Blog: Refugee Crisis Films at Sheffield Doc Fest 2017

I think it was Sydney Pollack who said that a good film is 2 sides of a good argument. Guido Hendrikx has taken that quite literally in his new film ‘Stranger in Paradise’: a provocative essay that lives up to the comparison Variety’s Damon Wise made with the work of Lars Von Trier. Right down to the use of cynically titled chapter headings.

After a mesmerising prologue montage that uses archive footage to sum up the history of human evolution, war and mass movement on planet earth, we are thrown into a classroom on the island of Sicily. Valentijn Dhaenens is teacher to a room of refugees, freshly arrived in Europe. ‘Act 1: Where He Tells It Like It Is’ is a ruthless diatribe of harsh ‘truths’ about the crisis. “Europe doesn’t want you”, “Europe can’t afford you”, “immigration is a threat to European cultural values”, “immigrants should stay at home and fix their countries problems” etc. Its brutal. The kind of right wing rhetoric that would send most liberal refugee sympathisers I know storming out of the cinema in disgust. At one point he even blames the refugee ‘catastrophe’ on bleeding heart liberals of the West. By the end of the sequence I was ready to leave. Then the next title card came up. ‘Act 2: Where He Tells It Like It Its… Again’. Surely he won’t? Thankfully he doesn’t. It’s the same situation but with a different class of asylum seekers. Dhaenens proceeds to lecture the polar opposite of his previous discourse. “Colonialism needs to be compensated for”, “The world economy would boost by 70% if there were no borders and total free movement was possible”, “immigration and cultural integration is the way to a brighter future for everyone”. It’s here where the inner workings of the film begin to reveal themselves. In having Dhaenens demonstrate both extremes of the argument, director Hendrikx achieves a balanced objectivity that is quite rare. Act 3 is titled ‘When He Plays By The Rules’. I wont spoil it for you but it is just as provocative and thought provoking as the first 2 thirds.

The film is punctuated with welcome but brief musical interludes. ‘Expecting to Fly’ by Neil Young/Buffalo Springfield is cynically cut short just as it begins to soar while ‘The Stranger Song’ by Leonard Cohen is profound and haunting.

Throughout Dhaenens is always courteous and respectful towards his students. He allows them to engage in his discourses and makes sure everyone understands and is understood. That said, he is undoubtedly the dominant voice in the room. Often what he says is harsh and challenging, dashing hopes and dreams with blunt reason. I squirmed with discomfort more than once. But he is never condescending. Quite the opposite I think. He treats everyone as an intelligent individual, able to face the challenging reality of seeking asylum in Europe.

Some might argue that Hendrikx is unfairly using his refugee subjects as pawns in an intellectual game designed to satisfy ‘sophisticated’ Western film festival audiences. But I think this argument is the true condescension. Every one of the refugee subjects gains something valuable, even if it is the rude wakeup call that they wont be granted asylum just because they want to pursue a singing career. In an ingenious epilogue, Hendrikx even acknowledges the trappings of pandering to an intellectual elite as well as all his other conceits and methods. Its really a very open and objective film. And quite brilliant at that.

In my second post I mentioned I’d be reviewing Mathew Heineman’s follow up to ‘Cartel Land’, ‘City of Ghosts’. However, due to the Alternate Realities exhibition being so popular and difficult to book, I had to choose between fighting ISIS or exploring refugee crisis related Virtual Reality installations. Personally I had ethical issues with Heineman’s slick action thriller ‘Cartel Land’ when I saw it at Doc Fest 2015. And as ‘Ghosts’ doesn’t directly deal with the refugee crisis I decided to do the VR instead.

Death Tolls Experience’ takes you on a journey through 4 virtual worlds designed to give a sense of scale to the sheer number of people who have died in Europe and Syria since 2011 due to war, terror or in perilous transit. From the Brussels shooting (32) to the Mediteranean Sea drownings (3771) to the Syrian Civil War Casualties (312,000), the installation is thoroughly sobering but tastefully executed. Each fatality is represented by a zipped up body bag. The numbers are shocking enough. No need for gruesome imagery. The VR is unsettling too. You can look all around you but you cannot move from your fixed position. It’s kind of like being on a very slow roller coaster. I couldn’t help gasping for breath when I was slowly submerged in the Mediterranean. A very effective and thought provoking installation that really puts things into perspective.

Creator Ali Eslami told me that the VR experience will travel to the Paris Virtual Film Festival from the 30th June to the 2nd July. After that he is hoping to release it online.

While Aleppo was being heavily bombed all around his family home, teenage aspiring architect Mohammed painstakingly built a paper replica of his beloved city in an attempt to preserve his favourite landmarks. When his family were forced to flee to Turkey, Mohammed had to abandon his miniature. But with the encouragement of Alex Pearson, he built a second version. Future Aleppo is a VR installation devised by Alex that gives festival goers the opportunity to explore Mohammed’s impressive model. The 2×2 metre city is littered with heat sensitive buttons that trigger sound effects and vocal recordings of Mohammed describing the different buildings and their personal significance.

This installation is easily the most moving work I’ve seen at Doc Fest so far.

When you are powerless to save your home, the simple act of building a model is incredibly empowering. Here, a young man of inspiring resolve and ingenuity has taken control in a beautiful way. He hopes to one-day return to the real Aleppo and help rebuild. I felt a bit bad for the person next in line to use my VR goggles. The sponge under the lenses was wet with tears.

Alex intends to expand the project to refugee camps across Turkey and Europe, encouraging other children to reconstruct their own cities.

As for Mohammed’s model, it will continue to travel with exhibitions. From the 4TH to the 6TH of July it will appear at the Children’s Media Conference in Sheffield where young people will be able to build their own versions on Mohammed’s Aleppo.

Next I was off to Tudor Square to catch an out door screening of Guardian-produced short ‘The Island‘. This short doc follows trauma therapist Pho Lin as she conducts sessions with asylum seekers who are being held in a high security detention centre on Christmas Island, 930 miles off Western Australia.

Fittingly, Christmas Island is also the stage for the largest crab migration in the world. Every year, 50 million red crabs travel from the jungle to the sea. It makes for a striking visual motif.

Many refugees are detained for months on end and, as Pho explains, that the uncertainty and utter lack of control drives perfectly healthy and stable people to severe mental decline, despair and often, suicide.

In Pho’s sessions she allows her patients to decompress and tell their story in their own way, without the pressures or demands of their asylum claim interviews. She tries to give them as much choice as possible in how they express themselves.

Interestingly, she offers her patients a box full of sand to play with and shape as they see fit. They also have an array of miniature figures to choose and arrange. In one intimate session, a Somalian woman makes a pond in the middle of the sandbox and places a model boat in the middle. “Everyone can make the journey but very few will overcome the sadness of being on the water”. She pours a jug of liquid into the little boat.

This is a quietly heart breaking insight into the day to day life of a deeply compassionate individual who is effectively working within the very system that causes the trauma she is counselling. I imagine it’s because she knows that if it weren’t for people like her, the situation would be a far worse.

The film is beautifully shot. Some of the refugee’s faces are tastefully concealed without losing any emotion or expressivity. I personally felt the music was a little too bleakly persuasive. The stories are affecting enough.

You can watch ‘The Island’ here

On top of missing out on ‘City of Ghosts’ I also skipped (previously promised) ‘Radio Kobani’ as it also did not directly deal with the refugee crisis.

Thanks for reading.

Thomas Laurance