Film Review: Refuge

Year: 2021

Runtime: 78 minutes

Directors: Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship

By Morgan Roberts

How do we unlearn hate? How do we break past our prejudices to love those who look and live differently than us?  In the documentary film, “Refuge,” we see just that. Chris Buckley is a veteran who returned from combat, traumatized and looking to make sense of what he endured.  Instead, he was radicalized by white nationalism. Even after leaving the KKK, Buckley still possessed an immense hatred toward Muslim people. 

And that is where Dr. Hevill Kelli comes in. Kelli is a Kurdish refugee who lives in Clarkston, Georgia, a city with a large immigrant and refugee population. What Buckley and Kelli do not understand is how their conversations will lead to radical healing, challenging biases, and an intimate look into one another’s lives.

The documentary gives an eye-opening look at the reality of indoctrination and radicalization of white men in America.  How the patriotic call to action following 9/11 turned into white nationalism.  It is haunting to think about how Buckley is likely just one of many who returned home from combat to quickly find themselves involved in hate groups.  

Meanwhile, Kelli discloses his own path to coming to the United States. The losses he endured before having to start anew.  And how those moments transformed into a life of service.  Kelli is deeply committed to aiding and supporting his community.  He gives back as a healthcare provider and is also active in community events.  More than just giving to the refugee community in Clarkston, Kelli is giving to Buckley and Buckley’s family.  Kelli simply answered a call for help to begin providing Buckley a basic understanding of immigrants and refugees, of Muslims living in America.  That act alone has had a ripple effect, bringing someone who had been so entrenched in hatred to begin to empathize and love people who were once the targets of that hatred. 

Chris Buckley and Dr. Heval Kelli in “Refuge” | Photo credit Tomesha Faxio

It is very easy to come into “Refuge,” ready to see Buckley as the antagonist of the film, but what filmmakers Erin Bernhardt and Din Blankenship do so skillfully is not absolve Buckley of his previous involvement in hate groups, but focus on how those types of groups feed upon the vulnerability and pain of individuals who feel marginalized.  At the core of the documentary is hope.  Hope in unlearning hateful and violent rhetoric.  Hope for refugee communities.  Hope for people bridging the gaps over differences to find commonality. 

“Refuge” certainly delves into the negative social impacts of hate groups, but it also focuses on the community in Clarkston.  The community of Clarkston, Georgia not only deconstructs the preconceived notions people hold about refugees, but it also begins to challenge our ideas of what the South looks like.  Many people hold the American South in a negative light.  However, it is the community there that has accepted and integrated new members from differing walks of life.  Prejudices surrounding race, religion, and political ideology are not solely isolated to the American South.  “Refuge” powerfully not only challenges Buckley’s prejudices, but our own. How do we as an audience move through the world?  What biases do we hold?  And most importantly, what power do we give them?

“Refuge” is a powerful film that not only paints a portrait of two people from different walks of life, coming together, but it also serves as a call to action.  One focused on radicalization prevention, education, and resettlement support for refugees.  

“Refuge” is available in theaters and on demand today, 24 March 2023.  For more, visit


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