Theater of Cruelty

Rehumanization of refugees

Regissør: Laurent Van Lancker

With a subdued and unobtrusive approach, director and anthropologist Laurent Van Lancker lets the residents of the now-destroyed camp at Calais describe their separated community in their own words.


A camera circles the ground, through some bushes, roaming a tent, cooking utensils, several tents, and garbage strewn around. We move into the "Jungle", the temporary and highly improvised refugee camp on the outskirts of Calais, France – a refuge for refugees waiting for an opportunity to cross the Channel and into the United Kingdom. Kales is an exploration of this camp and its life.

Filmmaker Laurent Van Lancker, who is also an anthropologist, collaborated with several of the residents of the Calais camp while it existed, from April 2015 to November 2016, we will know in the scrolling text. Although the horrible living conditions are completely obvious, the film concentrates on the everyday life of the residents. Van Lancker visits them in their various hangouts or outside them, and shows them mainly through their (cultural) activities: playing music, watching video, painting, singing, cooking, sports, telling stories, buying cigarettes, learning French . The people who have managed to reach this place are portrayed not only as adaptable and strong, but also as creative.

Kales shows people who have found a way to live peacefully together, and who have created a kind of life, their own civilization. 

Dantes Calais. This does Kales into a very human movie. It is common for the media to present refugees with emphasis on the problems they are likely to create and on the undoubtedly dangerous refugee routes. Most reports about Calais emphasize the terrible living conditions, the mutual tensions and threats, the dangers of trying to reach England, the frustrations of being in these circumstances, and the police forces trying to control the situation. Such representations dehumanize the refugees and limit them to problems and threats. In contrast to this shows Kales people (mostly men) who have found a way to live quietly together "and create a kind of life". The camp is a kind of secluded multicultural society, its own civilization. It seems to work. It appears more like a permanent than a temporary existence. The men groan and mumble, ponder and reflect on their situation, tell in detail about their dreams and anxieties, and thus share both their inner and outer life. They do not deny the less advantageous aspects of their lives: risks, fears, murders and health conditions are discussed, but as one aspect among many others. Participants are nameless, and we get details about identities and origins only through the stories they decide to share. Much of their context remains implicit.

A few of the residents' stories explicitly serve as metaphors for their situation. One is a story that focuses on the idea that the real difficulties lie ahead and that the current situation in the ground is quite safe. Another is a poem describing the situation in and around Calais, and how the residents and the city are rather exhausted. It is also a story that expresses the absence of help and the need to trust oneself. At both the beginning and the end of the film there is a longer quote from Dante's Inferno (The Divine Comedy) that sums up what Van Lancker wants us to see: the good he found in this god-forsaken place, the friendly people who share their experiences and their existence. The aim of this hour-long film is therefore presented fairly openly.

The participants are nameless, we get details about identities and origins only through the stories they decide to share. 

Deserted land. The film's calm approach is reflected in camera work and sound design. Both are unobtrusive. Van Lancker observes in silence (while one of the residents adds a very lively recording style, and adds comments while recording). He usually stays pretty close to the campers – creating both a certain intimacy and a claustrophobic feeling. But here is also a counter-force: since Calais is a coastal city, there is always wind there, and in most scenes there are tents, tarpaulins, and even a painting canvas that flutters. In the background lies the highway with its promise to reach England. It is a form of unrest all the time. People are often filmed with parts of a tent or other creep in the picture. There are no uncomplicated prospects in sight. Eventually, it becomes clear that the camp will be demolished, and the film ends with the remains: the camera orbits over abandoned garbage, through abandoned creeps and over the landscape that is now deserted. Despite its sad subject matter, is Kales something of a relief to see. For it not only offers an alternative representation of a social conflict, but does so in a very subdued and gentle way. By doing so, refugees are being humanized who, whether you acknowledge their reasons for being here or not, deserve to be heard and treated with respect.

Willemien W. Sanders
Willemien W. Sanders
Sanders is a critic, living in Rotterdam.

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