Highway, Road, Bus, Embankment. About Laura Waddington's Film Border

Mari LaanemetsCrime and Punishment, Kunsthalle Tallinn, Estonia, 2007.

By Mari Laanemets

Border is a film about Afghan and Iraqi refugees from the Sangatte Red Cross camp on the coast of northern France. Equipped with an ordinary mini DV camera, Laura Waddington accompanied the refugees in the fields and highways around the camp where, having lost  hope of reaching England legally, they tried to enter the Channel Tunnel by hiding in trucks and jumping on passing freight trains.

The refugee camp, installed in an old corrugated metal warehouse, six kilometers from the port of Calais and the entrance to the channel tunnel was one of the results of the the new asylum policies of the European Union and the restructuring of Europe’s borders. These policies allow for the internment of refugees in so-called accumulation camps, where the “sorting of refugees for economic purposes” takes place. Thus the right to asylum, defined in the 1959 Geneva Convention has been changed into a policy of “supply” and “demand.” Refugees are criminalized — asylum seekers have become “illegal immigrants”. While the Geneva Convention promised shelter for all those pursued and persecuted due to their race or ethnicity, the European Union’s current policy is based on the completely opposite premise, depriving people of the freedom of movement, guaranteed in the Declaration of Human Rights, precisely because of their race. People’s origins have become a legal basis for judgement and exclusion.

The director says she wanted to show what was rejected and excluded from people’s consciousness – to depict what was happening an hour and a half from Paris but which seemed to almost not exist. She is referring to the media coverage of Sangatte (and the refugee topic) — static shots of poor, threatening, violent masses “infiltrating” Europe’s borders, as seen in the main stream news with its nationalist self-defense discourse. This vision is more an expression of what refugees embody for Europe—the fundamental, existential fear of a globalizing world, of (forced) movement and social insecurity. Such reports seldom deals with migration as a specific experience or condition of movement.

Yet it also impossible for those who were in Sangatte to recount their experience. “You cannot tell them you were in Sangatte,” the author says of a Sangatte refugee who has sent her a letter from England. Border does not claim to represent the refugees. The film does not present patronizing political demands or propose what should be done. The film is the director’s personal portrait of what she saw and she is reconciled to the impossibility of fully understanding, interpreting or judging. In a letter to Nicole Brenez, Waddington writes that filmmaking provides the opportunity to distance oneself form officially established versions of the world and to ask in the simplest possible way—who we are and how we are living? 

The director’s voice-over describes accompanying the refugees as they cut holes in the wire fences, waiting in fields for hours, running through the grass, men blinded, their faces swollen by police tear gas. She conveys her admiration for the refugees’ courage and dignity in the face of the inhumane treatment that greets them everywhere across Europe and evokes the disappointment of those who have succeeded in escaping to the “promised land” to find it not as they imagined.

Visually, the film distances itself from the“real life” aesthetic of television reports and reality documentaries. Waddington avoids the media’s tourist-like and sensationalist voyeurism, but also the invasive gaze of engaged documentaries which claim to speak for others. Only once in Border, during a clash with the police do we actually see the refugees’ faces. The refugees who Waddington describes with great sincerity and intimacy remain anonymous to the viewer, silhouettes on the horizon. The impressionistic and beautiful image makes this world appear almost unreal.

The film is characterized by long shots without cuts. The blurred and grainy image are at times almost pictorial. The fragile look of the film is the result of the poor technical conditions of the shoot: a hand-held camera, movement, and lack of light – the only available light coming from the police searchlights as they look for the refugees, distant street lamps and passing headlights. The extreme distance of focus and the need to open the camera shutter as wide as possible has created a strange stuttered movement.

Waddington prefers video because it is a very personal medium. The video camera provides the possibility to discover the world, a story, a way to film, in a manner that is not predetermined but becomes clear gradually, through chance. The technical errors which occur during filming become a meaningful reflection of what is happening in our minds – the fragmentation of the subject, due to technical constraints, mirrors the ghostly presence of the refugees in our consciousness (“They are, and they are not”).

