In Cinema 2: The Time-Image, Gilles Deleuze distinguishes between classical political cinema, in which “the people are there, even though they are oppressed, tricked, subject,” and a truly modern, progressive political cinema, in which “the people no longer exist, or not yet . . . the people are missing,” because the film gestures toward a heretofore unseen future. 1 Five recent documentaries, all screened at the 2018 Berlinale, work valiantly to bring the lives and struggles of refugees and economic migrants – people otherwise missing from contemporary visual media – to broad public attention: Human Flow (2017) by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei; Berlin filmmaker Jakob Preuss’s When Paul Came Over the Sea (2017); Syrian ex-soldier Ziad Kalthoum’s Taste of Cement (2017); Zentralflughafen THF (2018), by Brazilian-Algerian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz; and Swiss filmmaker Markus Imhoof’s Eldorado (2018). Some describe refugee situations in cinematically familiar ways, while others invent strategies that call into being a missing people.
It’s often claimed that there are really only two plots in literature and film: someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Migrant and refugee experiences, by definition, produce both kinds of narratives, and in either narrative arc, place and space are crucial elements of the story: the traveler encounters strange foreign landscapes, cultures, wildlife, and perils; or the newly arrived stranger attempts to navigate the particularities and local norms of the unfamiliar location, along with the hospitality or hostility of its residents. Politically engaged filmmakers have captured the gripping stories inherent in human displacement to protest social injustice toward refugees and economic migrants and illuminate the human costs of the current global crisis, which has forced 68.5 million people, almost twenty-five million of whom are refugees, from their homes. 2 Despite politicians’ deployment of a xenophobic rhetoric that depicts refugees as dangerous threats to the sovereignty and integrity of the nation-state, the vast majority of refugees entering the European Union from the Middle East and North Africa – like Latin American refugees attempting to cross the border into the United States – are not dangerous so much as desperate for safety from political violence and economic suffering. Some of the five recent documentaries focus on the perils and frustrations of the journey, while others explore detention camps or other temporary living spaces.
The most impressive in scope is Human Flow by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who announces his radically compassionate vision in its title: human – a genderless, ageless designation inclusive of all people and free from ethnic and national qualifiers – and flow, which evokes fluidity, liquidity, and movement rather than rigidity, walls, and clearly defined and defended borders. Shot over a period of a year, the film was produced on a staggering scale appropriate to the magnitude of the global refugee crisis itself, with 25 camera crews (about 200 people) shooting over a thousand hours of film at 40 refugee camps and other sites in 23 countries, including Tempelhof in Berlin, the U.S./Mexico border, Kenya, Pakistan, Greece, Italy, Iraq, Serbia, Jordan, Bangladesh, Hungary, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan, and incorporating footage shot by drones, by standard camera crews, and by Ai himself on his handheld iPhone. 3 Juxtaposing images of abjection with those of sheer visual beauty, and flashing haunting geopolitical statistics onscreen – such as that the typical refugee spends an average of 26 years displaced – Human Flow combines exquisite camerawork, moments of wrenching human drama, and wry comic gentleness by the filmmaker, who appears in a few scenes himself. The combination is elegantly educational and emotionally moving, yet surprisingly easy on the eyes.
