Refugees en Route, on Film

Three new documentaries (The Dream of Europe, Lampedusa in Winter, Salam Neighbor) track the journeys and lives of Middle Eastern and African asylum seekers.

What is it really like to be forced to flee the place you call home burdened with the uncertainty that you may never go back? To live most of your life in a refugee camp? To crowd onto a small rickety boat, or evade the police in a forest, unsure if you’ll survive the night?

Several new documentaries help expand our understanding of the sorts of fraught histories, internal conflicts, daily routines and interpersonal relationships of today’s refugees. In each film we encounter refugees and migrants en route, somewhere between the beginning and the end of their journeys, blocked from getting where they want or need to go. The films also explore the thoughts and feelings of the people who are employed to hunt and police transnational migrants, as well as those who take it upon themselves to help and advocate for them along the way.

Each of the following films were screened in November as part of CPH:DOX (International Copenhagen Documentary Film Festival), where social justice is always a prominent theme.

Salam Neighbor
2015/USA/Syria
Directed by Zach Ingrasci, Chris Temple

Ever wonder what daily life is like inside a UN refugee camp? Never before have independent filmmakers been able to record life on the inside over an extended period. Two young American filmmakers, along with a Palestinian producer of refugee parents, managed to get UN approval to live and film inside the largest refugee camp in Jordan. Camp Al Za’atari shelters approximately 100,000 children and adults. The average stay in camps like this is approximately 17 years. As the past and present experiences of a diverse cross-section of the residents and their families unfold, we witness how the residents create community, commerce, entrepreneurship, leisure and therapy. Multiple perspectives come together to form a coherent narrative, including those of the American outsiders and of international aid workers, in addition to those of the refugees themselves, most poignantly the young children who have grown up in the camp. With trauma and loss characterizing so many of their stories, viewers are invited to grieve and empathize with the women, children and men forced into living in extended limbo, all striving for something else. While the idea of privileged Americans sitting on the floor of tents filming Middle Eastern refugees might sound cringe-worthy, the participant-observers go about their work impressively, with maturity, authenticity and professionalism. An invaluable work.

Trailer: Salam Neighbor

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Lampedusa in Winter
2015/Austria
Directed by Jakob Brossmann

This illuminating portrait of society on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, situated off the coast of Libya, begins and ends with SOS calls from boats packed with African migrants and refugees. In between these two April 2015 rescue attempts (each of which turn out very differently) we witness a broad portrait of daily life on Lampedusa, filmed during the 2014-15 winter. In order to avoid being registered by the Italian government, and therefore blocked from continuing their journey northward, a group of Africans, stuck in a camp on the island, mutilate their fingertips so that police prints cannot be taken. One long-time island resident dedicates herself to actively helping the asylum seekers meet basic needs and advocates for their ability to continue North; a group of veteran fishermen, some resentful of the seemingly continuous arrivals, feel profoundly mistreated by their government over lack of an appropriate ferry for transporting fresh fish to Sicily and decide to go on strike; the mayor appears to do her best to resolve the conflicts in public meetings; and the local priest preaches humble acceptance and social integration of the refugees. Migrants complain of being treated differently by the Italian police when UN agencies and Save the Children are not around to bear witness. Lampedusa officials try to convince refugees that hunger strikes and demonstrations in front of the church will do nothing to help their situation, insisting they remain passive and marginal actors in the ongoing process that will shape their present and their future.

Trailer: Lampedusa in Winter

The Dream of Europe
2015/Norway
Directed by Liv Berit, Helland Gilberg, Bodil Voldmo Sachse, Jens Blom

“Now I’m pleased with myself.” So opens this highly informative documentary about how the European Union agency Frontex polices the southern borders of the Schengen area. The opening line is uttered with a smile by a well-meaning, rookie Frontex officer who, scanning with a flashlight, catches a man curled up in a truck in a box. This perverse game of cat and mouse plays out repeatedly with a focus on the business of Norwegian officers arriving for work in Spain, Italy and Greece. Human rights guarantees are not incorporated into Frontex policy; as another officer explains, “Sometimes we have to put the human element aside. That may sound cynical, but that’s the way it is.” Despite their ambivalence, these officials often sound harsh and ruthless; another exclaims, “Now I’m happy” after finding a man hiding under a heap of garbage. Such seemingly callous words mask an internal struggle between their better human instincts on the one hand and the urge to a good job for their boss on the other. They must force themselves to minimize the humanity of the people they are hunting for. We see images of men hiding on the underside of huge trucks, folded inside luggage and even sewn into car seats. In a particularly grim but illuminating sequence, we spend time with a group of African migrants living in abject poverty at an illegal encampment in Nador, Morocco, after they make an attempt to climb the Spanish border fence en masse (a small amount of Spanish/European territory exists on the African continent that migrants regularly try to reach safely in order to avoid the trip across the Mediterranean). We see footage of the Spanish police brutalizing them as punishment for their transgression. Then, in a harrowing moment following the assault, a man unexpectedly dies on film. The outraged filmmakers, clearly having difficulty witnessing all the horror and injustice, successfully track down the dead man’s family to communicate the sad news to them, and we hear from his loved ones why he left.

Trailer: The Dream of Europe