September 25, 2018

Can the media represent migrants?

The flow of migrants continues, but the plight of Europe’s refugees is increasingly ignored by the global media. Can documentary film makers and journalists take the lead in human rights campaigns, or are we taking advantage of refugee suffering?


In 2017, 650,000 first-time asylum seekers applied for international protection in the EU. Thousands of desperate families have fled conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. Most have ended up in one of the many sprawling refugee camps in Italy, France and Greece, living in limbo until European authorities can agree who bears responsibility for this human tragedy.

For many, this is a treacherous journey. According to UNHCR 69,420 have risked their lives reaching Europe by sea so far in 2018. This year alone it is estimated 1,530 feared to have drowned attempting the journey.

Yet, as the number seeking refuge grows, antipathy towards newcomers appears to be on the rise. This backlash, fuelled by strident nationalist parties in Italy, Hungary and Sweden, has been accompanied by anti-immigration policies across Europe.

“The European Union is the world’s largest humanitarian aid donor, but there is pressing need for reform of the aid system,” warns David Miliband, President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee.

Humanitarian missions are falling foul of populist policies, and European human rights organisations are struggling to grapple with austere immigration laws and increasing violence against refugees.

Can media professionals rebuff the far right?

Documentary makers and journalists have long pushed the refugee crisis into the public eye. Films including; Fire at Sea, Human Flow, and Cries from Syria, have been instrumental in unmasking struggles faced by victims of civil war and terrorism, transporting the uncomfortable reality of the crisis to our cinemas and living rooms.

In depth reporting puts the individual refugee at the forefront of the debate. Too often, politicians across Europe present migrants as a faceless human flow, generating a rhetoric of contempt and hostility. Indeed, Hungary’s PM Viktor Orban has claimed, “European countries bit by bit are losing their own countries, Africa wants to kick down our door.”

In contrast, film makers are in a unique position to be able to provide a more intimate account of the situation.

One such documentary is Refugee Blues, from Stephen Bookas and Tristan Daws, achieves this. Set to the verses of W.H. Auden’s 1939 poem, “Refugee Blues” charts a day in ‘the jungle’, the refugee camp outside Calais. The six-minute film documents frequent clashes with the French riot police and the violence and desperation gripping the camp.

Refugee Blues – Trailer from Tristan Daws on Vimeo.

At the time, the refugee crisis was the dominant issue in the mainstream media, with the coverage being overwhelmingly dehumanising. In the week leading up to our visit to Calais the Prime Minister, David Cameron, had referred to the refugees as a ‘swarm of migrants’,” says Bookas.

Our aim in making this film, then, was simply to add a voice to those that wished to see the men and women living in The Jungle as human beings.”

The film shows inhabitants conduct everyday activities; cooking, cleaning, and playing football with friends, and we see refugees as ordinary humans, in an extraordinary, and terrifying situation.

We wanted to make a film that would humanise the reports surrounding the refugee crisis that were so prevalent at the time. The film uses poetry as a way of finding an emotional entry point for the viewer, to allow for a better understanding of the refugees’ viewpoints,” Bookas said.

“It does this not through rational explanations, case studies or statistics, or even through individual stories, but through an emotional approach that is more easily accessible for many viewers.”

Journalists have also been on the front line of campaigning. Sicilian based Journalist Alessandro Puglia has reported widely on the refugee crisis and has received the Media Migration Award for his story of an Eritrean migrant who died the day after his arrival in the port of Pozzallo, published in Italian newspaper, Vita.

Alessandro Puglia

“I started to work on migration before the Lampedusa shipwreck on the 3rd October 2013. In that period I reported on wooden boats of migrants who arrived by the Sicilian coasts like Portopalo di Capo Passero.”

“I interviewed the local fishermen who rescued migrants before the Italian Coast Guards arrived, these local fishermen are heroes of today.”

The rise of far-right anti-immigration policies in Italy- and across Europe- makes Puglia’s work all the more critical. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s coalition government, which came to power earlier this year, has attempted to stem the flow of migrants arriving, launching a series of controversial anti-immigration policies.

refugee documentaries

As the UNHCR calls for strengthened search and rescue capacities in the region, Italian authorities have threatened to withdraw rescue vessels and denied entry to many arrivals.

Marrio Salvini, Interior Minister and leader of right wing, League party, has been at the forefront of disputes, his hard-line attitude attracting vehement criticism from European and global human rights groups.

Contention between Salvini and the EU came to a head several weeks ago after the Interior minister refused to allow migrants aboard a docked rescue boat to disembark, only relenting when prosecutors in Agrigento, Sicily, intervened.

Puglia warns of the effects of anti-migrant rhetoric in Italian politics.

“We are seeing a new phase in migration politics in Italy,” he reflects. “Our Interior Minister talks about migrants like numbers and he has made the decision – against International Law – to stop people inside boats at sea. This is inhumane and unacceptable.”

