Theater of Cruelty

The Babylon, Haunted and Disorient documentaries

Between 21. September and 4. October, the Internet-based viewing platform Doc Alliance Films focused on films about refugees. Here are some of them.


I experience documentaries as clues, and only clues, of life situations I do not find myself in. These clues may serve as the opposite of Narcissus' reflection, in that they show me a way out of my own point of view. But of course they are not mirrors where I see the reality of others; wherever clear or obscure, they remain more or less expressive fragments from a fact that is not mine, and that can never be mine – but that I must try to follow, examine, put myself into. Or more precisely: Documentaries are like most often traces from meeting other people with a life situation that is not mine or yours. This further complicates the relationship: the filmmakers are the fragile link between me and the people the documentary is about. Almost no matter how good these filmmakers are, they are doomed to make wobbly, punchy and often endlessly long bridges between mine and others' experience. They can make a genuine connection, but they can also make me go wrong. What I must remember, though, if I don't want to fool myself, is that these films not only enable mediated experiences of other terms, but that they usually mark gap between the reality of mine and others. Slik they are also traces – expressive signs of a distance between me and others. This distance becomes particularly confrontational in the encounter with films about refugees. To what extent can I, while sitting in the habit of sitting in front of the laptop or confidently in the pre-dawn of the movie theater, cater to the refugee's precarious existence, whose home, security and stability are torn away? Imagining Emanuel. This question is addressed in Thomas Østbye's self-reflective documentary Imagining Emanuel (2011). The film thematizes the relationship between refugee status and identity, and a limited system of documentation, mapping and control. But it is also a film about our limited opportunities to understand the refugee at a basic epistemological level. The documentary is based on Emanuel Agara, who came to Norway without identity papers. He claims he is from Liberia and that he escaped from the civil war there, but the police and Norwegian authorities are sure he is from Ghana. Emanuel's illiteracy makes it difficult for him to pinpoint his hometown on the map, and he doesn't quite know when he's born. The situation becomes difficult for him: Emanuel has neither the right to stay in Norway nor the right to return to his home country. The result is that he has to sit for about a year on the police immigrant intern Trandum (where he, along with the other asylum seekers, is awakened every half hour, around the clock, apparently to prevent any suicide!). Imagining Emanuel brings to mind Jørgen Leths The perfect human (1967). The film starts and ends in an empty, "inhumane" room – a dark studio room where only Emanuel is illuminated, like a homeless and trapped research object under the magnifying glass. A voice asks us: What are we seeing here? Throughout the film, director Østbye asks us how we should approach this refugee in order to best understand him. How should we understand his identity, his origins, his experiences? Østbye links Emanuel's situation to an existential question – which also becomes one realpolitik Question: What is identity? Is identity just something that exists for people with the papers in order? To what extent is identity something we create as a society – the traces we can materialize – and to what extent are the experiences we have made, but which we cannot necessarily communicate or document? The director tries out different stylistic inputs, highlighted by chapter headings, as part of a procedure to find answers to questions like these, and to elucidate Emanuel's situation from different angles. But in its self-reflexive form and partly discouraging tone, it can at the same time be seen as a criticism of a clinical scientificisation of identity and identification – and thus a kind of criticism of itself. Imagining Emanuel seems to imply that just imagination should play a greater role as we approach the reality of this person – as a significant addition to probability calculations, measurements, papers, norms and rules. In order to preserve the dignity of the refugee, we must rely on our imagination, not just rely on a regulatory or camera look that registers. The end is surprisingly poignant: Emanuel stands and thanks for the little attention Eastbye has given him. He may be a "research animal" where he stands in the director's studio, but here is at least one who studies his humanity. Here is someone who relates to him as a being that exists, and not just as an unconfirmed identity. In the sequel, Out of Norway (Østbye and Emanuel Agara, 2014), Østbye tries a new approach to the refugee situation: He gives Emanuel himself a camera and asks him to film his surroundings. Emanuel has been in Norway for ten years now, and finally gets back to Liberia. Imagining Emanuel won multiple awards, and Emanuel used the prize money to buy fake papers so he could flee to his home country. Wherever accommodating Østbye tried to be in his previous film, he did not shy away from using Emanuel and his situation as a Example in an exploration of overall issues. In Out of Norway, on the other hand, the film is placed in the hands of Emanuel. Now the project is more surrendered to Emanuel – his consciousness, bodily impulses (the camera is always handheld) and observations. The sequel becomes more intimate and organic, and less scientifically-rational. Now we see traces that come from Emanuel himself, and not just fragmentary looks of refugee. You still sit and think: Who has edited this material? Who holds the final power? Is it not Østbye who has interpreted these tracks from Emanuel and adapted them to their own world of thought, rhythm and film understanding – no matter how out of date and Emanuel this is? What would the movie look like if only Emanuel had cut it? In what way has he been involved in the post-production process? What is cut out? Who possibly cut out what? Disoriented. In Norway, Emanuel experienced being alone with himself; he did not feel that society cared. In the Belgian documentary disorient (Laurent Van Lancker, 2011), an Asian refugee expresses the same: “You must first be happy yourself, then you can make other people happy. In Asia, we are trained to think: You make people happy, and then you can share your happiness. In the West, you have to learn to be alone, you have to learn to be strong alone. ” This refugee – like Emanuel – points to an individualism we may not always see so easily ourselves. We shake our heads at the American who stubbornly stands up to his right to shoot a "trespasser" and hits us on the chest of our own devilish spirit. But aren't we often a bunch of paralyzed pranks in front of the mirror? Does our spirit of virtue consist as much of indoctrinated courtesy as of benevolent sense of community? As Eastby's films confront disorient us with our ignorance. The film is made up entirely of non-figurative patterns, alternations between light and dark, and different shades of color. Above this we hear people talking about their experiences of being refugees. The abstract forms emphasize one absence of seeing these experiences, and casting our keen eyes back on ourselves. But the absence of figurative points of view not only marks the gap between us and those who speak; the film's indeterminate visuals are also in line with the film's concentrated focus on emotions. The refugees are constantly talking about ambivalent feelings that may not be manifested in a bunch of faces. A man from Saigon, who has emigrated to Belgium, will soon return to his home. He expresses a clear ambivalence: “Going back is a reunion and at the same time a kind of rupture. It's a homecoming since I want to be among my people. [But] the fact that I spent half my life abroad leaves traces – traces in your memory, almost in your genes, in your daily behavior, in your thoughts. So I no longer [feel] in exile, but disoriented. "

