and privacy. Today, you see this tension playing out in issues from the NSA leaks to Facebook policy changes, and I wanted to imagine what the future might be like if our society continued to drift in this direction, the trajectory steered by technology. It seemed natural to imagine cyber warfare as an increasing battlefield in this vision of the future.

This "new normal" is the backdrop to the film, but the main focal point is Sonia, a character who symbolizes the potential cost and effects of this kind of societal shift. She's both a struggling immigrant and a collateral victim of an international conflict. Sonia is a character who is simply trying to do the right thing and make the most out of her opportunity to be in the U.S. She's the type of person who, according to the "American Dream," should be rewarded for her hard work. I wanted to lift that veil and peer into the reality of what that experience might be like.

Regarding super-soldiers, yes, that's what is alluded to in the interactions between Sonia and Reza, and his offer of a Green Card in exchange for carrying a genetically-modified embryo.

2) Exploiting a race of people and their situation to have an advantage over the "enemy"?

In the final scene of the film, we see a 4th of July neighborhood party with Sonia on the steps looking on, but not part of the celebration. For me, this was a visual metaphor for the greater immigrant experience -- a part of society but also separate from it. Immigrants are so fundamental to the American way of life and our economy, and yet they exist in the shadows and on the margins. So, I was thinking less about how the US might create an advantage over the enemy, and more imagining how the way things are now might continue and morph into the future.

3) And her being torn between two conflicting loyalties? Wanting to stay in the US where she's safe, both physically and politically, but being morally opposed to GM?

Yes, this is the "making a deal with the devil" aspect of the film. There's really no right choice. It's an elaborate bureaucratic/political version of entrapment. I was interested in how a person like Sonia, with strong values and sense of self, might end up having to relinquish those values for the greater promise of staying in the U.S.

4) What was the inspiration for this film? Was there a specific moment that clicked for you?

I thought it would be interesting to explore an idea for a film set in the not-too-distant future where technology, immigration, and government had dovetailed in potentially perilous ways. Within this context, I also wanted to look at the question of why immigrants are often willing to pay a high price to live a life that many of us take for granted. With Sonia, we have a young, ambitious, and independent character that left a troubled situation in Iran to pursue an education and the American dream -- which ultimately proves to resemble more of a nightmare. I wanted to place Sonia in a situation and give her a choice to make, which blended irony and allegory, and which directly conflicted her values. Ultimately, Refuge is a story about a character facing an extraordinary circumstance, and falling victim to a geopolitical conflict reflective of a world we could all soon live in.

I think the wrong way, or the "Hollywood way" to make this film would have been to focus on the institutions and governments as the primary characters, and place the geopolitical conflict at the forefront. I don't think that kind of film is a bad film, but it plays out a grand scale that doesn't resonate emotionally. When you strip back the spectacle of international conflict, you're left with common people who are being affected by something they have no association with. I'm interested in those type of stories. The ordinary person placed in an extraordinary, but realistic situation. And instead of looking at how a person survives that situation -- like so many movies seem to -- I think these stories present an opportunity for us to explore the realities of a greater world through a complex, human lens.

5) With genetically modified food so prevalent now, and the controversy surrounding it, do you see genetically modified humans next on the evolutionary track?

Aren't we already seeing it? =)

6) What are your thoughts on cyber warfare?

It's fascinating because it's happening now, but so many people are unaware of it. It's rarely, if ever, front page news. And we're not just talking about rogue hackers armed with a PC and a grudge, it's major government operations such as the "Operation Olympic Games" virus which the US and Israel allegedly used to shut down Iran's nuclear facilities. This summer, documents leaked by Edward Snowden revealed that China and the US have been hacking each other since 2009. And just this month, the head of Iran's cyber warfare division was assassinated. The real threat of cyberwar is it's expansive reach and the vulnerability of central systems such as banks, energy facilities, water plants, etc. It's not just about hacking into a computer to steal information, imagine a cyber attack on a water facility to release more chemicals into our water supply. Like any stealth offensive, by the time we become aware it's likely already causing damage. And since to most people this sounds like science fiction, it mostly continues to fly under the radar and isn't part of our public discourse.

7) Is this film concept science fiction to you, along the lines of the flying cars of the 1950s, or do you see it as an inevitable future for the human race?

I think whether aspects of the film are inevitable or not is up for debate, but I think there are certainly elements in the story that represent a possible future, and one that's not very far off. Also, I just read that flying cars are being tested in Slovakia, and that Elon Musk is making a submarine car =)

8) Could this concept have been applied to any group of immigrants and you just happened to choose Iran because you are Iranian and it felt more personal, or do you see a broader political issue with Iran, or even the Middle East specifically?

I think this is a universal story not specific to one community or to any one character. I'm drawn to telling stories that I can take out of my own well of experience and life. I was born in Iran and having nearly all of my family back home allows me to have a very unique perspective on the escalating tension between the two countries (both of which I'm citizens of). There's no question that Iran is a hotspot right now politically, and there is a turbulent history between the two countries, extending back to the CIA's overthrowing of Mosadegh to pave way for the Shah in the 50's, to the hostage crisis in 80's, to the US supplying Iraq during the Iran/Iraq war, to the conflicts we see today over nuclear facilities, etc. -- so this adds a sense of relevancy to the story. But these are conflicts between governments and not necessarily representative of the people.

One of my favorite things that happened this past year was the US and Iranian Wrestling teams competing in LA and hugging and embracing each other after the competition . Most of the Iranians I know love Americans and most Americans I know love Iranians.

Think about that irony for a minute. Indeed.

Gorjestani recently received a San Francisco Film Society KRF Filmmaking Grant for his first feature-length film, titled Somehow These Days Will Be Missed that goes into production next year and can be found at http://www.mkshftcllc.tv/video/somehow-these-days-will-be-missed-in-development