“This story follows a family of Syrian refugees on the brutal journey from Syria to Germany in 2012, near the beginning of the Syrian Civil War. The following scenes take place in the first part of Act II, and set the tone for much of the remainder of the film.” – Kyle Fossé, Screenwriter.
EXT. BODRUM BEACH – NIGHT
In the darkness, we hear voices and scuffling of feet – a group of around twenty to thirty people shuffling about on the beach. Somebody flicks on a flashlight, and we see the refugees running down towards the water, all clad in orange life-vests. They’re eerily silent, doing their best not to make any noise. We catch glimpses of Tarek and his family.
Down by the water waits a large rubber dinghy, bobbing gently in the calm waves. Tarek turns to the Boatman – an intimidatingly large, burly figure.
Just one boat?
But there’s too many people – it’s too full. We need another boat.
There is no other boat. Get in.
Somebody quickly grabs Firsa and hoists him into the boat. Sandra instinctively runs and grab him, and half-climbs in after him. Tarek begins to panic.
REFUGE dramatizes the flight to safety of a single family – made up of father Tarek, mother Sandra, and their son Firsa – during the ongoing Syrian Civil War. The selected extract covers the family’s crossing from Turkey to Greece, and establishes some of the challenges that they will face as recently-arrived migrants in a foreign land.
The great strength of the piece lies in its compelling humanitarian drama. The audience will build a natural empathy for the central family – in particular for their innocent son – and will root for their success as they attempt to construct order from the chaos of war. Tarek and Sandra are a believable couple; over the course of the extract, we get the sense that they are ordinary people who are driven to extraordinary actions through a superhuman desire to protect their child and keep their family united. More broadly, the hope of one day returning to Syria motivates their actions in a believable way, inflected with a certain dramatic and pathetic irony, since the contemporary viewer understands that the present situation in the country is hardly more conducive to family life than it was in 2012.
On the other hand, the downside to setting this story around the Syrian migrant movement is that there is little originality value left in these stories. Already in the cycle of development and production, we’re starting to see elevated genre variants of the migrant narrative. In a recent competition batch, for instance, I read a script whose first act is effectively this 10-page extract with the kicker that, once the migrants have arrived in their target country, they become infected vampires. I say this not to belittle the importance of bringing these real-life human dramas to screen, but simply to illustrate that you’re operating in a crowded field.
The drama of the script is well constructed throughout; conflict is clearly established in most scenes, and its consequences are well explored visually and emotionally. Take the initial conflict between Tarek and the Boatman. The audience understands the logic of Tarek’s line, ‘We need another boat’, but will also sympathize with the dreadful necessity driving him to take this risk. A dilemma is created (with Sandra exerting some additional pressure on the decision-maker), and the drama is well developed. The subtle emotional implication that Tarek may feel guilty for his rash decision – endangering Firsa’s life – is also successfully planted at this point.
Whilst this conflictual beat works well in a broad sense, the writer could perhaps work on clarifying the Boatman’s motivations in any future rewrite of the sequence. In the first scene, it seems that our Boatman is desperate for Tarek to fall into line and sit quietly. There’s a good reason for this: he doesn’t want the other migrants to be spooked. But, since the Boatman reveals that Tarek has ‘paid [his] money’, we may wonder what difference it makes to the Boatman whether Tarek gets in or out:
This means you can’t drown. You’ve paid your money. Now get in the boat.
If Tarek decided to disembark, surely the Boatman would be no worse off financially, but would have an increased chance of surviving the treacherous crossing? Why does he not act in his own best interests?
The drama of the extract really kicks into gear whilst the boat is out on the water. Trouble at sea is neatly foreshadowed by a moment of false tension as the Boatman struggles to get the engine started:
Everyone nods in agreement. The Boatman goes to start the engine. One pull. Two pulls. Sandra holds Firsa close, and Tarek puts his arm around her. Three pulls. On the fourth pull, the engine sputters to life, and they push off from the shore.
