Smash the Border

By Cedric EltimichWeb Reporters, Brussels, 2004.

By Cedric Eltimich

Presented as a documentary “secretly filming refugees from Sangatte camp, trying to reach England,” I was expecting a report, consisting of hand-held images, plunging the spectator into the heart of the subject. A “shock film” perhaps. However it’s a film far from all conventions, that the young director, Laura Waddington has given us. Border has an almost poetic, impressionistic atmosphere. The permanently out of focus images transport us into a kind of (bad) dream. Information is suggested; we never see the camp or the faces of the refugees. Even the soundtrack is ultra minimalist. And yet the intimate relationship Laura succeeded in establishing with the asylum seekers, allows us to understand their distress. With great humility and simplicity, the full horror of “Fortress Europe” hits us in the face. The contrast between the tough subject and the slow pace of the editing might unnerve the spectator but it absolutely does not diminish the quality of the message. As the Belgian government prepares to build new camps and the number of lives, broken by ever tougher zero tolerance immigration policies, continues to grow. As several European countries organize collective expulsions by charter jet: this film comes to throw sand in the wheels of a policy of “no-welcome” which is too oiled over and too rarely debated in the public arena. Border forms part of this debate.

CEDRIC ELTIMICH: Laura Waddington, you are the director of “Border”, which you presented yesterday at the festival “Filmer a Tout prix”. It’s a film about Sangatte camp in the North of France. What led you to make a film about this subject and why does it interest you?

LAURA WADDINGTON: There are several reasons. Firstly, I lived illegally in the United States for about eight years. I was living in New York and it wasn’t a problem. But, when I tried to travel to Canada, I was arrested and put in a cell. I saw the immigration cells and understood there were some very bad situations. Then, when I came back to live in Europe, I met people from Somalia and Albania, who were trying to come to Europe and I became interested in Europe as a place, whose frontiers people are also trying to cross. Before this video, I made a film on a cargo ship with paperless sailors from the Philippines and Rumania. Again, this made me interested in the idea of people, trying to get to Europe and how difficult this had become.

CE: And why Sangatte? What happened there? Perhaps you could describe it for those who don’t know?

LW: Sangatte was a Red Cross camp, located on the French coast, near the channel tunnel. There were thousands of refugees there and during a few years, they were trying each night to jump on the trains, which pass through the channel tunnel to England. I had travelled in Kurdistan and had met people who wanted to go to Sangatte. I began to travel along part of the routes people were taking to get to France. But I became increasingly interested in the fact that there was this unbelievable story happening only an hour and a half from Paris. I wanted to film there because I was so astonished that this could happen in France.

CE: I suppose you had already heard about it in the media?

LW: Yes but after meeting people who were trying to get there, I wasn’t very happy with the way it was being portrayed in the press. I had the feeling they were only showing a small part of what was going on, and during the shoot, this feeling became much stronger. I had the impression there was almost a lie about Sangatte.

CE: You go there and you see it is very different from what the public is being told, How do you react? What do you decide to bring through your film? Do you think I’ll make a film about this in order to show the other side?

LW: Often, in the media, they only presented facts, that there were all these people trying to get to England and they portrayed it as a kind of assault, an invasion. They spoke very little about the awful journeys people had made to get there. But, when I was in the fields, what really struck me was that these men had lost all identity. They were running like animals, hunted by the police. Some men lost arms or legs and some men died. I decided to concentrate on just one element; I wanted to show how it was in the fields and to portray it in a dreamlike way because for me this place was a bit like a bad nightmare.

CE: What touched me most in the film was your closeness to the people. We really feel something passed between you and the refugees, that it was a genuine meeting, not just someone who comes, puts down her camera, takes some images and leaves again. We feel a relationship between you and these people. How did you manage to enter into their world, to be among them and to get them to accept your camera?

LW: I went to Sangatte for the first time in September 2001. I entered the camp without official permission and I decided I didn’t want to film inside because, as I mentioned, it was run by the Red Cross, who’d been invited there by the French government – I felt I’d be imposing my camera on people who couldn’t say “ No. We don’t want you to film us”. So I had this idea, I reflected many months before going back, and I had this idea to simply stand on the roads at night and wait for people to come and talk to me. I went there during about six months and gradually I got to know the refugees. I really liked some of them – there was a feeling that passed between us.  I don’t know – a kind way of thinking about things, a way of laughing. They were very suspicious of journalists so I explained that I wasn’t going to make the film in a journalistic way and I agreed not to film their faces. It’s funny because people say they feel an intimacy in the film, but we never see their faces, except in one scene.

CE: Yes, precisely. The film is poetic. It’s sensitive and atmospheric. At one point, you talk of a friend, you say the word friend, which is a powerful word. Then, in the credits, we see a long list of people, I imagine are refugees. (…) Was it easy to keep in touch under the circumstances? Because they wanted to leave France and get to England, they were in a camp, the police were chasing them. Was it easy to re find people?

LW: I lost a lot of people. I lost them when we were running and it had not occurred to us that we might lose each other that night, so we hadn’t thought to exchange email addresses. But other people asked me to give them my email address, in case we lost each other and sometimes contacted me later. It was incredible when I lost someone and weeks later, I received an email, saying,“I’ve arrived.”

CE: The film has an out of focus look perhaps linked to the fact you were filming at night with very little light? But I also felt it was your style because in the police scene, you keep this look. There’s something very sensitive and poetic about the film, which at first might appear strange because of what you show, or at least talk about and suggest. But it works. The message really gets across. Somehow, even in talking of these very serious things, you manage to speak poetically and with great sensitivity. I think it’s astonishing.

