Ghost ex machina exposes Europe’s wretched migrants

By Harry van Versendaal

Morgan Knibbe did not set out to make an objective documentary about one of the biggest problems facing Europe today: the plight of migrants and refugees on the continent.

“My ambition was to try to understand how these people feel. I wanted to submerge myself in their world and to share this experience with other people. I felt that I was able to achieve this by creating a highly subjective audiovisual form,” the 26-year-old filmmaker from the Netherlands says about his first feature film, “Those Who Feel the Fire Burning,” which will screen at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

“Filmmaking is the art of manipulation… Pulling people out of their comfort zone makes them look at existing values in a different way.”

The opening of the film, which made waves at Amsterdam’s prestigious IDFA film festival, where it debuted, is faithful to this credo. A boat carrying immigrant families is seen adrift on rough seas in the black of night. A father tries to calm his anxious daughter as the vessel is tossed about by the waves. A man falls into the water and starts to go down. And then, black.

This re-enactment of a Lampedusa-style boat tragedy, the only staged part of the film, is enough to raise eyebrows among purist documentary filmmakers. However, it is also instrumental in allowing Knibbe to introduce his ghost ex machina, as it were. Stuck in purgatory, a ghost steers viewers through the largely invisible lives of undocumented migrants.

“We wanted to create the perspective of a ghost flying through a dark place between heaven and hell. A metaphor,” he says of his cinematic device which is reminiscent of Wim Wenders’s fiction classic “Wings of Desire.”

It’s a highly immersive feel, achieved through the extensive use of a Steadicam system and drone cameras – combined with some creative editing. Adding to the whole experience is the gripping, if sometimes overly lyrical, voice-over.

Thousands of mainly African and Asian immigrants try to reach Europe’s borders every year. Knibbe has chosen to offer zero figures and statistics. When it comes to engaging people, he says, posting cold facts and numbers does little to help the cause.

“That is what most media do and I think it doesn’t touch people. We also left out specifics about location so that no one could point a finger to a specific country. This is a European problem, in fact a global problem,” he says.

As the ghost floats around the grim cityscape, we get to glimpse at snippets from the lives of migrant families crammed into run-down apartments, men praying in underground makeshift mosques, scrap metal collectors roaming the streets, a drug addict mother taking her heroin shot. The setting remains unidentified, but uncomfortably familiar: Greece, which despite a brutal five-year economic crisis remains the gateway of choice for the vast majority of migrants seeking to make their way into Western Europe.

Commitment

It was not Knibbe’s first time at Europe’s porous external border. As a student, the Dutchman spent time in the western port city of Patra, the site of a now-deserted makeshift migrant settlement, and during that time he actually co-directed the film, “We Go Europe Insha’Allah.” Stuff you won’t see in Holland.

The distance makes his commitment all the more admirable.

“I did this because I feel privileged to have been born in relative wealth. We often take our wealth for granted. I like to see the world and its living creatures, including the human race, as an organism. There is a big imbalance and people tend to think small instead of big. Individual instead of universal. I’d like to make people think about the bigger picture,” Knibbe says.

“People who are in trouble want to move to a place where there seems to be wealth, but the wealthy don’t know how to deal with this. The film is mostly meant to give depth to this subject that is in my eyes generally treated in a shallow, informative and seemingly objective way. I wanted to make people empathize again,” he says.

Access was sensitive and painstaking. Knibbe often had to go to great lengths to approach and win the trust of his vulnerable subjects at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise.

“I followed people on the street collecting garbage up to the places where they lived, either in some sort of an apartment, a basement or on the streets. I met a homeless guy in a park. I bought a football to play games with refugees. I cooked meals for and with people. It took time, care and love to build mutual trust. This was the most important thing for the whole film,” he says.

Introspection

Creating the film also had an impact on Knibbe himself – particularly shooting on the Italian island of Lampedusa in the wake of the 2013 shipwreck which killed 366 African migrants.

“Lampedusa was heavy stuff,” he says. Footage inserted into the documentary from his award-winning 2014 short “Shipwreck” captures the despair of the victims’ relatives as well as the confusion and grief of Italian officials as the victims’ bodies are taken away from the site. The director’s own presence, amid the crowd of cynical media people, made him ponder his own part in all that. It took some adjustment, shifting down a gear.

“It was an absurd mix: the deep trauma of the survivors and the media circus around them – who, quite frankly, were a parasitic, egoistic phenomenon. All these journalists trying to get their quotes and shots and then leave. I was confronted with myself as a part of this circus and tried to do things drastically different: I took more time and took it slow building mutual trust with the refugees,” he says.

It may be a bit more decent, dignified manner of handling the issue, but can a work like this improve the situation? In fact, what can?

Knibbe remains sober about the prospects.

“I’m not sure what we can do to change this problem. I don’t have answers. What I am trying to do with this film is to plant seeds in the minds of people that could hopefully flourish into more liberal and empathetic ways of dealing with this problem. I think building borders is useless and inhumane. We are wealthy, and we take it for granted. When the poor want a share, we tell them to p*** off and that their culture doesn’t fit ours. That’s f***ed up.”

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