Borders: The Limits of Control

in 54th International Film Festival for Short and Documentary Films, Krakow

by Tonci Valentic

For many decades, Europe was a promised land for hundreds of thousands of immigrants; however, in recent years the number of people trying to escape from an uncertain future, extreme poverty and areas stricken by war has increased significantly. But the control points along the Schengen border have also become harder to cross — sophisticated and complex systems of monitoring borders, more disruptive detention camps and rigid law regulations have made it difficult to reach the final destination. In this article I will briefly analyze three excellent documentaries out of twenty that have been shown in the official documentary film competition at 54th Krakow Film Festival. Although made by directors coming from various artistic and educational backgrounds, even though they at first glance don’t have much in common, there is a strong, coherent line which connects them. It is not by accident that political issues dominated the program, as festival director Krzysztof Gierat stated: “Probably never until this year have we had in the program so many films born out of the dream about freedom, the longing for the Promised Land and the protest against injustice and exclusion. Borders are still being strengthened and ghettos created where we are.” Therefore, it’s interesting to see what filmmakers choose to convey when dealing with this issue.

A most prominent movie in the official selection (which won FIPRESCI prize) was without doubt Borders (Grenzen), made by Dutch director Jacqueline van Vugt. In this ninety-minute documentary we travel from Africa to Europe, following the destiny of people trying everything they can to reach the Promised Land. The film itself starts at the Schiphol Airport Detention Centre where we encounter the inquisitive border between The Netherlands and Nigeria, by the person who is expelled, waiting for the flight to her country of origin, Nigeria. After years spent in Europe, she has to return to her native land, albeit doing no crime or misdemeanor: she simply didn’t get the papers, and merely stated “When you don’t have papers in this country, you suffer”. From here van Vugt starts an astonishing cinematographic journey which follows the route from Nigeria to neighboring Niger, then Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Mauretania, and Morocco, before moving to Spain, France, Belgium, and finally The Netherlands. We can easily observe differences between the immigrants, custom officers, colors, mentality, the use of various techniques; but one thing on this long journey is always the same: the influence of power by those who use their authority and force to stop people in their intention to cross the border. There are of course numerous similar films that deal with this issue, so the question is what makes Borders such a good and different movie? The director’s innovative approach is in her ability to make an in-depth documentary that show people from both sides of the visible (or sometimes invisible) fence: both policemen and refugees, custom officials and immigrants. One can almost feel that scary, uncomfortable feeling when arriving at a border, feel the African heat, sympathize with desperate people, but also understand that the guards who check your papers also sometimes have bad feelings when refusing the entrance or are working in harsh climate conditions. The director thus makes this story deeper, challenging, and focusing on personal destinies, showing sympathy for the victims of human trafficking and those who died on this long journey to the fantasized land. With excellent camera work, well developed script, good editing and a sense of humor in some scenes, Jacqueline van Vugt has made a very emotional movie on countless people dreaming of a better life. But she doesn’t forget to emphasize bitterness: the fact that, as closer the immigrants get to Europe, the more their dream starts to shiver. Those who make it, after all, will get nothing of what they hoped for.

Another documentary dealing with exactly the same issue was the Hungarian Superior Order (Felsobb Parancs), directed by Viktor Oszkár Nagy and András Petrik. It shows the forceful reality at the Hungarian-Serbian border. As this is a Schengen zone border, immigrants from many countries try to cross illegally, sometimes doing it under the hardest conditions. The directors also bring out both sides of the story: we witness the harsh conditions of immigrants in the vast rural area in northern Serbia, trying to stay alive during the snowy and cold winter, without proper shelter, clothes, or food. The camera often focuses on their faces, clearly showing how long and dangerous was their journey to escape persecution, war, or a hopeless economic situation. On the other side we follow the Hungarian border guards and local volunteer militia using sophisticated monitoring techniques to detect and prevent any illegal attempt to cross the border and get to the Promised Land, which in this case is the provincial Hungarian town of Röszke. What makes this movie interesting is the help that immigrants get from a local priest from Subotica, who (risking criminal persecution) regularly brings them food, clothes and takes care of them, helping them to overcome difficulties of their journey from Asia and Africa to the EU. With this appealing interplay, i.e. focusing on the both sides, the directors have managed to hold our attention through a precise selection of scenes and low-key camera work. We witness not only the despondency of the immigrants but also the labors of the police control.

It might seem that there is nothing further away from the desperate destiny of those who encounter the ever-present threat of violence, exploitation and exhaustion at many countries boundaries than the barren diplomatic negotiations in the pleasurable environment of some office and anonymous corridors of Brussels. It is often said that history is always made behind close office doors. What is the connection between Danish movie The Agreement (Forhandleren) and the abovementioned documentaries? The answer is simple: again, borders. The film focuses on the efforts of an EU peace negotiator whose job is to get Serbia and Kosovo to reach an agreement about peaceful coexistence. Of course, the compromise is hard to reach, since both countries assert different nation-state borders. Throughout the film we are witnessing the events behind closed doors, i.e. negotiations which are otherwise never open to the public, so this is the first remarkable achievement of this film: to observe this process from a close-up perspective. Therefore, director Karen Stokkendal Poulsen often uses close-ups, focusing the camera on the faces and gestures of both parties, showing the basically boring process of endless negotiations which in turn is a dangerous gameplay where the security of the whole region is at stake. Almost the entire movie is shot in the office, except several scenes where we meet protagonists in their ‘private’ lives. What makes this captivating film about a delicate political game so vibrant and stunning is in its unique characters. Stokkendal Poulsen does not hesitate to focus on some funny moments which, although the process of negotiations is very serious, make it more bearable — it goes deep into the political process, but without losing sight of all its eccentric details. Or, as an EU negotiator at one moment states: “History is always made in the middle of the night. And when it happens, you are so damned tired, that you couldn’t care less.” Finally, both sides have agreed on borders. No bullets, no terrible sacrifices, no barbed wire zones. Just a common piece of paper on borders which is far away from the brutal environment of those who dream of crossing them, fantasizing about the prospect of a better future.

Edited by Steven Yates