In a time where media and politicians portray refugees to be nothing more than facts and figures, Anna Boyce explores another side of the refugee crisis as portrayed through cinematic representations.
If the hundreds of multicoloured flags around the city escaped your notice, a few weeks ago the IDFA (International Documentary Festival Amsterdam) took place here in the city. Hundreds of never before seen documentaries where screened, whose topics ranged from climate change, to VR experiences immersing you into the depths of the Amazon. The city was peppered with international premieres, doc-talks and Q&As; I found myself attending a number of screenings which mostly comprised migrant and postcolonial cinema. These films gave me a chance to approach the ever relevant refugee crisis from the point of view of the refugee, in the midst of media representations which show them as a stigmatised and generalised group.
Whilst many of these films help to counter these stigmatised images, by putting a name, face and a story to these too often faceless people, they also identify the disparity of the lives of Europeans in contrast with those of refugees. The characters telling their own stories of loss and of suffering within the setting of a Europe in which people continue about their affluent and comfortable lives, highlights Europe’s metaphorical blind eye and stresses the need for more effective polices and attitudes in the future.
One of the first documentaries I viewed at the IDFA was by Brazilian director Karim Aïnouz. The film, Central Airport THF, depicts the life of 18 year old Syrian refugee Ibrahim in a refugee settlement within the disused Tempelhof airport in central Berlin. The settlement, initially established with the aim of providing refugee’s accommodation for six weeks whilst their asylum cases were processed, had become a permanent residence for many, including Ibrahim who had been living there for nearly two years. Ibrahim’s own story and that of those surrounding him highlight the perpetual state of uncertainty that many refugees find themselves in on arriving in Europe. Nearing the end of the film Ibrahim finally receives his refugee status. He calls his mother to tell her the news, over- joyed that he now has three and a half years of security. Many of those around him are not yet so lucky, assigned the status of a ‘protected person’ they live their lives in a state of liminality, constantly fearing that this protection could be taken away.
It is not only Ibrahim’s own story that provides a commentary but similarly the filming techniques and camera work provide a narrative on the duality of the lives of the refugees in contrast with the Berliners that surround the airport. The old airfield was, after a considerable amount of civilian action to reclaim the space, turned into the Tempelhof public park. The park directly borders the settlement, and overhead drone shots show the disparity between the Berliners, running, riding bikes, having picnics and enjoying their freedom in the park, and the lives of the refugees directly next door living eight people to a cubicle.
Whilst the Tempelhof project shows great initiative in its repurposing of space, additionally taking into account the settlement was set up in under 3 weeks. The time in which people were spending in this space meant that somewhere meant to be a place of transit became a permanent home for many. The irony of Tempelhof being an airport, essentially a springboard to new locations, becomes apparent here. This highlights the EU’s slow progress in creating a policy by which refugees can be quickly processed and provided with a place to reside.
Another cinematic representation of the migrant experience in Europe is Gianfroco Rosi’s 2016 film, Fire at Sea. Here we see the daily lives of the residents of Italian island Lampedusa contrasted with the experiences of the hundreds of migrants landing on the island during the height of the crisis in 2015. The protagonist is a young boy living on the island named Samuele. His main concerns in life are his seasickness considering the location of his homeland, and his lazy eye which when covered by his doctor with an eye patch becomes a more physical representation of Europe’s ignorance to the suffering of migrants. Samuele continues his life with little awareness or concern for what is taking place on his small island. The local news channel broadcasts ten second long segments covering the arrival of migrants, at which point we see a grandmother look up from her coffee and shake her head, before returning to what she was doing as the news aptly turns back to the weather for the coming days.
Rosi’s film somewhat differs from that of Aïnouz in that despite his up close filming of the refugees arriving in Lampedusa, he does not give them voice in the same way that Ibrahim’s narrative represents the refugee story. Rather the refugees are seen as a mass arriving by boat, indistinguishable from the images and accounts published by the media to evoke fear of a mass invasion of migrants.
Much of the focus with regard to the refugee crisis is on concrete borders, allowing people in danger to cross national borders and seek asylum. But what these documentaries bring to light is the importance of addressing less visible borders: the ones refugees face once they arrive in Europe, that they must over- come to establish new lives in Europe. When a refugee camp opens in a European town or city, bordering the normal everyday lives of Europeans, it brings the problems people hear on the news close to home, they can no longer simply turn a blind eye. But why do so many respond to this with resentment and anger?
The roots of this can be found in media re- presentations of migrants, the images of re- fugees packed into ships titled ‘The migrant invasion’ immediately feeds into hostility and fear. Then exploited and exaggerated for political gain by Europe’s rising xenophobic parties the refugee becomes stigmatised as an invader of Europe here to take jobs and resources. The economic fear of the migrant is another result of this fear mongering; Brussels based think tank Bruegel published an extensive paper on possible solutions to the migration problem. One of their central points was that rather than flooding the job market, migrants are providing much needed labour, especially in parts of Europe hit by inter-European migration. They also state that a shocking 35% of migrant workers are overeducated for the jobs that they do find, and that one of the main causes of this is not only difficulty in getting their qualifications recognised but also linguistic problems. This reminds me of one of the other central characters in Aïnouz’s film, Qutaiba Nafea an Iraqi doctor working as a volunteer in the refugee settlement, struggling to find the money to pay for his wife’s German lessons, whilst also having to renew his medical qualifications in order to work in Germany.
According to the EU, European values include respect for human dignity, freedom and equality so why is it that these values so rarely apply to refugees? Earlier this year, Angela Merkel stated that the future of the EU hinged on how the refugee crisis was dealt with. This statement has some potency. A functional response to the situation requires the EU states to cooperate on a supranational level to deal with an outside body, which is not, as the media presents, an invading force, but a group of people who have suffered and risked their lives to get to Europe. The EU’s ability to deal with this situation will be an accurate indication of the ability of the member states to cooperate with one another, and thus the state of the union.
So far their ability to cooperate on this issue has been lacking. Some states, most notably Sweden have become a “haven” for refugees, whereas others have been far less willing to follow suit. The refugee crisis can be seen as a way for the EU to revitalise itself. It is essential that all states share the burden, so that refugees arriving in Europe can find
a permanent place of residence far quicker, rather than being stuck in ever prolonged transit periods with no clear vision for their futures. If the member states can successfully come together, this will not only provide relief for the millions of refugees so in need, but also reduce friction between EU states, and re-establish the EU’s success as a supra- national institution.
In addition, there are things that we as citizens can do to ensure a better future for refugees in Europe. A pop-up shop in London appeared on Black Friday named Choose Love, where shoppers could redirect their consumerism toward a better cause. Inside buyers could purchase gifts for refugees, ranging from sleeping bags, to clothing and toothbrushes, the shop was a huge success. Refugee’s Welcome marches have taken place all over the continent, aiming to provide visibility to people who have become invisible. Whilst action such as this may have no direct effect on the goings on in Brussels, the awareness it promotes and political pressure it creates stand to enforce the humanity of the refugee crisis and emphasise that these people who so often appear as facts and figures are so much more than that.