Haunted. The people we meet Haunted (Liwaa Yazji, 2014) can also be said to be disoriented and ambivalent. The film lets us meet Syrians who have become "refugees" in their own homes – people who are besieged in their own homes and who can be hit by a bomb at any time. Here we meet people who are struggling to leave home even though death knocks on the door. They relate to everyday objects as if they were life itself. It is as if these things we often think of as small banalities – a teapot, a glass bowl, an ashtray, a mirror – in this crisis situation are important points of reference for a dignified and enduring life. Maybe it's about preserving a certain autonomous (identity, cultural, human) in the face of an incomprehensible and violent situation – preserving one last remnant of self-government among the upheaval forces that can crash into your house at any time and turn everything on its head?

The refugee camp is capable of appearing like many things during the two hours of playing time: a military base, a rubbish dump, an improvised playground, a music festival, a threshold, a waiting room, a prison, a new home.

An elderly couple, whom we meet via a webcam, are besieged by snipers on the neighbors' rooftops. "God probably won't understand how I think," he says. In this civil war, people's thoughts and feelings appear as fragile as the things around them. The camera in Haunted hovering over ruins, investigating them, never finding peace – the film seeks and collects clips, reactions and objects without finding a holistic form. You feel locked in chaotic surroundings, along with the people being filmed, unable to find a way out of the traces of the destruction of the war – broken walls and windows, showing something formerly "homey" irreparably fragmented. Babylon. I Babel (Youssef Chebbi, Ishmael and Eddine Ala Slim, 2012) we see a quite different approach to people fleeing war. Where the films I've talked about so far are largely based on getting people talking, operating Babel with a "behaviorist", observational method: a sober study of human behavior and gestures. The film provides a portrait of a huge refugee camp in Tunisia, established near the country's borders following the Libyan uprising. Along with the sober "fly on the wall" pictures of the refugees in the camp, who eat food, set up tents, stand in queues and play volleyball, the film has a lyrical touch: periodic close-ups of plants in the wind and crawling insects in the sand create an existential clinging to the daily struggles of the crowds to procure food, a place to go to the bathroom, and shelter for the night. In addition, a periodic use of telephoto lens creates certain flat, picturesque images that shed an "epic" light on the camp – one image is reminiscent of Kurosawa's Kagemusha, where the soldiers walk in front of a blazing sun. The refugee camp is capable of appearing like many things during the two hours of playing time: a military base, a rubbish dump, an improvised playground, a music festival, a threshold, a waiting room, a prison, a new home. Yes, in some compositions the refugees look like the first humans on Earth, wandering in a dry and empty desert they themselves have to fill with life. In the same way as the domestic things Haunted thematized as "vital", here's how daily routines continues to play a key role in the homeless environment. You pray, you wash your face, and you will still live. At the same time, this documentary also problematizes our access to refugees' lives. The directors deliberately choose not to provide us with subtitles for what is being said. This grip seems to emphasize the stranger as a stranger. But the linguistic helplessness makes us notice the purely bodily, gestural communication of men. We must focus our attention in a different way from the informative; we must try to live in these strange gestures, which in the absence of subtitles grow in expressiveness. Babel – such as Imagining Emanuel, Out of Norway, Disorient og Haunted – remain limited fragments from a life we ​​don't know that much about. But by emphasizing themselves as fragments, and not pretending to be access to other lives we can sink into, they create a turmoil and an experience layer that potentially fragment our own perception of reality and point to our own – as well as the traces – fragility and limitation. In this way, they can facilitate (to whatever extent) the work of imagining the refugee's destabilized reality. After all, one approaches something, often by considering one's own distance from what one is about to reach. Imagining Emanuel Directed by: Thomas Østbye, photo: Thomas Østbye and Jon Christian Simensen Out of Norway Directed by: Thomas Østbye and Emanuel Agara, photo: Emanuel Agara disorient Directed by Laurent Van Lancker Haunted Directed by: Liwaa Yazji, photo: Jude Gorany, Talal Khoury and Liwaa Yazji Babel Directed by: Youssef Chebbi, Ishmael and Eddine Ala Slim, photo: Ala Eddine Slim, Youssef Chebbi and Ismaël Chebbi The films Out of Norway, Haunted, Disorient and Babylon are available for streaming for our subscribers with the code 9sdZx7yE on
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