Indeed, newly installed UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, has hit out at the Conte coalition for its treatment of refugees, citing concerns over reports of a “sharp increase in acts of violence and racism” against migrants and visible minorities.

“Reduction in search and rescue capacity will almost certainly lead to further unnecessary loss of life,” asserted UNHCR spokesperson Charlie Yaxley.

However, access to information and filming rights can prove difficult in many North African regions affected by the refugee crisis. It is from countries like Libya much ground breaking journalism and documentaries have been created.

One fixer in the region- who asked to remain anonymous- said, “Filming permits and visas are being heavily restricted for journalists not associated with major international news organisations.”

Nevertheless, sustained investigative journalism on the crisis is imperative. Intimate accounts of refugee plight provided by individuals like Alessandro Puglia’s piece, provide a buffer against far right, nationalist rhetoric.

Turning the camera on the journalists

However, when documenting the refugee crisis, film makers and journalists must navigate the ambiguous line between raising awareness and exploiting some of the world’s most vulnerable human beings.

Documentaries and journalistic pieces like Refugee Blues, Home in Between and BBC Panorama programs provide vital exposure to the very real suffering of migrants and refugees; but are media professionals truly making a change, simply passive observers, or even profiting from the plight of the displaced?

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Director, Orban Wallace poses this very question in his documentary, ‘Another News Story’. Following migrants across Europe, Wallace turns the camera towards the pack of journalists all eager to document this human tragedy.

The film examines how media professionals deal with the emotional weight of the refugee crisis. It asks, when faced with immeasurable suffering, is it possible to maintain your humanistic sensitivity, or, glazed, do you just go after another news story?

The film does not go as far as to accuse the media as profiteering off the refugee crisis; however, Orban challenges the priorities of major media outlets who clamour to capture the news in real time.

Stephen Bookas reflected on his own experience watching television crews filming in Calais.

“We quickly understood why the local media organisation had warned us of hostility, when we saw television news crews at the camp,” he remembers.

These crews would arrive with producers, camera operators, presenters and bodyguards, first filming a wide shot of the camp from the top of a sand dune before filming the presenter speaking to camera, never speaking to the camp residents before filming them.”

During the confrontation with the riot police we were similarly unchallenged. The refugees later explained to us that, in the presence of cameras, the riot police used tear gas. When cameras were not present they used batons. The police were therefore keen to present a disciplined front to our cameras, and the refugees were grateful for our presence,” Bookas reflected.

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Stephan Bookas and Tristan Daws filming in Calais

Film festivals as a forum for debate

The 2016 Berlin Film Festival was perhaps the most enigmatic exhibition of film and media’s capacity to ignite global discussion of the refugee crisis. Festival director, Dieter Kosslick, hailed the 66th Berlinale a tribute to refugees, with films, petition signings and speeches bringing the treacherous journeys, squalid camps and family separations into sharp focus.

Films included; The Road to Istanbul, by the French director Rachid Bouchareb, Danis Tanović’s Death in Sarajevo, and Gianfranco Rosi’s multi award winning Fire at Sea.

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However, the festival also revealed the media industry’s detachment from the refugee crisis. In an attempt to express solidarity with Europe’s migrants, stars donned survival blankets during the gala. Yet somehow, Charlize Theron slipping a thermal blanket over her designer frock did not really mirror the experience of desperate Syrian refugees, risking life and limb to escape the bloody civil war.

Tim Renner, Berlin’s Culture Secretary denounced the move in an angry tweet, declaring, “Even if understood as an act of solidarity, it has a clearly obscene element.”

It is difficult not to view this as Hollywood’s latest philanthropic whim, capturing headlines for a week, until they move on to their next ‘crusade’.

Nevertheless, smaller scale film festivals have arguably been more successful in representing the refugee crisis as a lived experience. One such festival is the London Migrant Film Festival (LMFF). The festival endeavours to portray the diversity, nuance and subjective experience within migration – including and beyond the refugee experience – to restore the dignity and humanity inherent within it.

The festival is also a medium for migrants to recount their own stories in their own words. Several films shown at the LMFF have been directed, produced and starred in by migrants, including Pawo, a film telling the story of a Tibetan refugee in India, was directed and acted in by Tibetans in exile.

Refugee Blues documentary has also been used to raise awareness beyond the cinema, screened for school classes, museums and at political events.

“Organising talks, events, discussions and keeping an open dialogue across political boundaries is one way of addressing this on a communal level and has shown to help in alleviating the doubts and fears that have been cast on the situation as a whole,” says Bookas.

This less self-congratulatory than the Berlin’s spectacle. The Berlin Film Festival was undoubtedly a step in the right direction. However, smaller, more inclusive events create a universal conversation about the refugee crisis, in which local communities-not just Hollywood’s elite- can debate the issue.

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