Despite the focus of its title, Human Flow is unique among the documentaries I’ll mention in including images of non-human animals trapped in conflict zones: a horse runs in circles in a dusty ring; a smoke-blackened cow wanders, stunned and lost, surrounded by devastation; and a tiger farts and shits in a dirt pit. Ai’s metaphor is clear: the refugees are equally abject, trapped and enclosed in situations they did not create. Such cinematic images resonate with refugees’ own use of animal imagery to describe their experiences of being shipped and penned against their will. As philosopher Kelly Oliver documents in her book Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention, “(i)n Dunkirk camp in France, more than three thousand refugees live in rat-infested tents pitched in ankle-deep mud and human waste with only two water faucets; one resident says, ‘This place is for animals, not for human beings.’” In Calais, residents of the squalorous 6,000-refugee camp “call it the Jungle because they’re treated like animals.” 4
Oliver explains, “When we broaden our perspective to that of the earth and those with whom we share the earth, when we think of home in relation to ethics and politics, it becomes clear that everyone belongs and has a right to home. All mammals, humans included, need a safe place to sleep at night. This is precisely what refugees lack.” 5 Ai’s deployment of non-human imagery in Human Flow draws attention to this basic animal need for shelter and protection.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the multiple ways in which it registers space onscreen: intimately and human-scaled, with Ai’s own handheld iPhone registering the quivering intensity of what it’s like to help pull refugees from dinghies onto the beach; standard film-crew shots that sometimes include footage of Ai himself, interacting with refugees, allowing himself to be bodily altered by the experience (in a minor way) when he has his hair shorn alongside them – and then footage shot by drones gliding high above the camps, infusing situations that we’ve just seen to be wretched with a strangely aestheticized, unearthly beauty, suffusing the film with a glossy polish that Manohla Dargis calls “a velvety smooth look” 6, a factor that surely helped lead to its inclusion on the shortlist for the Oscars – for if there’s a comfort-film version of the refugee documentary, it’s this one: despite Ai’s stated intentions to raise awareness, his willingness to make his own body alterable and vulnerable to refugees’ touch and our gaze, and his expansion of an ethic of compassion to include non-human animals, the film itself encourages withdrawal and complacency.
After all, up close, the refugees’ plight is terrifying, their unearned suffering a reminder that we, too, are vulnerable to just such displacement by forces larger than ourselves, and their needs an endless moral demand upon our generosity. But from a god’s-eye view, the flow of humans is soothingly beautiful, all evidence of their suffering smoothed away by distance. Thus, while the film’s explicit agenda is to educate, encourage empathy, and model vulnerable and embodied action, its visual rhetoric suggests that the most comfortable thing to do is pull away.
While Human Flow looks from a distance at large global patterns of human movement, the documentary When Paul Came Over the Sea focuses, as its title suggests, on the story of one stranger’s odyssey in strange lands. It traces Paul René Nkamani’s four-year journey north from his home in Cameroon, a former German colony, to Nigeria, through Algeria to Morocco, across Spain and France, and ultimately to Berlin, where politically active filmmaker Jakob Preuss grew up twenty minutes from the Wall. When Paul Came Over the Sea problematizes another kind of boundary, the line between detached documentary filmmaker and involved participant in the life of a refugee in need.
Preuss’s concern with space, boundaries, and borders is evident in the film’s opening shot, a striking image of Nkamani perched high atop a pole. Below him is a high fence, and beyond it, ethnic Europeans play golf in Melilla, an autonomous Spanish city on the northern coast of Morocco, where each day desperate African migrants risk life and limb to cross the fence for the opportunity to request asylum on Melilla’s Spanish soil; the film includes footage of such attempts, along with the armed guards and razor wire that repel them.
Preuss first met Nkamani in the Moroccan forest, where many refugees dwell in tents, awaiting boat passage across the Mediterranean. Originally planning to make a film about immigration vis-à-vis the perspective of European border guards, Preuss was convinced by the sheer force of Nkamani’s story, personality, and charisma to shift the focus of his documentary to a single individual’s journey, and the decision pays off. Smart, bold, outspoken, good-looking, and opinionated, Nkamani makes a compelling, appealing subject.
Intimate and granular, organized by chronological chapters (“Day 12,” “Day 37,” “Day 146,” and so on), When Paul Came Over the Sea details the ordinary struggles of Nkamani’s experience in the encampment in the Moroccan forest: washing clothes in a bucket, living in a small tent, playing checkers with bottle caps, and sleeping with a life jacket, ready to go, in case the smugglers should come in the night. His subsequent boat passage across the Mediterranean to mainland Spain, a traumatic 50-hour journey on an inflatable boat, on which half of the passengers died and Nkamani himself suffered from severe dehydration, is integrated into the film via news footage of its rescue.
