Runaways follows a group of Afghani refugees as they make their way to the border with Tajakistan. Although the subjects are subsisting in a manner that would not have looked odd a thousand years ago, the film is very much of the 21st century. Before the advent of digital technology, a lone film-maker could not have ’embedded’ themselves so unobtrusively into a group of people. A little girl helps her toddler brother over the mud. A young man pushes his veiled mother onto a donkey, then pushes the donkey like a pram out over the plains. These silent vignettes portray the simplicity of the group’s goal – to keep moving, and survive.
Laura Waddington’s Border manages to capture a similar state of mind. Out in the fields around Red Cross Sangatte camp in northern France, we watch the desperate refugees as they try and smuggle themselves through the channel tunnel to England. When they are caught and sent back to the camp, they return to try again the next evening, as if they are clocking-in and clocking-off at a factory.
The clandestine attempts to abscond are captured by a digital camera on its most extreme ‘night setting’. This mimicks a very slow shutter speed on a film camera, and the result is a grainy, sepia image which constantly strobes at only a couple of frames per second. The people we see are mostly in the shadows, which fits with the conception of the refugees as an under-class, a set of ghosts that move among us unseen, submerged. However, after half-an-hour of this, the lack of clarity in the picture becomes slightly tiresome, and I found myself wishing in vain for some daylight shots, or even some proper, infra-red night footage. Accompanied by the sombre narration (the authors of which clearly believing it was far more profound than it actually was), the final ten minutes seemed more like a conceptual art project than a film with substance.
Better the short simplicity of Arrival, a short description of one man’s entry to the UK at Gatwick Airport. Albino Ochero-Okello narrates his own story, and the directors let his words paint the picture of a man so scared that he leaves behind everything in the world that matters. The images serve as a backdrop, and the contrasting sequences of train journeys in England and East Africa enhance the sense of travel and distance. I just wish the same strobe effect we had seen in the previous film had been abandoned. These are documentaries, not music videos.
The visual style of this triumvirate contrasted sharply with the clean presentation of the fourth and final film, which was also the shortest. Unconstrained by the need to be wandering over marsh-land, scrambling through ditches in the dark, or leaning out of a train window, Bon Voyage instead concentrates on a single shift at work, of a single immigrant worker. Each image has been carefully story-boarded, and the extra effort to set-up tracking shots pays off. The result is a perfectly framed montage. Clearly, asking the central character to tell their own story is the way forward with these kinds of films – A woman who cleans toilets at Montparnasse Station wistfully recalls her time in Africa, and wishes she was in a place with status, comfort, and money. As with the other films, she reminds us that many emigrations are not made voluntarily, and that most people who find themselves seeking asylum never expected their fate to be thus.