29 Dec 2020
What Netflix’s ‘His House’ Tells Us About the Migrant Experience
Netflix’s thriller film His House merges the lines of horror and reality, as it depicts the treacherous journey of an asylum-seeking couple from their war-torn country, South Sudan, to an unwelcoming new ‘home’ in the UK. Premiered in January of this year and made available to stream in late October, His House prompts us to reckon with the harrowing reality of the refugee struggle as a horror story in and of itself. Within this endeavour, we also witness a divergence in approaches between the two main characters, Bol and Rial. The former desperately attempts to integrate into white British society, in an effort to erase the trauma of his past, adopting the mantra of “this is our home” throughout the film. Meanwhile, the latter resists these expectations, demanding that the pair confront the demons which haunt them in the night.
After gaining independence from Sudan in July 2011, political tensions continued in the new state, finally erupting into violence on the streets of Juba, the capital, in December 2013. Since then, the conflict has spread across the country, claiming the lives of nearly 400,000 civilians and displacing 4.5 million more, as of September 2018. We begin the film encapsulated in this chaos, following the couple’s evacuation from the civil unrest in the back of a van. They flee accompanied by, who is presumed to be, their young daughter, Nyagak.
The girl clings onto a blonde-haired, blue-eyed doll, which sharply contrasts with the afro-centric beads adorned around her neck. The doll signifies the final destination of their escape – England – with the visual juxtaposition foreshadowing the future culture clash awaiting the asylum seekers, upon arrival. This covert, yet foreboding, symbolism is magnified through the abrupt scene change, in which the warmth and light of day, on land, is positioned against the dark night which looms over the cold and perilous waters. As the boat rocks from side to side, hosting hundreds of desperate voyagers, an impending sense of danger surrounds the group. The abstract soon becomes the material, as the boat suddenly tips over and launches many of them into a watery grave, including Nyagak. Our discovery that this distressing scene was actually the product of Bol’s dream initiates the ambiguity between nightmare and real life, which escalates as the film progresses.
As we follow the couple’s new life in England, we begin to see disparities in their negotiations with this alien environment. In an interview with Esquire, His House director and writer, Remi Weekes, discussed the dichotomy between cultural assimilation and rejection which migrants must navigate in foreign spaces as a critical framework for this film to speak from. He states:
‘there’s part of you that really wants to assimilate and fit in, and to not draw attention to yourself, but there’s another part of you that feels very suspicious that the place doesn’t particularly feel welcoming to you, so you find yourself pulling away again, wanting to rebel from that and to stick to your roots and stick out proudly. ‘
In Bol’s case, he is eager to assimilate , taking novelty in traditionally British items and experiences, such as digestive biscuits, from a gifted hamper, and going to the pub. He does his best to immerse himself into British culture, which creates a sort of dramatic irony for us as viewers, who note the uncomfortable reactions to Bol’s attempts while the character does not. We see this take place most evidently in the scene where a man enters a department store to buy new clothes. While Bol looks curiously back and forth between clothing items on the hanger and the picture of a white man wearing these pieces, a white male security guard trails him. As Bol continues to consider his purchase, unknowingly being watched, the image of the white man extends into a mural of a whole white family.
From here, we can understand that the clothing symbolises a method of assimilation, in the way that the digestive biscuits and other items from the hamper do. The back and forth between this emblem and this personification of white Britishness drives through this connection, with the mural presenting aspirations of generational integration. Yet, in the midst of this, Bol has been identified as an outsider, an intruder and someone not to be trusted, by a member of the host group in which he is trying to be naturalised.
Conversely, Rial struggles to envision herself as a part of this new community, contending with both overt external and internal opposition. The former instance is underpinned by Rial’s first venture into the outdoors since her arrival at the house. Ominous music follows the character, as she walks around the concrete maze of bleakly coloured council houses, meeting nothing but dead ends. A multitude of sounds from speech and everyday objects surround her as she grows visibly more anxious, further expressing Rial’s discomfort by this new setting.
As the woman approaches a group of teenage black British boys, she calls to them in Dinka, in what seems to be an attempt to identify some form of kinship with them. But with the uneasy melody continuing even after she reaches them, we come to realise that this aesthetically welcoming group is, in fact, hostile. The boys mock her accent, purposely giving her unclear directions to the GP she searching for. Finally, one yells at her to “Go back to fuckin’ Africa man”, after she thanks them in Dinka. In what seems to be a highly ironic and unbelievable comment, given that most young black people in the country are only 2nd generation (or ), the aim of this interaction appears to have been to underline the cultural isolation faced by refugees in the western world. The fact that these children or grandchildren of immigrants actively add to Rial’s torment demonstrates a level of disassociation from their origins, which comes as a result of the assimilation process. These boys’ attempts at establishing dominance over Rial, via the socio-economic capital gained from familial immersion in this country, magnify the misguided nature of Bol’s desire to run from his past.
As mentioned before, Rial is reluctant to accept England as her new home, clinging onto the memory of Nyagak by adorning a beaded necklace, which is one of the late girl’s only surviving possessions. Her guilt over her death is eventually revealed to have been rooted in the façade, created by Bol and sustained by Rial, of the child being their daughter, in order to get on the bus to escape. This discovery now better informs us why Bol has been so determined to divorce himself from any connection to his old home, which is further showcased when he throws Nyagak’s necklace in a fire along with other “cursed” belongings. He is trying to evade his shame, as he too feels responsible for her death.
Subsequently, guilt and trauma act as key motifs throughout the film, manifesting themselves as a vengeful spirit, or colloquially known as an ‘apeth’, which stalks the couple upon sundown. In turn, the apeth’s many material forms also personify the anxieties surrounding the migrant experience in the West. Its territorial harassment of the pair, which only takes place in the dead of the night, reflects the two’s oppressively unfamiliar, and even threatening, new environment.
You used the word integrate in the first paragraph. Both mean quite different things. – according to various thesauruses, the two are synonyms. And the Oxford dictionary defines ‘assimilate’ as to absorb and integrate (people, ideas, or culture) into a wider society or culture.
Written By: our resident contributor and Commissioning Editor Hannah – an award-winning writer who is passionate about discussions centring black women and the nuances within this identity. Connect with her on Instagram and on her blog.
All images courtesy of Netflix