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Review of Sonita Gale’s documentary, ‘Hostile’ (selected UK cinemas, January to June 2022)

  • 4 April 2022
  • By Lucy Haire

This blog was written by Lucy Haire, Director of Partnerships at HEPI.

Sonita Gale’s new documentary, Hostile, is currently touring selected UK cinemas, with some viewings including a question-and-answer session with Gale and Sonali Naik QC, who supports migrants fighting deportation. Hostile narrates the stories of a Windrush migrant; a younger couple who came from Pakistan in the early noughties and who now have small children; a middle-aged couple who set up a catering organisation to help people during the COVID-19 pandemic; and two international students from whom we hear but who stay anonymous. 

The documentary and post-viewing discussion aim to provide a teleological narrative of increasing hostility towards migrants in the UK. International students who were increasingly flocking to UK higher education institutions were not excluded from the effects of this policy either. They were included in headline-grabbing yet arbitrary targets for migration reduction and had their long-standing right to post-study work visas withdrawn. Brexit, too, severely reduced the number of European students coming to the UK.

Gale’s coverage of the attempted deportation of Windrush migrant, Anthony Bryan, is moving and powerful evidence of Hostile Environment policies and their subsequent injustice. The other case studies reveal different aspects of a broken system when it comes to dealing with immigrants in need, such as the lack of access to public funds. 

International students feature in three cases. Farrukh Sair came from Pakistan to study at Manchester University in 2003 and then worked in IT for several years. Sair explains how his incredibly complex, long-winded and expensive applications to remain in the UK have failed four times and counting. Two current international students describe how the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that their part-time work dried up, leaving them with insufficient money for their university fees and living costs, and no right to claim benefits. We are shown footage of international students and others queuing for hours at East London foodbanks. These students were caught in the COVID-trap: with no recourse to public funds and work options drying up, the only path available to them was to go home without completing their courses, heavily in debt and at a time when their home countries were also ravaged by COVID. The students, a commentator on Gale’s film lamented, were forced to keep the British university system going despite their predicament.   

HEPI, its partners and contributors have visited the topic of the policy environment concerning international students from time to time since HEPI’s inception in 2002, and we have also explored the theme of racism in the sector. This academic year, we have so far published a paper on the phenomenal contribution that international students make to the UK economy,  international students’ experiences of university careers’ services with Kaplan and many blogs such as this one on the link between the Levelling Up strategy and international students. Recently, with Unite Students, HEPI hosted a webinar on Black students’ experiences of student accommodation to launch original research on this topic. How the higher education sector ensures equality for all students — regardless of origin or race — deserves more research. We could certainly all do more to explore and understand the experiences of international students and Black students who may be facing hardship and alienation.

Hostile is a well-crafted documentary whose clear direction, skilful post-production and haunting soundtrack tug at the heartstrings. Yet there are some unanswered questions, particularly in relation to the current students and Sair, the former student featured in the film. The film’s dialogue implicitly and occasionally even explicitly blames the university system, as well as the immigration system, which itself was thrown into an emergency situation by the COVID-19 pandemic. It would have been good to hear from the universities themselves to gain a better understanding of what they did to help, and what they would do better if a similar situation arose again. I wanted to hear from all the parties involved in the cases. 

The recent crisis in Ukraine has thrown into sharp relief the need to support those fleeing impossible situations. Many UK higher education institutions are organizing schemes to support academics and students leaving Ukraine. A recent HEPI blog highlighted the need for yet more to be done as millions are displaced from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Hong Kong and elsewhere.  

There is a huge tension between the Government that seems all too quick to demonise immigrants, and the higher education sector that is totally dependent on them. Gale’s film shines a helpful light on the particularly testing circumstances of the pandemic for international students and underlines the message that compassion must be the order of the day.  

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