The “flood” in “The Flood,” directed by Anthony Woodley, with a script by Helen Kingston, is both metaphorical and literal, with multiple tiers of meaning. A boat full of refugees springs a leak, and despite the frantic efforts of the passengers to shovel the water out with their hands, the boat sinks, submerging all with it. But the flood, too, is the “flood” of refugees moving restlessly through Europe, seeking safe harbor from the persecution, war, and horror in their homelands, in some cases overwhelming the host countries like a metaphorical flood. The “flood” is a human rights catastrophe. Lena Headey stars as Wendy, an immigration officer with the UK Border and Asylum Unit who interviews refugees to ascertain whether or not their asylum claims have merit.
Headey starred in “Game of Thrones,” but also works with the International Rescue Committee as a human rights activist. She executive produced “The Flood,” and it is clearly an issue important to her. Her performance is quiet and controlled. Her behavior in the interrogation is purposefully withdrawn and bureaucratic. No matter the painful story she hears, no matter the harrowing details, she sticks to her script. She refuses to make eye contact. This isn’t a therapy session and she’s not a social worker. She refuses to openly empathize, keeping her eyes down on the forms. But during the interrogation of Haile (Ivanno Jeremiah), a refugee from Eritrea who smuggled himself into England in the back of a truck, the cracks in her bureaucratic armor start to show. Haile’s story gets to her.
The interrogation is the framing device, and the film constantly flashes back to show the events in question as Haile tells his story. There’s a lot of unnecessary repetition in this approach: Haile shares the details, and then we see it all unfold. During his time in a refugee camp called the “Jungle,” he meets a Pakistani couple, Faiz (Peter Singh) and his pregnant wife, Reema (Mandip Gill), who take him under their wing. Faiz has ideas about how to get to England. His wife has family there. It will be a tough journey, life-threatening, dangerous. They speak of the UK like it’s the promised land.
The focus on Wendy’s issues—she’s in the aftermath of a bad divorce and her work is suffering—is misguided. Yes, everyone’s life has its struggles, but in the face of what Haile has experienced, what Faiz and Reema have gone through, it’s hard to get all worked up about a woman’s divorce. It’s clear the point being made: Bureaucrats are people too. People’s personal lives affect their jobs. But Haile’s journey has so much more weight and depth. You get all the way to England, risking your life all the way, experiencing horrors, and you arrive and you meet … Wendy. Who won’t look you in the eye. That’s the real story.
The problems of the asylum process are laid bare in “The Flood”: bureaucracies cannot handle subtleties, context, or extenuating circumstances. “The Flood” does a good job showing Haile trying to answer Wendy’s questions, and her questions are built for a “Yes” or “No” answer. Yet it is impossible for Haile to give a “Yes” or a “No” in reply. He has to tell his story. And Wendy seemingly does not want to hear it. You wouldn’t think people would need this reminder, but apparently they do: It is not illegal to seek political asylum. People think seeking political asylum looks like a person strolling up to an embassy, knocking on the door, and asking politely. But people are fleeing for their lives. What would you do to protect your family? Haile is fleeing for his life. But how to even begin to explain that to Wendy, who won’t even look him in the eye?
“The Flood” has a pedestrian look and feel, and the music bullies its way into every scene. The back-and-forth structure is sometimes monotonous, and Wendy’s problems take too much focus, but there are specifics that linger. After the tiny boat sinks, Haile flails through the ocean and is finally washed up on an empty beach in Italy. He lies there gasping on the seaweed and rocks, and when he looks around he sees the beach littered with life preservers, remnants from expeditions in the past. Just one haunting image tells the entire story of the humanitarian crisis going on right before our eyes.