• Interviews

Docs: “Refuge”, a Powerful and Captivating Film by Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship

Directors Din Blankenship and Erin Bernhardt bring a powerful documentary to the screen and allow the viewer to observe an unlikely bond between a former KKK member, Chris Buckley, and a Kurdish refugee, Dr. Heval Kelli. The filmmaker’s duo shines a spotlight on the refugee community of Clarkston, Georgia, and examines human hatred, both where it comes from, and how it can be healed. Refuge shines a light on the false ideologies of hate, and reveals where authentic and lasting refuge is found. There is no doubt that this captivating tale will leave an impact with the viewer. The interview with Din Blankenship was conducted by Zoom.

Refuge underlines some strong psychological behavior in humankind, and tells a story of two unlikely friends, a former Klansman and a Syrian Kurd. Tell me how you had the idea to bring this impactful story to the screen?

We started making this documentary in 2017, in response to the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia. Erin and I both went to UVA (University of Virginia) and were pretty shocked to see neo-Nazis and white supremacists storm the streets of any American city. It struck a chord, seeing this kind of hate and extremism on display in a community that in so many ways shaped the women that we are, so we started making our documentary in response to that. Our initial approach was to go to Clarkston because of the refugee community over there. We felt that their voices should be heard at this moment in time for these people survived their own forms of nationalism in their home countries. They know the cost of when polarization goes unchecked and becomes tribalization. Six months after filming, we got a call about this guy named Chris Buckley: he was a leader in the KKK, who had just left the group but still really hates Muslims. Our film took a drastic shift when Chris entered our world, for suddenly, we had a chance to witness the potential of transformation from a KKK person who held deep profound hatred. We got to highlight what such process looks like from a perspective of a person overcoming that.

It was shocking to see that somebody could have such hatred and be so troubled in their mind. How were you able to get such raw footage and be allowed to get it on camera, so up close and personal?

When we met Chris, he had just left the KKK, so he hadn’t yet processed his hate but he had gone as far as to say he didn’t want to be affiliated with this hate group anymore for it was destroying his family. When we were trying to figure out what kind of imagery to capture his time at the KKK two months prior to our meeting, Chris informed us that the BBC had made a documentary specifically about the KKK at one of the rallies where he and C.J. were at. So, we got lucky to track that footage and use it. You can see in the documentary that Chris at that time really believed he was on the right side of things, thinking he was instilling values in his son that were going to benefit him. I’m not sure how brainwashed he was at the time to think that such kind of hate and values could possibly be a positive thing for him and his family.

In addition, you also have three very strong powerful women in your documentary who carry important roles and show tremendous strength.

Yes, we also focused on this incredible individual Mama Ameena, an older woman in Clarkston, who was a refugee herself and who serves as this powerful force in the Clarkson community.  A true light in this world, for she has survived an unthinkable trauma and loss. So, the fact that this woman could still put one foot in front of the other to keep moving forward is a testament to what humans, especially women, are capable of. Her ability to examine and process her own pain in order to transform that into an agent for healing is tremendous. Another powerful woman in our documentary was Chris’s wife, Melissa. When Chris was deep into his crystal meth addiction while being the Number Two guy in the KKK, Melissa stood by him, and yet she dared to reach out for help. An incredible move for a person in her position, because where does one go for help when your husband is the leader in the KKK? She literally had to Google how to get a loved one out of a hate group. And trust me, there are very few resources available. We certainly have some powerful women throughout this story and I am proud as a woman to be able to get their stories out in the world. I’m kind of just oscillating back and forth between encountering all these powerful women and in awe with their resilience. It was nice to be able to show how much they each have endured. These women are absolutely tremendous forces in the world. There are not many women directing films nor shooting films. If you look at the statistics, they are sobering. Finding a cinematographer who’s a woman for a new project I’m working on was nearly impossible. It’s sobering to just see the landscape that we’re navigating in as women and the film industry. It feels overwhelming, yet it also almost feels like a privilege. I get all fired up about all those things, yet on the other hand, it fuels my passion to move forward.

Documentary films have been blooming over the last few years. Why do you feel docs are becoming increasingly important in today’s society?

I feel that documentaries are having a kind of renaissance moment: more and more documentaries are turning into pieces of art. They are the fruit of somebody with a perspective and as such, we’ve been able to grow in this genre and lean into being a creative medium, while also being very much tethered to something that you witnessed happening. This story in particular has been as moving as it is because it really happened, if it were to be a script writer who wrote out this story, it would not be as moving because we (the audience) didn’t see it actually happen.