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‘Frontline: Exodus’ review: Syrian refugees’ plights, humanized

The Frontline documentary "Exodus" tells the first-person stories of refugees and migrants fleeing war, persecution and hardship. (Credit: Frontline PBS)

THE DOCUMENTARY “Frontline: Exodus”

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday, Dec. 27, at 9 p.m. on WNET/13

GRADE A+

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Since 2011, more than 5 million people have fled the civil war in Syria, heading to Turkey, then on to Europe, where many — not all — receive asylum. With handheld cameras and cellphones, this two-hour special follows five people over many months and across 26 countries as they navigate human traffickers, who arrange travel that is often treacherous or deadly. Scores of thousands have died crossing from North Africa to Europe, or from Turkey to Greece.

MY SAY You will first meet Isra’a, who’s about 10, maybe 11. No last name given.

Big, dark eyes. Bigger smile. Outwardly a typical 10-year-old in most respects, which is to say happy, irrepressible and optimistic (against all reason — her family home in Aleppo was demolished by a missile). She cries only once during the film, and seems embarrassed by the dollops of tears that roll down her face. Two young children have frozen to death in the refugee camp where she and her family are essentially held captive. She is crying for them.

You next meet Hassan. He was an English teacher in Damascus. Now, he just wants to get to England.

Next, there’s Sadiq — from Afghanistan, bound for Finland — and Ahmad, who plans to be reunited with his wife and two young children still in Syria if (or when) he is granted asylum in the United Kingdom.

Alaigie is part of another refugee wave, from Gambia in western Africa. He’s headed to Italy.

With cellphones that somehow get recharged, and handheld cameras that persevere through blistering heat — or more often a damp, penetrating cold — “Exodus” charted these five lives over many months. All that time is reduced to just 111 minutes, but in that brief span you get to know them well, or imagine you do. Their setbacks become palpable, their triumphs, too.

Before long, they shed the phrases used to describe millions of Syrian or African refugees, which can unintentionally dehumanize them as well. Hassan’s not part of some “human tide” spreading over Europe. He’s a lonely, isolated, desperate man who dreams of England and his family back home. (Like Ahmad, many refugees embark alone, hoping to reunite later when they make enough money or establish a foothold somewhere.) You fervently hope he makes it to England, too.

There’s no talk of politics in this film, and no voice-over telling viewers what they already know: This crisis has convulsed Europe, as various countries cope with humanitarian aid and the constant threat of terrorism. There’s not even a narrator.

Stripped bare, the effect is especially powerful because all that’s left is a portrait of their humanity — and of our shared humanity. Isra’a’s tears will tell you as much.

BOTTOM LINE An emotional “Frontline” with a deep human touch — on a humanitarian crisis.

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