Short Film ‘Matar’ Reckons With The UK’s Broken Asylum System

In the first few minutes of Matar, a docudrama from filmmaker and activist Hassan Akkad(Opens in a new tab), the eponymous protagonist is shown stealing a bike on a cold, dreary night in England. Later, he will use this bike to provide himself a living. But he can’t open a bank account and the only other person he knows in the country — his uncle, Jameel — is fearful to help him. Matar, played by Egyptian actor Ahmed Malek, is undocumented.

The remaining brief yet captivating short film is a necessary window into the increasingly hostile circumstances asylum seekers and refugees face in the UK. Not only is Matar living in the shadows, he is isolated and devoid of human company. When he makes a delivery of alcohol to a party in an apartment block, for instance, he puts his ear to the door and closes his eyes. When Matar is finally befriended by fellow delivery drivers, he breaks into his first smile.

“We all aspire to belong, and we aspire to be like members of a wider group,” director Akkad tells me. “At the end of the day, that’s literally what people want. There’s the misconception about people coming here — that they want to be on benefits, or rob this country of its resources or they don’t want to respect Britain’s values.”

The struggle of this character, to find both belonging and acceptance, is by no means singular. In the UK, anti-refugee and asylum seeker efforts(Opens in a new tab) and rhetoric(Opens in a new tab) within politics and the media are mounting; the consistent dehumanisation of migrants(Opens in a new tab) is in danger of becoming even more widespread. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has introduced an immigration bill(Opens in a new tab), something his government purports(Opens in a new tab) as “ground-breaking new laws to stop the boats”. In reality, the anti-refugee legislation will allow the government to deny protection to migrants(Opens in a new tab) fleeing persecution and conflict, and has been called a clear breach of international law(Opens in a new tab).

“Since this film was made,” reads onscreen text in the final, chilling end to Matar, “the British government introduced a new asylum bill ending the right to seek refugee protection in the United Kingdom for those who arrive irregularly.”

At the premiere for the film, which was launched in partnership with humanitarian aid nonprofit Choose Love(Opens in a new tab) and released on free streaming platform Waterbear(Opens in a new tab), viewers were urged to sign a pre-drafted letter to local politicians, opposing the bill.

Akkad, who is originally from Syria and arrived in the UK after a harrowing journey himself, believes telling stories of migration can support the facilitation of more effective — and even empathetic — conversations about the issue. He did this within the BBC’s Exodus: Our Journey to Europe(Opens in a new tab), the BAFTA-winning documentary(Opens in a new tab) about people fleeing their homes amid conflict to create better lives in England. Akkad also lent his personal experience as an associate producer and consultant on The Swimmers, a Netflix film tracing the life-threatening journey of refugees seeking safety amid the Syrian Civil War.

With Matar, Akkad provides another critical story, one encompassing life after such journeys. Matar’s strife to carve a life for himself is deftly told; so is his dehumanisation at the hands of others. Inspired by the experiences of the film’s cinematographer, Ayman Alhussein, Akkad and his team came together to portray the U.K.’s broken asylum system — and have viewers question it.

Mashable spoke to Akkad about the making of the film, Britain’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and how art can be an antidote to misconceptions.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Meera Navlakha: You’ve told many refugee stories, from many points of view. Why was this particular story told through the lens of a food delivery driver?Hassan Akkad: I think I made that choice for two reasons. Reason number one is that often, when we do stories or cinema about displacement, these are about superheroes — people who have done incredible things in their life, like doctors or teachers or incredible athletes. While that’s amazing, I feel like there isn’t enough about the everyday man or woman who goes through displacement. So I wanted my protagonist to be a normal person, someone who loves football and loves music. It’s not a superhero movie; the film starts with him stealing.

The second reason is, during my research, when I was looking into stories about the Home Office and Britain, the Deliveroo community [came up]. Some of [the drivers] are undocumented and they’re using a loophole to make money. Whether we agree with what they’re doing or not, I think when people are pushed to the edge or to the fringes of society, they’ll have to come up with a way to eat, because otherwise they’ll starve.

MN: I actually really liked that the opening scene was an immediate jump into Matar’s life – he was shown stealing. Was this a complicated choice?HA: It was actually the actor Ahmed Malek’s idea to start with the stealing scene. He’s been on so many sets, since he was like 10 years old. He’s got an incredible vision, and he said it would be really good to play on people’s prejudices. And I couldn’t agree more. You’re seeing a young man in a balaclava and he’s stealing a bike. The trick [for the film] was to get viewers to feel for him in under 20 minutes. Again, I think this is connected to your first question: in a way, we’re trying to humanise the displacement and migration issue, by saying that these are humans — they make mistakes, they behave exactly like us, and in frustration, they’re going to do something like Matar did.

