Above, behind and beyond the fences

Last month I flew to Morocco to speak at a conference organised by the Global Forum on Migration and Development in Skhirat near Rabat. The flight took me from Turin in Northern Italy across the Alps and down the Spanish coastline before crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. It was a spectacularly clear day and I spent most of the flight glued to the window taking photos of snow capped mountains, deep turquoise pools, precise geometric fields and striking coastal landforms,  including this one of the tiny Spanish enclave of Ceuta on the shoreline of North Africa.

The Spanish enclave of Ceuta on the North Moroccan coast

Ceuta, and another Spanish enclave, Melilla just down the Moroccan coast, are Europe’s only land borders with Africa. I’ve long known of them both. They are (in)famous, in my world at least, for the vast imposing fences that have been built to prevent refugees and other migrants from crossing onto European territory and claiming their rights as human beings, including the right to be protected under international refugee law.  Images of young black (usually) African men ‘storming’ the fences or sitting atop them whilst golfers enjoy a game below appear in my timelines periodically. They serve the same purpose as images of people attempting to board lorries at Calais, a topic about which I’ve written previously, reinforcing ideas of threat and border control and national identity in ways that go way well beyond their role in controlling the movement of people.

But Ceuta from the air was something else. It’s beauty was striking but so too the bizarreness of seeing a small chunk of Morocco owned by Spain sitting 25km away across the sea.

Fast forward a few weeks and I’m sitting in a small cinema at the TIFF Bell Lighthouse in downtown Toronto for a screening of Les Sauteurs (Those Who Jump) hosted by the Centre for Refugee Studies with whom I’m here on a Visiting Fellowship.

The film is set on Mount Gurugu near Melilla behind the very fences that I’ve heard so much about. Rather than shooting a typical documentary, the film’s directors Moritz Siebert and Estephan Wagner handed a camera to Abou Bakar Sidibe, a Malian who had spent more than a year trying to get over the fence. The resulting footage exposes the everyday lives of those seeking protection and a better life in Europe and the brutality of the Moroccan police who patrol the camps on the EU’s behalf, periodically setting fire to the few possessions owned by those who live there – blankets, food, a handmade checkers board. These are abuses which have been well-documented for years.

Les Sauteurs is gritty, raw and moving: shaky footage of young men running to escape the batons and fists; grainy CCTV images scanning the horizon hunting down those on the move; the loss of a friend, Mohammed, killed on a failed attempt to scale the fence and the voice message left on the phone of his parents. And in between, scenes of tenderness, and joy: a game of football; the sounds of singing and laughter; a cardboard tray of eggs gently retrieved from the detritus of a broken home.

If the film sets out to remind us of the humanity of those trapped and living in limbo behind the fence at Melilla it certainly meets this goal – and some.

In the discussion led by Jennifer Hyndman that followed, Idil Atak, Pablo Idahosa and Christopher Kyriakides reflected on the film’s power and the questions it raises about the eligibility of refugees and migrants to exist – as well as their authority to act – on anything other than the terms determined by the EU. This despite a long history of colonialism and, more recently, globalisation that has systematically undermined the economies of the (mainly West and Central African) countries from which people come – Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal, Nigeria, the Gambia. The film powerfully brings into focus the agency of those waiting for an opportunity to cross into a new life, in turn challenging the victim/perpetrator dichotomy that dominates so much representation of the Europe’s ‘migration crisis’ in the media and popular culture.

But for me, as well as several of the panellists and some of the audience, Les Sauteurs raised more questions than it answered.

It can only be assumed, for example, that Abou shot literally hundreds of hours of footage, persuaded to hold onto his camera not just by his growing love of film as a medium to express his identity and “be alive” but by the cash given to him by the film’s directors. We have no sense, however, of the relationship between the three, of the processes by which decisions were made about about what to include and what to leave out, who drove the overarching structure of the narrative, or who wrote the words that are spoken (powerfully) over the top.

Stories, particularly stories around migration, are never straightforward reflections of ‘reality’. At every turn they reflect, reinforce, challenge or play to the audience’s existing knowledge, assumptions, stereotypes and understandings about the world with which they seek to engage. One particularly clear example comes to mind. Whilst the non-material and spiritual factors that shape migration decision making are almost completely ignored by academics and policy makers, they are repeatedly alluded to in the film providing new insights not often seen. Yet the decision to include a ritual involving the slaughter of a cockerel – which interestingly drew more gasps of horror from the audience than the injuries inflicted on the young men themselves – serves as reminder that whilst we think we understand the pain and fear of those trapped in Melilla as fellow human beings, they are somehow ‘not like us’. Some fences go up even whilst others come down.

And whilst Les Sauteurs is certainly more nuanced than some other contemporary portrayals of migration to Europe which fetishise and generalise, there is much that is left out. We don’t see any women for example, and whilst the film’s central ‘cast’ is small, the CCTV footage reveals the dark silhouettes of hundreds, perhaps thousands of people, marching on the fence, a ‘threat’ beyond those with whose lives we feel we have become familiar. Moreover there is no sense of the social and political context within which these events are situated – the fact that 10% of Morocco’s population is itself working in Europe or that Morocco’s ‘mule’ women eke out a living by walking loads of merchandise from Melilla into the northern Moroccan province of Nador a few kilometres from where our protagonists are camped out. The border exploits them all.

That said, Les Sauteurs is absolutely worth watching providing that you do so with an eye to the broader political and policy context within which it is located and the audience to which the it speaks. The film is a great teaching resource both for those working on issues of EU migration policy as well as those interested in issues of narrative and representation. But it also serves as a powerful reminder of the brutality of what’s taking place, in plain sight, on the borders of Europe. Copies can be purchased here.

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