Journeying across a treacherous ocean in a dinghy is just the first chapter of a long and dehumanising odyssey for those escaping to a new life in Europe
Whether they are coming in hordes or droves, you might think from the way they are described that the thousands of migrants “flooding” Europe each year were an invading army. The news is filled with images of dinghy boats and orange life jackets. Red Cross volunteers wait to register queues of people rescued from sea. Very few of these hundreds can be named in short reports and their stories are often told only as brief, repetitive soundbites.
George Kurian’s documentary film The Crossing shows a different point of view. Audiences at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival were not waiting with the news cameras looking up at a boatload of blurry faces. They were invited to see what it feels like for people inside the boat when it lands. The film opens with a group of Syrians celebrating as they finally dock in Italy after a life-threatening journey. They jump up and down grinning from ear to ear, kissing their children and peering excitedly out of the windows.
So begins an intimate and revealing view into what it is like to come to Europe as a refugee. This witty, intelligent, likeable group of Syrians have been uprooted from stable middle-class lives as journalists, musicians, pharmacists and business people. They are living in Cairo but can’t stay, as their passports cannot be renewed. The group seems just as surprised to find themselves making this dangerous journey as the audience is to watch them. Crammed into a tiny fishing boat for days on end, the group film themselves on GoPros. They joke about being on a yacht and pretend to curse songs, which they previously enjoyed, about the beauty of the sea. Their camaraderie wanes as they experience extreme thirst, their children fall ill, vomit and excrement fill the boat, and they begin to fear they won’t make it alive.
Yet once they arrive in Europe, they realise that the crossing was, in many ways, the easy part. The energy of the group is sapped after they are divided across refugee camps in Europe. Forced from their home countries and everyone they know, many fall into depression. One describes the long period waiting for asylum as “the end of an era, an era of waiting for nothing, the era of losing time, the era of losing your life”. Without friends and a sense of purpose, many feel they are losing their identity. Trapped in a hostel in Sweden, one woman feels she will go mad if she can’t work as she has been doing her entire life. She and her son sit in the kitchen, glued to videos of the bombing of their hometown. They tell each other not to watch and yet cannot move away from the videos playing on their phones. While the news portrays the physical hardships of a treacherous journey, the film shows how refugees also bring with them deep psychological scars.
It is this sense of dehumanisation, too, that is dealt with in Mediterranea, also shown at the HRW Film Festival. This fiction film is based on the real life story of the main actor and co-writer Kudos Seihon. Ayiva and Abbas are two brothers from Burkina Faso in West Africa, who are desperate to get to Europe. Abbas is excited by the European women and beautiful cars his friends in Italy post on their Facebook pages. Ayiva is more concerned with sending money to his sister and young daughter back home. Their journey includes getting kidnapped by militias, being thrown off a small dinghy in a storm, and avoiding the risk of drowning by standing all night, clinging to a large fishing net.
Their arrival in Rosarno, Italy, is filled with elation and relief. Yet, it is here that the real difficulties begin. The brothers have three months to find a work contract to be able to stay in Europe. They take up jobs illegally picking oranges for small cash payments, vulnerable to the decisions of their Italian employers. Undocumented migration in this part of Italy has often been compared to slave labour. The film portrays, in a human and personal way, the dilemmas this presents. When Abbas has picked oranges the wrong way, his boss decides he will not get paid. Screamed at and silenced in front of his peers, he is humiliated. The same boss stands reactionless when another migrant collapses underneath the tonnes of oranges that have fallen on top of him. Yet, this same boss takes a shine to Ayiva, who is a good worker. Ayiva is invited for dinner with his family and befriends his boss’s daughter. Their uneasy friendship is always under threat, as Ayiva knows his life and livelihood could disappear in a second at the whim of any member of this family. And as the farmers abuse the migrants, so they are also abused by those above them. The mafia are a shadowy presence, appearing in the migrant camps to sell goods, collecting money from undocumented prostitutes and even coming to the birthday party of Ayiva’s boss’s daughter. The tension finally spills over when the migrants rise up after their camp is burnt to the ground by police.
In a moment reminiscent of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, Ayiva, who up until now has borne every slight and humiliation, picks up a brick and tosses it into a shop window. These scenes are based on the Rosarno riots of 2010. Human Rights Watch recorded that eleven migrants were seriously injured in drive-by shootings and mob attacks by angry residents. Despite the public outcry that followed, not one prosecution of the attacks mentioned racism as a possible motivator.
In one of the final scenes of Mediterranea, Abbas is severely injured trying to escape a mob. His brother is hunched over him, alone in the semi-darkness. Another blurry, nondescript face, unrecognised and unseen.
Follow the link here for more film reviews from the Human Rights Watch Film Festival (London, 2016).
Photo Credit: Human Rights Watch Film Festival
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