The centerpiece of the Aegean sea sequence is a nicely constructed piece of dramatic irony as the rescue boat begins to search for Tarek. This works because the audience knows something that Tarek doesn’t: that the rescue vessel belongs to benevolent aid workers, rather than coast guards whom Tarek has been warned to steer clear of. The technique successfully accentuates the tragedy of his position, and should have the audience members shouting at their screens in tense frustration!
Once Tarek is reunited with his family ashore, you’ve done a great job of setting up the stakes for his ‘new life’ starting in Turkey. The phrase ‘Thirty days [… or] they send us to the refugee camps’ is blunt, but it’s certainly effective in communicating to the audience what will happen if Tarek fails as a father; the consequences will be severe.
From the extract, it seems that Tarek is the protagonist of the piece. He’s a loving father and husband, an identity that drives most of his actions in the piece. Although generally seeming calm and intelligent, Tarek is not immune to stress. His use of the curse-word ‘f***ing’ on p.1 suggests that he’s no superman, subject to the same emotional highs and lows as the rest of us. His defining character moment in the extract comes when he hurls himself from the migrant boat in order to improve the other migrants’ chances of survival. It’s a classic dramatic self-sacrifice beat, one that you’ve included without too much sentimentalism here. Additionally, it’s a nice touch that the Boatman recognizes Tarek’s sacrifice, giving him advice on how best to survive the choppy water. These small character details for your supporting roles go a long way to creating believable worlds filled with three-dimensional people.
Another interesting character consideration is the effect of forced migration on the child Firsa. Again, the audience will build a natural reserve of pathos for a boy who has no agency and isn’t to blame for the disorder that has engulfed his life. Here, the viewer may ask herself how the trauma that Firsa is experiencing now will manifest itself in his later life; it’s an interesting thematic question.
Judging by the content of the extract, REFUGE is a compelling migrant narrative with a human heart. The will to survive, but also to aid the survival of others makes for forceful character motivation; the stakes of the story are often life or death. The audience instinctually feels that this narrative is based on thousands of true stories.
REFUGE is not the finished article, however. From a formatting, spelling and grammar standpoint there’s work to be done (see more notes on this below). Some plot beats could be elongated, others curtailed. In some areas, dialogue can be punched up to ensure that the meaning of the speaker comes across clearly. These are all craft considerations that you should relish taking on headfirst. The heart of this tale is firmly in the right place.
P.1) You can afford to be specific. Which is it – 20 or 30?
In the darkness, we hear voices and scuffling of feet – a group of around twenty to thirty people shuffling about on the beach.
P.1) Since he has lines of dialogue, Boatman needs to be capitalized at his first appearance in scene description. He also appears in scene description as ‘Boatman 1’. In your next draft, you could focus on the consistency of character names as they appear in headings and scene descriptions.
Pps.1,2) ‘(Cont’d) should appear capitalized in the character heading line: ‘BOATMAN (CONT’D)’
Look. That’s Kos. See this?
P.2) ‘The Boatman is visibly concerned’. This is a nice character detail and significant within its sequence. It could do with specification, however. Could you find a more concrete image to communicate his concern? Perhaps he touches a cross on his chest, or furrows his brow? Your call, but in general we should favor the specific over the general.
Everyone get the water out.
Everyone begins frantically scooping water out of the boat, but it begins filling up faster than they can scoop. The Boatman is visibly concerned.
P.6) As with Boatman above, ‘Interpreter’ needs to be fully capitalized at his/her first appearance in scene description. Likewise with the Reporter on p.8.
P.7) ‘(O.S.)’ This needs to appear in the character heading line, after ‘TAREK’.
P.8) ‘I’ll be sure to get some medication for you.’ Again, this is a case where the specific would trump the general. Which kind of medication? A little research would go a long way here.
(shaking her head)
I’m just tired. I feel a little dizzy.
It’s probably just from all the change. When I go into town, I’ll be sure to get some medication for you.
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