Finding Deeper Truths From Refugees In Films


Co-Written by Valleria Ruselli and C. Russell

There are monumentally important new films which break away from the usual journalistic cliches, and experiment with the documentary format in order to find deeper truths in the refugee experience… and to dignify the plight of the displaced.

The current cycle of migrant films, including small-budget personal works as well as more expensive spectacles such as Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea and Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow, provide important alternatives to the barrage of images in the mainstream media. This article is intended to provide the reader with a list of the best “alternatives” to present popular commercial offerings.

El mar la mar (which translates roughly as “The Sea, the Sea”) by J.P. Sniadecki and Joshua Bonnetta is, arguably, one of the most powerful recent documentaries on migrants. Filmed in the Sonoran Desert in the American Southwest where Mexico borders Southern California and Arizona, it’s an hypnotic and impressionistic work which gives the viewer a palpable sense of the heat and much more related to the migrant trip over rugged, unforgiving terrain… drawing upon several individual unforgettable stories. Sniadecki and Bonnetta were inspired by Jason de Leon’s book The Land of Open Graves, an anthropological study of the Sonoran Desert, which argues that the desert is a violent tool of the American border authorities that forces migrants into hostile, deadly conditions.

Havarie (which translates as “Accident” or “Shipwreck”), by German director Philip Scheffner, holds the image of migrants from a distance (as is the case with El mar la mar), and the drama is all on its singular soundtrack… as is the case with El mar. Captured on cell-phone video, we see a little black speck move erratically across the frame, coming in and out of focus, while the image is littered with slippings of meaning and referentiality, and gradually implicated into a dense web of layered experiences of migration, witnessing and helplessness. Some stories are banal, but some are terrifying to the extreme.

Fire at Sea by Gianfranco Rosi is more of a crowd-pleaser than Havarie, having won the Golden Bear at Berlin last year (El mar la mar won the Caligari Film Award and an Ecumenical Jury Prize in 2016 too), and it surely has its own unique poetry.The island of Lampedusa, closer to Libya than Sicily, and certainly a critical and common site for the migrant journey in the Twentyteens, makes use of the neorealistic techniques employed by Visconti and De Sica in the past. The film lists  seven government agencies plus the Ministry of the Interior in the credits, and the work seems to celebrate the mechanics of the Italian state. However, the interplay of pressure on the local population imposed by the flow of migrants and the terrible tales told by and about refugees create dramatic cinema indeed.

Lampedusa in Winter by Austrian filmmaker Jakob Brossman has also won awards, among them an Ethnographic Film Award from the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Brossman takes us much deeper into the island’s difficult accommodation of so many thousands of displaced people (the island having become “one big immigration office”), and deals decently with the rampant mistreatment and poor conditions characteristic of the camp that’s spotlighted. There is a special focus on the many corpses of women that have been found but not reported. In many migrant films, the fates of women are made invisible.

Many of the migrants in recent documentaries are no longer moving, but are awaiting an opportunity to become refugees, to ask for asylum, and to end their arduous journey in a better place than where they started. The waiting game is a kind of purgatory, and two films do an excellent job of documenting that wretched experience in makeshift camps. Those Who Jump is set on Mount Gourougou just outside of the town of Melilla, a Spanish enclave on the African continent. Sylvain George’s May They Rest in Revolt (Figures of War) is set in the border region of Calais in northern France where migrants have gathered on route to England — another perceived land of plenty. Many of the men in this film are from Afghanistan, as well as Africa. If anyone wants to supplement George’s documentary, I recommend seeing the new feature film by Michael Haneke, Happy End (which focuses on migrants in Calais from quite a different angle). The coupling would be ideal.

Human Flow, directed by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, provides plenty of fascinating context and engaging interviews, but also evokes the grandiose scale of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi and its sequels. One gets a sense of what twenty-two million people registered as refugees worldwide means with this work.

The thing is, one must ask of all these films — as Barbara Nimri Aziz asks respecting Human Flow — can artistic effort change perceptions? Yes must be the short, quick reply, but more will surely suffer and die in greater and greater numbers as each day goes by… unless documentation is supported by a new kind of direct action. For the art and the action of the past have not worked well enough. The Answer must move us all to as-yet-untapped creative depths.

Valleria Ruselli is a member of the Oxman Collective. She can be reached at [email protected].



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