As Preuss then records Nkamani’s slow journey north across Europe, the two men get to know each other better, and the lines of obligation begin to blur. In perhaps the film’s most ethically vexing scene, Nkamani stares in pained, humiliated frustration at the camera, which captures his attempts to beg from strangers when he needs money to take a bus to complete paperwork for his residence applications. The film crew stands a few meters away, filming, as Preuss’s voiceover explains that he had determined in advance not to interfere by providing bus fare – though his very presence, friendship, and mentoring throughout the earlier process of filming would naturally have given rise to Nkamani’s reasonable expectation that pocket change would not have been too much to ask. In the next shot, however, Nkamani is sitting smugly on the bus, having successfully gotten all the money he needed: as long as there are women, he explains, he’ll do fine. Subsequent shots of his muscled frame as he does calisthenics in his room amplify the notion that his body and its promises are key capital to be deployed. Indeed, the camera captures his frank discussions with an older male migrant who has successfully resettled in Europe and who instructs Nkamani on how to effectively seduce a woman into marrying him for the sake of legal residency – that is, how to project enough faked sincerity to make her believe it’s for real. At another point, Nkamani explodes in a pointedly decolonial outburst, saying, “We come (to Europe) to take what you have stolen!”
By the film’s closure, the personal bleeds into the personal in ways that defy the usual rules of documentary filmmaking, for Nkamani ends up living in Preuss’s childhood home in Berlin, sleeping in Preuss’s own childhood bedroom, and being coached, mentored, and fed by Preuss’s parents while seeking education and moving through the immigration process. He is effectively installed as a substitute adult live-at-home son, inheriting Preuss’s own previous role in their lives – and, in a postcolonial about-face, displacing Preuss from and occupying his former home.
While Preuss’s documentary focuses on one man in motion, Ziad Kalthoum’s Taste of Cement studies a group of men trapped in stasis, documenting Syrian refugees laboring by day as construction workers on a skyscraper, rebuilding the war-damaged cityscape of Beirut, and huddling underground at night to thumb through photos on their iPhones of shattered buildings back in Syria, anxiously watching and mourning the destruction of their own cities back home. Living under a 7pm curfew, young and middle-aged men enter a hole in the ground each evening and dwell in darkness, washing clothes in plastic buckets and sleeping on bedrolls on damp cement floors. In Taste of Cement, strangers have come to town, and the town, as Kalthoum aptly points out, has decided to “us(e) them as slaves.” 7 As the men work on the highest stories of the skyscraper, the camera captures, far below in the distance, billboards for consumer goods such as Mazda automobiles – an image that ironically highlights the refugees’ own immobility. Indeed, one of the workers told the filmmakers (offscreen) that, to him, Beirut “looks like wallpaper” – a flattened, unreal backdrop lacking dimensionality, a place where one’s own body cannot enter.
Though Beirut is a coastal city, and Taste of Cement includes shots of the Mediterranean at dusk, its location doesn’t quite account for the predominance of water imagery in the film, which far exceeds any simple establishing-shot functions. Indeed, Taste of Cement opens with and later returns to strange underwater sequences of aquatic life and submerged war machines, pushing viewers to contemplate the contrast between the film’s shots of the postcard-pretty surface of the sea and the complex lived (and abandoned) reality beneath – a spatial prompt that resonates with the way the laborers go beneath the ground each night into a dimly lit pit, where their real lives persist: subterranean, submerged, and hidden from view of the residents of Beirut who will one day enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Kalthoum montages other evocative images as well. Contrasting the creation of one built environment with the destruction of another, long takes of construction labor accompanied by only the diegetic noise of machinery are juxtaposed with footage of Syrian homes being destroyed by bombs. Images of a tank rolling through a Syrian city are intercut with shots of construction on the skyscraper: the tank’s gun rotates on its axis, firing rounds, and then the crane’s arm rotates around the construction site. Images of ocean waves recur, suggesting that destroying and building are two inextricable sides of the same process, a painful cycle as relentless as the tides. Indeed, sound designer Ansgar Frerich overlays the sound of roaring waves upon shots of wet, flowing cement. For Kalthoum, a former soldier who left Syria when the war began, the project actually grew from his experience of specific sounds: the explosions of bombs at home, and then, in Beirut, the loud and constant noise of heavy construction. Privileging diegetic sound throughout, the film unfolds almost wordlessly.