Something that I haven’t mentioned, too, is that the young men are always in the rhetoric around migration when it comes to Britain. They’re always demonised. There are also many reasons why young men typically come here. In some cases, they come here and work and support entire families. I feel like young men are the most hated criteria for the people coming to Britain.

If you look deep into this, there’s a lot of misconceptions and people don’t understand the reality of [migration] and the reasons why people cross over. That’s why we wanted to make this film. MN: I think another contradiction shown that stood out to me was in the character Barbara. Matar’s uncle, Jameel, warns him about the character in his shop: “Barbara is lovely. But she’s a Daily Mail reader.” I think that really captured some of the anxieties within the country at the moment. HA: Polarised Britain! Barbara is a lovely customer. She’s being very kind to Jameel, and Jameel obviously has got a connection with her and has known her. That’s what we understand from the dialogue. But I wanted to show that, despite all of that…when your thoughts or information about a big issue of displacement or migration is via some tabloids or some broadcasters, then you’re not going to have a very nuanced idea of why people are coming here. Therefore, that could push you to act in a certain way. A lot of people picked up on that line, actually, that you’ve just said. Despite it being just a couple lines – “don’t trust anyone”, “Barbara, the Daily Mail reader” — that is the society we’re living in right now. It’s become so polarised. I wanted to add to the fact that Matar is tiptoeing his way around London. Someone could report him. The reality is when people are denied documents and denied asylum, that’s how they’re going to live. They’re in fear of everyone around them.

MN: Did people’s lived experiences come into the film?HA: Yes. So Ayman, who was a camera operator on the film and a co-writer, worked in food delivery during the pandemic. And he was living for three years as an asylum seeker. So he told me his experiences, which I took on board. We have a friend called Akhmed who had a job like Matar, and he did exactly what Matar did in real life. He sat down with us and told us his story. The groups of friends that Matar makes in the film, there’s Musa and Jay, and these two guys who are not named in the film. But both of them are food delivery cyclists in real life. So it’s all of these experiences, all of these stories, that have been put together to create this work of art. Someone told me they once went to deliver some pizzas to a massive house party, and they really wanted to be in the house party, so that inspired a scene in the film. It’s based on so many people’s experiences.

The strength of the film came from collaboration, even in terms of the organisation that supported it, like Choose Love(Opens in a new tab) — a co-funder of the project — and The Bike Project(Opens in a new tab) and Counterpoint Arts(Opens in a new tab). We had a friend who catered. Even the creatives, we had so many people who’d come from different departments. Everyone believed in the idea and was like, “This is the film I wanted to have my name on.” This was a collaboration; a lot of big bodies and individuals have come together because everyone really believed in it.

MN: Was it hard to turn all these moments and stories into one 20-minute slice of life?HA: [Laughs] I actually wrote a lot more than what we shot, or what we had in the final script. I had all these stories…about 60 percent of them made it to the script. There were all these incredible anecdotes of people — funny things, sad things. Humour was actually really important to me in Matar. I [wanted to] highlight the human aspect. It’s nice when a story is not just, you know, bleak. It’s nice when it’s three-dimensional. It’s funny, at the premiere, I was watching and waiting to see how people reacted to the jokes that we wrote. And everytime people laughed, I was like, “Mission accomplished!” Because, again, it’s part of making it easier to connect to the character.

But back to your question — everything that we’d written, it was challenging to get everything in under 20 minutes. Hopefully…we’re already in conversation to develop Matar into a feature film. So hopefully, all of these stories can migrate to the next chapter.

MN: That would be amazing. The other thing I wanted to mention is that Matar, the character, didn’t really get a happy ending. The ending was actually quite harrowing. HA: Yeah.

MN: That was important for us to see. HA: It was very important for us to have an unhappy ending. I was a producer on a film called The Swimmers. While it’s an incredible positive story, there’s a problem with positive stories; they hijack the reality. It’s incredible — [Yusra] Mardini’s story is incredible — it’s a story of success and inspiration. People love that. People love stories of hope and success, they get inspired. But if I’m making a docudrama, or docufiction, I feel like I have to give the story justice by mirroring reality. And the reality is that Britain is on the verge of banning asylum.

That’s literally why the decision was to get [Matar] arrested. We don’t know if he’s going to be deported or detained. It was important for me and for my colleague Ayman. Basically, in our circle of friends, everyone [who] was giving me notes said, “This feels real.” I was writing the script around the time when there was a raid in Dalton and there was a raid in Southeast London, which targeted Deliveroo, too. Some people were taken. I wanted to follow that route, I wanted to show what happens to these people. Hence, the bleak ending.