LW: A lot of people have asked me about the beauty of the images. Firstly, there was a technical reason. In the fields there was no light, except for the light of distant car headlights on the motorways and far off street lamps so I had to open the camera’s shutter very wide. This created an out of focus, almost impressionistic look, a bit like imprints. But also, I felt it was very important to film with my own style, which is quite close to that. Often people say you must film refugees in a certain way but I wanted to portray things from my personal point of view and I thought I must follow my style. Since I didn’t agree with the way it was being depicted in the media, I wanted to give the film a different look so that people could see it as a kind of alternative proposal of how to talk about this subject.

CE: I had the impression most of the information was suggested not shown. Ultimately, we see very little. We see the refugees in the fields. There is no direct sound or interviews. You talk of police violence. We don’t see it. And yet, I had the feeling, we see nothing and at the same time we see everything.
LW: I’m happy you say that because it was my original intention. Often, when I was watching traditional journalism on the television, I had the impression there was so much violence that after two or three minutes, I’d become saturated and switch off. I told myself, I wanted to make the film in a very slow and subtle way so that people would hardly register while watching it but maybe a few days later, it would come back to them and they’d start to think about it and ask how it was possible. I hoped they’d conceive of it as a kind of atmosphere or place into which they had entered. For me, this was the challenge. Of course, I think there are people, who find it a very strange approach.

CE: Was this approach a way for you to avoid cliché and sensationalism?

LW: I think probably each person is hoping to avoid sensationalism. I wanted simply to make something very personal, from my point of view because I don’t believe in an objectivity and I think the more one tries to say “here is the truth,” the less one gets near to the truth. I believe one needs to reduce to the essential, the minimal, in order to get a bit closer to the reality of what this place was and the fact it could have existed there. Because it’s very shocking this place could have existed, without people really realising.

CE: You said at one point, the people around you, no longer followed you. They didn’t believe you. (…) People would say it’s not possible. Certain sentences in the film really struck me. You said when the camp closed, the police could do as they wanted and that they set fire to people’s clothes. At another point, you say certain people were killed, trying to escape.

LW: No. Certain people were killed jumping on the trains; for example, some were electrocuted, trying to jump from bridges. But these things were very well documented in the press. What was less documented was, following the closure of the camp, there was a manhunt because the French and English governments wanted to create the impression the situation was over and the problem of Sangatte solved. However, hundreds of people continued to arrive and they hid in bunkers. It was at this point that the police set fire to their clothes. They didn’t really talk about this in the media.

CE: And when you were filming, how was your relationship with the Red Cross, the smugglers and the police?

LW: While I was filming, I had no contact with the Red Cross because they were in the camp. The police used to search for people in the fields and often they’d find me or they’d stop me on the roads. Mostly, they’d ask for my passport and keep making verifications and ask why I was there. What struck me most was that they kept trying to dissuade me by telling me it was too dangerous for me to be there. There’s one scene I’ll never forget. Some soldiers or kind of police (I’m not sure of the name – there were several different types of police there) got out of a jeep with machine guns. About five men surrounded me and tried to persuade me it was too dangerous to carry on and that the refugees were dangerous. I’ll never forget the image of these men with their machine guns surrounding me and explaining that these men running for their lives were dangerous. I asked them “Excuse me messieurs but where exactly does the danger lie? “ And the traffickers, they didn’t like me being there. They didn’t want people to make friends with the refugees and to tell them how it was in England. They manipulated the refugees a lot to keep prices high. They wanted to control them completely. I tried to avoid the smugglers as much as possible, although many used to come and see me, pretending they were refugees. I knew who they were but didn’t let them know I knew.

CE: At one point, you say the women went in trucks with the traffickers. So it was a very organised operation. Did you ever have the feeling The Red Cross and the government were turning a blind eye to the traffickers?

LW: There were many traffickers. They’d divided Sangatte into different zones. ( I believe there were about seventy zones. I don’t know the exact number but I heard it was approximately that.) The fields near the trains were almost completely free of traffickers so refugees, who had no money, passed through the fields. While anyone, who was able to gather money went with the traffickers, mostly in trucks. What struck me was a lot of the traffickers were pretending to be refugees and some of them were living inside the camp. I don’t understood why in the media, the government spokesmen used to say, the problem is the traffickers and we can’t identify them, when I knew who nearly all the traffickers were. I wonder how it was possible that they were there, operating inside the camp, while the government said we can’t arrest them because we don’t know who they are.

CE: I have a last question. The title of the film is “Border”. What is your position on borders? Do you believe in freedom of movement and why did you call the film “Border”?

LW: I made a journey from Europe to Kurdistan and back. I didn’t make this journey by plane but on buses and trains. While I was there, I saw some horrible scenes at borders. At one point, I made friends with some Kurds. We didn’t have a common language and had a lot of problems communicating. They talked to me constantly of “border” but in their language. I told myself, if ever I managed to make a film, connected with this subject, I’d call it Border. As for my view of borders, they have always terrified me. When I was arrested on the Canadian border, I had the impression they are places where, if you do not have the right papers, you lose all human rights. Often the people who work there have enormous powers and are very sadistic. I can’t accept that because one is born in a country without a certain passport, one is a form of subhuman, almost a slave in today’s society – because that’s how it is, how I see it. I don’t understand that a person must run for his life because he does not have the right passport and someone like me, who is enormously privileged to have an English passport, can have the extremely privileged life I have thanks to my passport. I think I have a huge problem with borders.

(Translated transcription of the french webradio interview)

“Smash the Border! A look at Border. A film disconcerting in its sensitivity “ Interview with Cedric Eltimich, Web Reporters, Brussels, 25th November, 2004.