A portrait of the core of a nation in possibly permanent exile, The Unreturned follows five Iraqis and their families who are among the 40 percent of the country’s middle class who have fled the country since the 2003 U.S. invasion. Settling precariously in Syria and Jordan, whose initially open borders were soon overwhelmed with approximately three million refugees, four of the documentary’s displaced individuals (along with a 10-year-old Shiite boy who supports his family selling food from a pushcart) are professionals who have lost their careers due to strict limitations on work permits. One, a teacher of English who displays a Stars and Stripes autographed by Army personnel with whom he worked as a translator, petitions America for citizenship but is rejected for falling short of a year of service…because he was kidnapped after 10 months. The others are a mechanical engineer, his Baghdad business abandoned due to lack of power and threats from insurgents, who polishes his English and looks to emigrate wherever he can secure college enrollment for his daughter; a former restaurateur who labors at underground catering in Amman and tells of losing his home to military occupation; and a female medical researcher, a member of the persecuted Mandean religious minority, who despite her co-founding of a vital community center for relocated Iraqis says, “This is not my real life. Here, I am dead.”
The toll of the struggles on director Nathan Fisher’s subjects emerge in scattered vérité moments, as when the teacher berates a cabbie for his government’s failure to match Saddam Hussein’s generosity in offering Jordanian visitors a free year of education, and more often when interviews ignite into confessional or agitated candor. At an English class for refugees who are told by American filmmaker Fisher that he has no answer for what will become of them, one woman berates him: “We have no future! You should have an answer.” Assessing the loss of daily security and stability in their homeland as too high a price for the removal of Saddam’s regime, these unreturned Iraqis are bereaved of nationality and, whatever the fate of their immigration suits, a measure of inner peace.
The Unreturned will play on June 15 and 16 as part of this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. For more information click here.