Last week my long awaited holidays finally began, but instead of indulging in blissful idleness, I chose treating myself to reveille at 7:30 AM and queuing for movie tickets. Despite of being utterly allergic to ostentatious display of splendour and flashes of newsmen cameras catching fake smiles of celebrities on the red carpet, I got shortly affected by common at this time of a year syndrome known as Berlinale Fieber. Luckily, a weekend spent at Potsdamer Platz among hordes of others suffering from this craziness was enough to regain my usual state of moderate sanity.
Aside from all the glamour, Berlinale is widely known for its engagement in political debates, showing controversial topics and selecting movies straddling the line between art and traditional cinematic forms. This year’s programme is not an exception, so forcing own way through its maze wasn’t easy. Leaving Competition with most anticipated blockbusters to holders of festival accreditations, I found Forum and documentaries from other sections much more appealing. Quick glimpse on press relations from the opening gala just reassured me, that staying out of it was a good choice. I focused my attention on movies taking up such issues as situation of refugees, LGBTQ persons, facing own countries’ vicious past, rediscovering indigenous Bolivian traditions and witnessed psychedelic trip though imaginary world of lost movies lead by Guy Maddin. Almost all of them are definitely worth wider recognition. To start with, there are reviews of two documentaries showing different approaches to the matter of refugees: “Flotel Europa” concerning Denmark in early ’90 and “Hotline” about situation in present-day Israel.
An opening shot of “Flotel Europa” shows a woman with two young boys standing in front of big ship moored in the Copenhagen harbour, recording message to the family in Sarajevo. She reassures them, that everything is fine, but concern on her face contrasts with rather carefree teenagers’ attitude, for whom living on a boat appears to be an adventure. It’s 1992, they’ve recently arrived to Denmark to apply for a political asylum along with other people, who had to flee from territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina engulfed by war. About thousand found their temporary shelter on a huge boat called “Flotel Europa”, a facility provided by Red Cross due to lack of space in other refugee centres. Among them was 12 year old Vladimir Tomić, director of the documentary, younger son of the woman from the first scene.
Main thread revolves around his coming of age: youthful pranks, fights with friends, first drinks during hang-outs with older teenage rebels, attempts to catch attention of young dancer and classmate Melissa, dreams about becoming as brave as Boško Buha -juvenile national hero from World War II in Yugoslavia. His hopes resemble ones of other kids in Denmark. Except, that he’s not allowed to go to public school, neither his mother –to work, due to regulations imposed on asylum seekers by EU legislation.
Although not threatened by snipers, residents of the ship could paradoxically feel similarly isolated, as their families left in besieged Sarajevo. They lived in a tiresome state of limbo, unable to integrate within Danish society and had to wait months, sometimes years, for the formal asylum procedure to start. In order to prevent them to sink into lethargy, Red Cross had organised Danish classes, sport exercises, folk dance courses, concerts, theatre workshops. Due to frequent interruptions of electricity supplies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it was hard to communicate with relatives by phone, so many refugees started to record excerpts of their lives on VHS tapes with simple analogue cameras and sending them to the home country.
These archival materials were used to produce visual layer of “Flotel Europa”. Tens of hours of footage gathered from amateurs and edited into lasting 70 minutes story, complement excerpts from black and white film about Boško Buha and commentary from the director. Doing so, Tomić allows refugees to speak for themselves and creates an intimate connection between them and the viewers. In a way, I felt like peeking into their personal diaries, sensed their desire to escape from despair and forced inactivity and unpretentious joy, while taking part in cultural programme. Digitalised, but intentionally left flawed, blurred or disrupted shots emphasize the authenticity and sincerity, within which lies the strength of this documentary.
Director avoids portraying his characters as victims. He brilliantly juxtaposes various individual perspectives creating a patchwork, on which serious scenes depicting worsening of living condition and longing for the country, leading to an unexpected outbreak of nationalist sympathies are alternated by numerous humorous anecdotes giving sometimes the impression, as if he would have been presenting scenes from a summer camp. Although stay on Flotel Europa stripped many of its residents from hopes (dispelling director's own youthful illusions symbolize the death of Boško), overall picture emerging from their video letters is rather positive –maybe because there was no real danger that their requests would be denied, as mentioned Tomić during Q&A after the screening on 6th of February. Nonetheless, I left the screening room confirmed in conviction, that there’s something utterly wrong with the entirety of humanitarian aid’s system, which leaves refugees completely dependent on organisations’ help.
More critical perspective on this subject presents Silvina Landsmann in “Hotline” premiered on Berlinale last Saturday. Following the activities of human rights women’s NGO Hotline for Refugees and Migrants from Tel-Aviv, her insightful documentary meticulously analyses precarious situation of Africans looking for political asyl in present-day Israel, who lack this sense of fragile security, granted to residents from “Flotel Europa”.
As organisation’s website reports, Israel hosts over 47 000 African asylum-seekers, coming mostly from governed by brutal dictatorship Eritrea and Sudan, who were often subjected to political oppressions or even tortures and decided to flee from their countries to avoid further persecutions. After arriving to Israel, instead of getting a chance to fill asylum request, they are automatically obliged to be detained under the Anti-Infiltration Law rooted in emergency anti- terrorist regulations enacted in 1954. In accordance to it, everyone, who illegally crossed the border, or stays in the country after his/her visa expired, officially obtain status of an “infiltrator”, classifying them as a potential threat to national security. Although Israel signed United Nation’s Refugee Convention in 1951, only 200 asylum claim cases had been examined with a positive result for applicants as till now.
“Hotline” presents a wide range of portraits of individual characters. Landsmann attentively watches enraged MPs openly admitting, that their goal is to reduce number of refugees and juxtapose them with intensive, painstaking every day efforts of Israeli activists. Her camera insightfully registers complexity of emotional reactions of refugees: relief -of those, whose sentence has been for a moment, respited and resignation -of those, who decide to return, unable to live in this state of perpetual purgatory. A contrast between active volunteers and passive, vulnerable refugees is more distinctly visible, than in “Flotel Europa”.
Whether filming daily duties of NGO’s workers, open Knesset’s sessions concerning introducing an amendment to Anti-Infiltrational Law or vehement public discussion, during which residents from south Tel-Aviv express their discontent with recent establishing settlements for African refugees in their area, Israeli director refrains from adding personal commentary. She doesn’t have to. Her shots are leading the viewer through complicated labyrinth of multi-layered institutional absurds, under the terms of which migrants are, at the utmost, tolerated and granted temporary protection, but not allowed to work legally to improve their existence, leaving him with the impression of witnessing a weird adaptation of Kafka’s “Castle”. Although Landsmann seem to take a stance of an outsider, one might clearly construed her documentary as an indictment against the Israeli politics towards refugees and bitter comment on the state of country’s alleged democracy. Are there any chances for change?
Denmark / Serbia 2015, 70 min
Director: Vladimir Tomic
Further information: https://www.berlinale.de/en/programm/berlinale_programm/datenblatt.php?film_id=201511039#tab=video25
"Hotline"Israel / France 2015, 100 min
Languages: Hebrew, English, French
Director: Silvina Landsmann
Further information: https://www.berlinale.de/en/programm/berlinale_programm/datenblatt.php?film_id=201510661#tab=filmStills