There’s a pragmatic reason for the absence of the refugees’ voices. As he explained after the screening, Kalthoum knew he wanted to document the lives of Syrian refugees living nearly invisibly as construction laborers, but in order to gain access to the construction site, he told the owner of the high-rise that he wanted to film the high-rise itself to showcase the modernity of Beirut’s rebuilding. The owner agreed, on the condition that Kalthoum was strictly barred from interviewing any of the workers. The workers themselves, moreover, were forbidden to speak to the film crew, and the chief of workers monitored them on the construction site to enforce this prohibition. The voiceover, which is minimal, is a poetic composition – a composite – by Kalthoum, who wrote the dreamlike script after collecting stories from workers off-site and then combined elements of their narratives with his own personal experience of displacement. One line in the voiceover, “Cement eats the skin, not just your soul,” alludes to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s classic Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974), folding the corrosive physicality of unrelenting labor into the immigrant’s grinding daily experience of fear.
No specific narrative or detail in the voiceover is ever associated with any one individual, and the film never names any of the workers. In mid-distance shots, they often seem posed, overly picturesque, like statues, and they remain largely indistinguishable from one another throughout the film, as if one stands a signifier for them all. This minimization of individual identity was a deliberate choice, both protective of the workers’ privacy and reflective of Kalthoum’s political aesthetic: “We don’t have a main character,” he said; we depict “all of them as one,” and the film’s closing dedication announces its solidarity with “all workers in exile.” This strategy recalls Deleuze’s assertion that “because the people are missing, the author (or filmmaker) is in a situation of producing utterances which are already collective, which are like the seeds of the people to come, and whose political impact is immediate and inescapable.” 8 Kalthoum’s subterfuge in telling the owner of the high-rise that he wanted to film the building, not the builders, was, as it turns out, necessary: when the owner discovered that Kalthoum’s crew was filming below ground, he threw them out.
The tension between architecture and the people living within it also plays a key role in Zentralflughafen THF, directed by Brazilian-Algerian filmmaker Karim Aïnouz. A former architecture student who describes himself as quirkily obsessed with airports, Aïnouz had not initially planned to make a film about refugees. He was interested only in filming video of Berlin’s four airports to mark the closure of Tegel and Schönefeld and the opening of the new Brandenburg International Airport, but when the delay of Brandenburg’s launch stalled his project, and the European refugee crisis began in mid-2015, the historic and now non-operational airport Tempelhof was employed as temporary housing for the migrants, and Aïnouz found his real subject.
Zentralflughafen THF observes the everyday lives of refugees dwelling in sociopolitical limbo in the hangars of Tempelhof, which was redesigned by Hitler and expanded during the Nazi era to reflect the grandeur and modernity of the Third Reich. Instantiating Hagener’s observation that the “mobilities” of migration “often turn into immobilities,” this place designed as a hub for transit is now a zone of stasis, a massive limestone symbol of what it means to be trapped. 9 To drive home the irony, Aïnouz exploits the metaphorical possibilities of the setting, repeatedly letting the camera linger over images of grounded, defunct WWII aircraft that signal the failed promise of flight. Long, silent shots from within empty air traffic control towers suggest that no one is in charge of guiding the migrants to a safe landing; no one is adequately managing the crisis of human flow. In the hangars, the camera peers down, panopticon-style, into the small cubicles below where refugees dwell. One by one in quick succession, the blaring overhead lights turn off, enforcing the same bedtime for everyone, regulating when they all sleep and rise. A patrol car circles the perimeter at night in various seasons, reminding us that the refugees are surveilled, contained, and controlled via state force.