With every film I do, I want people to walk in the footsteps of someone else. I want people to watch the film and think: how would they treat Matar if he was their cousin or uncle or neighbour or best friend? MN: As you mentioned, there was a recent bill introduced that would deny refugees access to the UK’s asylum system(Opens in a new tab). There are so many conversations to be had in this regard. But for now, what do you see as the long term implications of the bill?HA: To me, I always see how these decisions or these policies can impact humans. That’s what really matters. How is this going to impact humanity and people who are coming here? Will the movement of people stop? No. Migration has never stopped, people crossing borders for centuries — that’s never stopped. No policy, no wall, no plan can stop that. I think [the bill] is going to make things worse. It’s going to put people underground. People will living in fear of claiming asylum. People will be living in fear because if they claim asylum, they are going to be detained and deported to Rwanda(Opens in a new tab). So they’re going to go underground, and then who’s going to benefit? People who are going to exploit them will benefit. You’re going to have cheap labour, you’re going to have people who are willing to work for £2–3 an hour. They’re going to be exploited in a work capacity and where they are living. There are no ways to protect their rights, because there are no rights in that world. In Britain, quite a lot of people live undocumented(Opens in a new tab), and that population is going to grow and grow and grow.

I could tell you about this for hours. The fact that Britain is breaking international law(Opens in a new tab) by denying asylum to people crossing the border — that’s a dangerous precedent. What could the government do next, if they’re willing to take it that far? If Britain decided you cannot claim asylum if you cross, but you can come and we can study your case and if it’s legitimate, you can get a safe and regular route into Britain, then we would understand that. But they’re stopping every regular and safe route, making it more and more impossible. The problem is that the majority of the British public agree with what the government is doing. If you look deep into this, there’s a lot of misconceptions and people don’t understand the reality of [migration] and the reasons why people cross over. That’s why we wanted to make this film. I feel like, as artists, we have a responsibility of responding to these issues and trying to tell people, educate them a bit more.

MN: That leads me to my next question – how does the film challenge the widespread anti-refugee sentiment in this country? What do you want people to take away from the film?HA: With every film I do, I want people to walk in the footsteps of someone else. I want people to watch the film and think: how would they treat Matar if he was their cousin or uncle or neighbour or best friend? I didn’t want to be on the nose at all. I wanted to show a normal, simple story. I wanted to provide a way to provide a different way of telling them Matar’s story, too. It’s often told through documentary or through the news – “twenty people crossed the Channel”. While that’s good, when it’s just numbers or focused on the trauma or difficulties, [people] find it really hard to connect. I made this film hoping people can connect to Matar. I want people to watch this and decide what they want to do. The reality of the refugee crisis is that it’s quite overwhelming. You can watch Matar and maybe help in one way or the other. Reach out to your community or a charity. I want people to take the impact they want to take.

MN: In terms of community, that’s something Matar really wanted. We can all relate to that. HA: Exactly. Because we all want a community. We don’t want to be lonely. The asylum process is a very agonising process where you are living in limbo. You’re not being able to integrate and make friends. We could see that when he was on his own and how that was affecting his mood. And then when he started making friends and he made his own little community, how things changed. We all aspire to be to belong, and we aspire to be like members of a wider group. At the end of the day, that’s literally what people want. There’s the misconception about people coming here – that they want to be on benefits, or rob this country of its resources or they don’t want to respect Britain’s values. In my experience, with living here for the past eight years and working with these communities, all people want is to belong. They want to live a normal and happy life, like the one Matar wanted.

MN: Britain may be moving far from this, in many ways, but how can we foster this kind of compassion towards refugees?HA: That’s a very good question. Things are getting worse. I came to this country end of 2015, and since I’ve been here, things are gradually getting worse and worse for refugees and migrants. I think we can foster compassion by art. In my opinion, I have a responsibility as an artist to respond. What I can do is make something like Matar, that can be on someone’s screen. I’m trying to provide a window into that world, which not many people know about. While it’s all around us, and all over this country, people are trying to distance themselves from it. The more we bring these stories into pop culture, the more people can hopefully have compassion. And maybe more importantly than compassion is dialogue and communication. Instead of calling each other names, we can find solutions.

Matar is available to stream now on WaterBear(Opens in a new tab).

Culture Reporter

Meera is a Culture Reporter at Mashable, joining the UK team in 2021. She writes about digital culture, mental health, big tech, entertainment, and more. Her work has also been published in The New York Times, Vice, Vogue India, and others.