The film is born in the editing room, in ordering and structuring the filmed material. Waddington’s emphasis is not on illustrating or finding the “true” image of the refugees but on reflecting an experience. She does not paint yet another portrait of refugees. She creates a film of their experiences; a passage that consists of waiting and repetition. The rhythm of the film—a series of long successive closeups, observing limited activities or motifs to exhaustion—imitates time that appears to move in circles, a constantly repetitive experience, in which the refugees set out every night, only to be captured and brought back to the camp by the police a few hours later, to then set out again after a few minutes.

One of the recurring images in Border is of people walking along a highway. We watch them in groups or following on from another, separated by short intervals. Waddington portrays migration as a specific experience of mobility, a counterpoint to the enthusiastic aesthetizisation of nomadism in contemporary society. The viewpoint of the migrant, thrust from one country to another, differs from that of privileged travelers such as tourists, business people, and why not also cultural workers, and is its reverse side. Upon arriving in Sangatte, the refugees have been on the road for months, even years, crossing many countries in the Near East and Europe. In contrast to (privileged) travel, which is based on the pleasure of experiencing strange places and where movement and crossing borders means freedom and opportunity, this passage is “imprisonment”. The music of Simon Fisher Turner surrounds us like a vacuum.

Border creates a special experience of time and space. In fact, the film is a walk through space (the film is edited so that the movement within a new shot begins were the last one leaves off). I would like to conclude with one of the most interesting aspects of the film, the landscape. Waddington’s camera observes not only the camp but also the fields and highways around it. The obvious “symbols” of a camp, the fences and barbed wire, are seldom depicted. The film is dominated by nocturnal landscapes, shots of undergrowth and embankments covered in high grass, where figures of refugees appear for a moment and then blend back into the surrounding nature. Highways cut through flat fields and disappear beyond the horizon. A few cars pass the late-night wayfarers. This is an ordinary, not a touristy or picturesque landscape and it is emphasized by the reduced colour, the low shooting angle. Only the nocturnal light and blades of grass swaying in the wind create the sense of a seeping danger, letting one sense the drama contained within this prosaic scene.

Martin Warnke has shown that every landscape is a representation – its form and appearance the result of political decisions – and so can be read and positioned politically. Thus an unattractive and seemingly insignificant landscape conceals the stamp of power, alluding to various economic and political factors, reflecting social and public relations. Just as urban development, commerce and tourism shape landscapes, so does migration. The area around Sangatte, the port of Calais, the service stations and parking lots, the so-called “Eurotunnel” with its excellently guarded terminal, represent concrete control. And in Border, we see the social and spatial geography of the movement that trys to defy it. The landscape shots in the film point to the relationships which shape the space around Sangatte camp, expressing the subordination and resistance encoded into this landscape. It is a landscape organized by rule, control, prohibition, a movement which the refugees attempt to counter.

The film’s close-ups lay out for us the borders that define this landscape. For instance, a band of light from a passing train—impenetrable and unapproachable to the refugees, who are hiding in the grass on the railway embankment right at the bottom of the frame— cuts the frame in two. At the same time, at night the hiking trails and highways of Sangatte, used by tourists, become the roads of ordinary migration. In the dark of the night, the landscape becomes an ally of the refugees, concealing them from the police patrols. The ghostly, trespassing presence of the “imprisoned” figures, the spontaneity with which they move across the landscape, temporarily suspends the customary regime. This landscape provides a new way of seeing, a different perspective and fresh opportunity to relate to the question of migration – a chance to perceive the position of refugees within the space of Sangatte in a metaphorical sense.

Waddington filmed Sangatte from the spring of 2002 to its closure in december of the same year. Now it seems like a dream even to the director. Border leaves a trace of those who “pass through our lives and disappear without trace”, holding tight to that which was so easy to forget — not in the name of “truth”, but in the name of humanity. In the last frame of the film, the bright headlights of an approaching car blot out and dissolve the final image – a group of refugees retreating down the highway. It is as if they are being erased from our consciousness.

Mari Laanemets, “Highway, Road, Bus, Embankment. About Laura Waddington’s Film Border”, Crime and Punishment Catalogue, (publ. Kunsthalle Tallinn, Estonia), 2007


Laura Waddington: Letter to Nicole Brenez, 2006

Grenzgeografie Sangatte, An Architektur 3/2002 

Martin Warnke: Politische Landschaft, 1992