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CPH:DOX & the refugee crisis

This year CPH:DOX has set the focus on the refugee crisis in the series Borderline. Here below are few words about some of the selected works.

The Dream of Europe (Drømmen om Europa, Norway), by Liv Berit Helland Gilberg, Bodil Voldmo Sachse and Jens Blom, shows the routines of two Norwegian employees of Frontex – the company that guards the borders of the EU. We see the unimaginable places where people hide on vehicles heading to Europe, how workers – and dogs – are trained to find them and how their work impact their personal attitude towards the refugees.

Flotel Europa (Denmark, Serbia), by Vladimir Tomic, is a document from Danish-Bosnian filmmaker’s childhood on board of the refugee ship Flotel Europa. Upon arriving in Denmark with his family in 1992, Vladimir captured in VHS many aspects of life in the container ship, the new home for a thousand refugees from the former Yugoslavia that could not be placed in other Red Cross refugee centres.

Recording themselves in VHS was a way to send news and images to those that stayed behind, like his father. The film develops from its autobiographical approach into a portrait of the lively community in the ship, with some cheerful and funny scenes about parties and other gatherings. Despite the theme, it is by no means a heavy film, but rather a fresh perspective on how things are perceived by a teenager and how people try to create a sense of normality in such situation, probably as a survival mechanism. A truly beautiful and surprising film.

A Syrian Love Story (UK), by Sean McAllister, begins in Syria in 2009, prior to the wave of revolutions and changes in the Arab world. Amer, 45, and Raghda, 40, meet in prison, fall in love and start a family when they are released. They have two sons, which through the years see the parents being arrested by their political convictions and protests against al-Assad’s regime.

After the filmmaker is also arrested for filming and the political pressure around all activists intensifies, the family flees to Lebanon, and then to France, where they are given political asylum. Their new life in safety shifts their attitude towards the fight for freedom, putting a threat to their relationship.

It’s incredible to realise how the film develops from the early days of the war in Syria and takes its own course after the filmmaker is arrested and the country gains international attention in the media. More than an unusual love story between two passionate freedom activists, intertwined and influenced by the filmmaker fate, the film is an important document of the war in Syria.

Sean has made some insightful and political films, also for BBC and Channel Four. In 2005, his remarkable The Liberace Of Baghdad about Iraqi pianist Samir Peter won the Special Jury Prize (World Documentary) at the Sundance Film Festival.

Dreaming of Denmark (Drømmen om Danmark, Denmark), by Michael Graversen, tells the story of Wasiullah, or Wasi, an Afghan teenager who arrives alone in Denmark at the age of fifteen. After turning eighteen, his asylum application is rejected, which drives him into making a risky and long journey to seek residence in Italy.

The director has followed Wasi for many years, documenting the struggles between asylum centres and countries, a life on the streets fearing the police and all the waiting required to fulfil his dream of returning to Denmark.

Among some of the films made by the Danish director is No Man’s Land (2013), a portrait of a Children’s Asylum Centre, which was selected for IDFA and 25+ international festivals winning prizes in Teheran, Hamburg and Belgrade.

Those Who Feel the Fire Burning (Netherlands), by Morgan Knibbe, did not make a deep impression on me, personally, as the dream-like revolving camera experience with some existentialist questions reminded me of The Tree of Life. Both films are somehow highly acclaimed, a phenomenon I understand nothing about.

Salam Neighbor (USA, Jordan), by Zach Ingrasci & Chris Temple, is a daring and original project of the two young American filmmakers who move into a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan for a month with permission by the Jordan government and United Nations. Za’atari is a refugee camp in Jordan with 80,000 people which is gradually evolving into a permanent settlement. There are public services such as hospitals, schools and mosques, as well as informal business like a coffee shop with shisha, a home-grown barber, a pizza delivery service, a falafel restaurant, clothing shops and even a travel agency.

From the moment they raise their tent in the camp, there’s a flood of solidarity from their neighbors, who help them in all possible ways to settle down. The 10-year-old Raouf quickly becomes their new companion. With so many diverse and interesting lives to portrait, the documentary is quite rich in nuances. At times the filmmakers are catch into deeper traumas that permeates these lives, hard to imagine behind their smiles and unconditional friendship. One cannot help but feel touched by the openness, honesty, bravery and above all fraternity and love displayed by those who lost everything and their own country.

The filmmakers became known by their feature-length film Living on One Dollar (2013), filmed in rural Guatemala, which won Best Documentary at the Sonoma International Film Festival. Their experience gave birth to Living on One, a production and social impact studio that creates films and educational videos to raise awareness and inspire action around pressing global issues. Their passion and engagement is felt all the way through this amazingly touching documentary and it’s sure to inspire more people as it inspired me.

Emma Vestrheim

Emma Vestrheim is the editor-in-chief of Cinema Scandinavia. Originally from Australia, she is now based in Bergen, Norway, and attends major Nordic film festivals to conduct interviews and review new films.