UN's 'The Journey' Captures the Desperate Race of Refugee Olympians
In "The Journey," a short film from the United Nations Human Rights Council, we watch a refugee athlete's perilous trek as she chases her Olympic dream from the dusty and dangerous backroads of an impoverished village to the 2021 Summer Games in Tokyo.
Our subject races through bombed-out boulevards and fields of fire, across desolate plains, muddy midnight beaches and rickety bridges. She's shown from the waist down throughout. And though viewers never glimpse her face, we come to respect her drive, resilience and courage every step of the way.
"They've seen the worst in the world. Now are here to be the best," we're told near the end, as she dashes for the gold—a welcome change from the anxiety of running for her life.
London agency Don't Panic and Anonymous Content directing collective Pantera (Brian Kazez, Pato Martinez and Francisco Canton) created the 90-second film for the UNHCR, in partnership with the International Olympic and Paralympic Committees.
"Quite simply, it was down to budget," Rick Dodds, creative partner at Don't Panic, tells Muse of the team's creative approach. "We didn't have the money to shoot huge wide shots. So, in an early brainstorm around the script, we decided to focus the camera on the feet and the ground as our canvas to tell the story."
The protagonist's anonymity "allowed us to weave a number of real refugee experiences into our narrative," he says. "By the time we had finished filming, the legs weren't just a character, but a deeply authentic portrayal of many refugees' journeys."
World-class refugee athletes Asif Sultani and Rose Nathike Lokonyen consulted on story points, helping shape key sequences.
"The opening scene, this was so important to get right," Dodds says. "We worked really hard with Asif and Rose to ensure we struck the right balance here. We didn't want to glamorize the violence and make it Hollywood-esque. It had to be raw and truthful."
Around the halfway mark, the runner sleeps in an alley. "This wasn't in the original version of the script," Dodds recalls. "When we first wrote it, we fell into the pitfall that all was good when a refugee makes it to foreign soil. Working with the UN, we realized this wasn't the case. It's an incredibly dangerous, scary and uncertain time for a refugee."
Later, the tone brightens as the young woman, now acclimated to her new surroundings, begins training in earnest for the Games.
"This is the moment that she stops running away from something and starts to run towards something instead," says Dodds. "This is the pivot of the film. A moment of reflection. You connect with her and feel the energy as her life starts to change direction."
At the film's conclusion, actual athletes appear, and this sudden influx of faces "turned out to be considerably more powerful than we thought it would be, and deeply life-affirming," Dodds says.
Shooting in Argentina—Pantera's base of operations—provided a learning experience for the crew, as they adapted to different situations on the fly.
"At the beginning of production, we wanted the runner wearing a rig," Dodds says. "But when we started testing this, we changed our minds. First, it was clear that she would be limited in energy if she had to run as much as she did, in Argentinian heat, while carrying a heavy camera. And more importantly, the storytelling was limited with the camera always facing directly down to her feet."
Instead, having camera operators follow her progress "opened up much more storytelling opportunity—showing the passing of time, other people and her interactions with them, the evolution of her clothes, the way she holds her body, the explosions," he says.
Ultimately, Don't Panic hopes the film raises the public's consciousness about the rough roads some folks travel in their quest to rank among the best athletes on the planet.
"Every refugee's journey started in a scary, dark place, where they had to flee everything they'd ever known," Dodds says. "The road ahead was just as scary and unpredictable. But through sheer determination, support from organizations like the UN, and a broader public who can welcome them with open arms, we can help more refugee journeys have a positive ending. And with that ending, a hopeful new start."
BRAND: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
AGENCY: Don't Panic
Founder: Joe Wade
Creative Partner: Rick Dodds
Senior Account Director: Georgia Williams
Senior Project Manager & Producer: Jennifer Clare Houlihan
Senior Engagement Strategist: Flo Auckland
PRODUCTION COMPANY: Anonymous Content
Executive Producer: Tor Fitzwilliams
Producer (London): Shion Hayasaka
Producer (Argentina): Gaby Carcova
DOP: Fran Hauser
Production Design: Muriel Rani
Stylist: Delfina de Forteza
Production Manager: Pablo Anzoategui
SFX: Edu Cundom
EDIT: Trim Editing
Editor: Paul Hardcastle
Edit Assistant: Helena Teixeira
Producer: Noreen Khan
POST: Time Based Arts
Colourist: Lewis Crossfield
VFX: Ollie Ramsey, Adam Paterson
Producer: Jo Gutteridge
SOUND: String & Tins
Sound Design & Mix: Joe Wilkinson
Additional Sound Design: Culum Simpson
Foley: The Foley Barn
Foley Mixer: Julien Pirrie
Foley Artist: Jason Swanscott
Foler Editor: Philip Shacklady
Audio Producer: Laura-Leigh Smith
Composer: Mate Yaya