An unlikely friendship between a Muslim and a white supremacist reveals deep wisdom about humanity.
Directors Din Blankenship and Erin Bernhardt were making a film about the small town of Clarkston, Georgia, and its response to the explosive, racially motivated violence in Charlottesville when they got a phone call that changed everything. It was from a Syrian refugee named Heval who had quite the proposition.
“He calls us and says, ‘Hey, I’ve been connected to this guy, Chris — he just left the KKK and he still really hates Muslims, and I’m going to go meet him. You want to come and bring your cameras?'” Blankenship tells KCM.
That moment pivoted the project, and it ultimately resulted in Refuge, a powerful documentary about how bonding with a community of Muslim refugees transformed that former Klan leader. The film is a moving examination of hatred, where it comes from, and how it can be healed, and it just got an honorable mention at the DOC NYC festival. It’s definitely essential viewing during a period of such extreme cultural divide in our country.
One of Blankenship and Bernhardt’s collaborators is our very own Katie, who’s an executive producer on the film. Katie’s Southern roots and her own explorations of race and the reckoning around it, particularly in National Geographic’s America Inside Out, were crucial inspiration for Refuge. “We knew that she would be a really awesome collaborator on this when we saw that series, because there were just so many questions that she was asking that we were asking, too,” Blankenship says.
We caught up with one of Refuge‘s co-directors about how she and her partner approached a story with such upsetting details, what they learned from it, and how we can all move toward a more understanding culture.
Chris, one of the subjects of your film, is described as a Muslim-hating white supremacist. How did you approach telling his story without judgement?
Din Blankenship: A lot of it was just spending so much time with Chris. It took us a long time to even understand the roots of his hate and what was compelling about this narrative of hate and extremism. It was so, so many days spent with him, excavating the human that was living in pain and trauma behind this hateful exterior. It’s not in any way that excuses him for his involvement in extremism at all, but I think one thing we learned through Chris is that hate is the symptom of something else. Once you can look upstream and understand the roots of it, you understand that those experiences are really human.
Heval, another subject of the film, is a Kurdish doctor who strikes up an unlikely relationship with Chris. What did you learn from watching him extend a hand to this unexpected person?
Seeing his instinct to understand a person that not only did he disagree with, but someone who was actively hating him, was so powerful and also really refreshing right now. I think we’re all quick to share our own opinions before we want to hear what somebody else thinks, especially if we disagree with it. We’re living in this time where we seek information that affirms what we already believe. And so seeing Heval have this approach of, I don’t understand this thing. I need to understand why people have this fear of me and this hatred of me, and maybe if I knew them and they knew me, that’s where change is possible — it’s so inspiring and rare. But we’re hoping that in getting the story out there, people will feel more able to model that in their own lives and their communities and in all the places where we’re so divided right now.
Many people can probably understand the curiosity around being hated by someone who doesn’t know you, but there’s also such bravery in going straight toward it in your pursuit of understanding.
Recently, Heval was asked if he was afraid when he went to meet Chris, and watching the film, you’re nervous for Heval when that happens. He said something like, “I was anxious, but I just kept reminding myself that Chris was more afraid of me than I was of him. And as a doctor, so much of how I care for my patients is to help them feel comfortable and calm so that they can communicate what’s going on.” I thought that was really powerful, that he approached it from this place of empathy. And I think that that gave him a little bit of comfort or peace walking into that relationship.
In the film, Chris says, “I started hating Muslims when I watched that footage on 9/11.” We all know that sentiment is out there, but it’s still shocking to hear it so bluntly. How does the film unpack a point of view that’s been entrenched for decades?
For Chris, that moment was where his journey of fearing and hating Muslims really started. And then he enlisted in the Army, and so much of his sheer hatred towards Islam was the result of fighting in the Army for 12 or 13 years, a lot of PTSD, a lot of unexamined trauma. I think this fear and beginnings of hatred were just totally exacerbated and amplified for Chris in his military trauma.
But I think for the rest of us, that is such a collective trauma. And that’s the work that each of us need to do — to distinguish one act done by several individuals from the faith of Islam. One thing that was so fascinating to me in watching the footage from the KKK rally, where they’re lighting a cross on fire, is that as Americans, we see that act in the name of the Christian faith as not representative of the Christian faith. People don’t get nervous being in churches because they’ve seen a KKK rally. But Islam is not given that benefit of the doubt. You know, we see jihadist acts of terrorism and kind of link it all together as being reflective and representative of the faith, which it’s not.
I wanted to ask you about that KKK rally. The footage is shocking: How did you negotiate access to that?
That footage in particular, we actually licensed from the BBC. They did a documentary about the KKK, and it just happened that Chris was in it. The stars really aligned. They shot that and we licensed it, so I have not attended a KKK rally in person.
I’m happy to hear that, for your sake.
[Laughs] Yes, and my directing partner is Jewish, and our director of photography is Black, so…
So much of the film is about the idea of preconceived notions, and as journalists or filmmakers, our job is to strip those away — but you can’t help having some preconceived notions with a story like this. What’s something you changed your mind about while working on the film?
I’m from the South. I’m from Alabama, and I currently live in Atlanta. And seeing rural poverty and the way that they experience it was really eye-opening for me. It gave me a lot more understanding of rural America and some justifiable frustration that I think a lot of people living in rural America feel. In the film, we intentionally stayed out of politics, but I think it gave me a lot more understanding of why the messaging that we were hearing from Trump resonated with people. That’s something I gained a lot more understanding and empathy for, as opposed to just scratching my head saying, I don’t understand why this is appealing to people.
The film just got an honorable mention at the DOC NYC film festival, and the jury said Refuge addresses “one of the US’s most urgent problems: the lack of civil dialogue, or any dialogue, between our warring cultural factions.” So, big question: How can we fix that?
One really important thing that we can all do is get out of our information silos. I feel like half of our country listens to one narrative of news, and the other half is listening to a completely different construct of our world right now. I think we have to commit to cross-pollinating and trying to get ourselves out of these bubbles that are giving us such contradictory information. I really appreciate that we’ve heard from staunchly conservative people that they were moved by this film and they learned something, and we have heard from staunchly liberal people that they were moved by this film and learned something. I think we need more stories like that, that help us learn about a person’s experience that we didn’t understand beforehand.
And also just recognizing the humanity in one another. We’re quick to dehumanize right now and cast blame before we understand other people. The more we can seek to understand people and offer them a sense of humanity, the better off we’re going to be.
Learn more about Refuge and how to see it right here.