THF unfolds over a year, marked in chapters by the passing months, and focuses primarily on two men: on the Iraqi Qutaiba Nafea, who wants to become a doctor but works as an interpreter while trapped in immigration limbo, and even more so on Ibrahim Al Hussein, an eighteen-year-old who has come alone from Syria, pines for home and his mother, and plans to become a mechanic. Hussein is the only filmed subject who gets a voiceover, and by the end of the documentary, he has been granted the coveted ‘refugee’ status rather than ‘protected’ status, and is able to leave Tempelhof to share a house with students. But in the film’s final scene, we see him sitting again on the Tempelhof grounds, watching children play. Doubly displaced, he’s at loose ends. 10
All four of these films work valiantly and effectively to make visible the lives and stories of people who would otherwise be missing both from cinema and from mainstream cultural awareness. To greater and lesser degrees, their filmic strategies bring into visibility people who would else remain nonexistent in public discourse except as abstractions, statistics – as part of a problem or crisis.
Yet given that “roughly half” of the world’s displaced people are female, 11 the absence of women and girls in this current crop of documentaries is striking. When Paul Came Over the Sea, Taste of Cement, and Zentralflughafen THF focus exclusively on male subjects. In Zentralflughafen THF, which purports (in its title) to address the whole community, there are – aside from the female white ethnic German tour guide at the beginning, who lectures visitors about the building’s history, and snippets from a few of the intake workers, language teachers, and medical staff, most of whom are also ethnic German – no voices of women in the film. No female refugees speak. Quite early in the film, a woman preparing to nurse her child turns her back to the camera. In When Paul Came Over the Sea, a female refugee in the tent encampment in the Moroccan forest utters in passing the brief but provocative comment that her journey thus far has been unproblematic in that she hasn’t been raped, as if rape were a baseline expectation of female refugee experience – as indeed the scant research suggests 12 – but Preuss doesn’t pursue the issue or interview other women.
The Swiss selection for submission to the Academy Awards, Eldorado, by a fifth male documentary filmmaker, Markus Imhoof, breaks this mold, intercutting the personal story of Imhoof’s own Swiss family’s adoption of an Italian refugee girl during World War II when he was a child – and his deep regret at having lost touch with her – with his year-long exploration of the Mediterranean boat crossings from Libya and the encampments on European soil, particularly in Italy, where refugees are exploited by organized crime and forced to work as farm laborers and prostitutes. Perhaps due to the filmmaker’s personal and empathetic relationship with Giovanna, the girl who inspired the film’s inception, Eldorado does feature girls and women claiming agency and voicing their own experiences, and it is unique among this recent spate of documentaries in including both an acknowledgment of female trauma and a moment of female rebellion.
In a substantive interview, an adult female refugee alludes to her experience of sexual violence as well as to the pain of recollecting and revealing it, asking rhetorically how she could possibly tell her family about the rape when she herself cannot even bear to recall it. While fruitful, this painful moment may make some viewers feel like prurient voyeurs of her pain, reminding us that, as Oliver notes, refugee “interviews too often become interrogations that put asylum seekers into the situation of reliving their trauma.” 13 It’s an ethically vexed conundrum for filmmakers: Asking migrants to disclose their experiences of violence imposes yet another kind of psychological violence upon them, yet otherwise their stories go unrecorded and cannot contribute to the public discourse regarding migration.
The film also includes a key moment of rebellion. In a context where refugees’ safety and survival often depend upon docile compliance with authorities – in a film where refugees are shown being prodded, lined up, numbered, and inspected like cattle – we see only one instance of resistance. When an exhausted refugee family is given water bottles by uniformed guards, a child, perhaps nine years old, suddenly flings the water bottle back, shouting angrily. The child is a little girl. Would a filmmaker less personally sensitized than Imhoof to the plight of a female child have considered this moment worthy of inclusion? It’s difficult to know.
The fact that women and girls are otherwise so little featured in these documentaries could perhaps be due to the male documentary filmmakers’ innate delicacy – a hesitation to intrude – or, less laudably, to their lack of interest in female experience; or to the reluctance of vulnerable female subjects themselves to cooperate with male filmmakers from different cultures; or to a combination of these factors; or to other contingencies we cannot know. Gaining access to and building trust with members of a triply subordinated group is difficult for any filmmaker.
Yet Imhoof, in letting his personal anguish prompt him to make a film that intervenes in contemporary geopolitics – like Preuss and Aïnouz, with their personal engagements with Nkamani and Hussein that bled beyond the borders of the documentary – permitted a permeability of his own boundaries. These filmmakers thus engaged in “radical hospitality and responsibility…to those in need,” “mov(ing) beyond rescue politics and carceral humanitarianism” toward an “ethics wherein our obligations are based on our common planetary home rather than on our national or individual homes.” 14 Ai, Preuss, Kalthoum, Aïnouz, and Imhoof expand and perforate the boundaries of self, home, and belonging in a form of reimagination and radical generosity that is the precise opposite of the politics of exclusion, repudiating the “binary construction(s)” of “a moral universe that defines Heimat (home) by expelling its various others.” [15. Johannes von Moltke, No Place Like Home: Locations of Heimat in German Cinema (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), p. 5). Rather, these films seek to include, to acknowledge, to make visible, and to respect the strangers in their midst.
All five of these admirable documentaries pursue a vision that problematizes, to greater and lesser degrees, the concept of national borders and the violence that nation-states use to militantly defend them. All of these films mobilize human compassion toward politically transformative ends.
While acknowledging their important achievements, I would call for critics and scholars to draw attention to the erasure of gendered difference. Girls matter. Women matter. Our experiences of migration are inflected differently than those of boys and men, and to document migrant and refugee experience without including those inflections produces an incomplete and potentially misleading record. Reviewers, scholars, and viewers have a role to play in shaping future documentaries: in politically meaningful film criticism, as in Deleuze’s formulation of a modern political cinema, we can call into being those who are missing.
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1989), p. 216, emphasis original. ↩
- UNHCR, “Figures at a Glance.” www.unhcr.org/en-us/figures-at-a-glance.html. With applied ethicist Arianne Shahvisi, I reject the bifurcation between “‘genuine’ refugees” and “merely economic” migrants, noting that the poverty and environmental destruction that many migrants flee are as politically caused as governmental persecution. Arianne Shahvisi, “Moral Bankruptcy in the Mediterranean,” The Region, 27 Aug. 2018, https://theregion.org/article/13031-moral-bankruptcy-mediterranean , emphasis original. ↩
- Paula Rösler, “Ai Weiwei’s Film ‘Human Flow’ Makes Oscar Shortlist,” DW 8 Dec. 2017 www.dw.com/en/ai-weiweis-film-human-flow-makes-oscar-shortlist/a-41713580 and Geoffrey Macnab, “Ai Weiwei: ‘My “Human Flow” profits will go to refugee NGOs,’” ScreenDaily 2 Sept. 2017. www.screendaily.com/features/ai-weiwei-my-human-flow-profits-will-go-to-refugee-ngos/5121909.article . ↩
- Kelly Oliver, Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), pp. 19-20. ↩
- Kelly Oliver, Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), p. 79. ↩
- Manohla Dargis, “Review: Ai Weiwei’s ‘Human Flow’ Tracks the Global Migrant Crisis,” New York Times 12 Oct. 2017 www.nytimes.com/2017/10/12/movies/human-flow-review-ai-weiwei.html ↩
- Ziad Kalthoum, Director’s Talk, 2018 Berlinale. ↩
- Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1989), p. 221. ↩
- Malte Hagener, “Migration and Refugees in German Cinema: Transnational Entanglements.” Studies in European Cinema (2018) www.tandfonlinecom.libproxy.unl.edu/doi/full/10.1080/17411548.2018.1453772 . ↩
- In a curious coincidence that reflects the same kind of bleed or leakage as in When Paul Came Over the Sea, Hussein now works not as a mechanic but in a movie theater. To my surprise, I recognized him working behind the refreshments counter at the Delphi LUX Theatre when I was standing in line for a film at the Berlinale, not long after I’d seen the documentary. We spoke and later corresponded, and he acknowledged that being filmed for THF had inspired in him a passion for movies and altered his own hopes for the future. ↩
- Kelly Oliver, Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), p. 17. ↩
- Kelly Oliver, Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), p. 19 ↩
- Kelly Oliver, Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), p. 1. ↩
- Kelly Oliver, Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), p. 77. ↩