One of the heated topics that dominated debates in this year’s French elections was the refugee question. Days after the news of the winning of French president Emmanuel Macron, the Cannes Film Festival started with a politicised lineup that has attempted to tackle critical contemporary issues: women in film industry, environment, new forms of production in the cinema scene, and the immigrant crisis. However, the question of unorganised immigration and the humanitarian stories of people in this process, which is arguably the most critical and dangerous, had a lion share and was represented and deconstructed in several films and mediums during the festival.
A standout in the festival, with a braver discourse, was the debut documentary of Vanessa Redgrave, named Sea Sorrow, which directly calls upon statesmen and politicians to intervene to end the crisis by bluntly demanding to aid and foster young immigrants seeking refuge in Europe. Redgrave, an 80-year-old Academy award actor and political activist, has been a supporter of refugee rights and is using her documentary to warn of child refugees who fall victim to extremist discourse, human traffickers, or criminal activities in general.
The documentary briefly aims to survey the history of the crisis. Redgrave does not shy away from using her personal trauma as a child witnessing the Blitzkrieg in the Second World War. Sea Sorrow didn’t necessarily care about style as much as content, something that left it with little praise from critics, who argued that activism has confused the structure of the dense work.
However, we can say that the style of the film has gone Shakespearian. Redgrave, a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has utilised William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest” to draw the connotation. In the play, the exiled Duke of Milan tells his daughter about the suffering when he escaped. For the western audience, who are showered with hard TV reports and documentaries about Syrians and Africans drowning in boats on the coast of Italy and Greece, Sea Sorrow shows a different approach of giving context to the crisis—personal, but effective.
Sometimes political rhetoric needs art to be more efficient. Sea Sorrow is an example, to deconstruct the shameful positions of governments towards the crisis that they somehow created.
In another context, two short films in the main competition tackled the question of immigration. The first was Fiona Godivier’s “Across My Land”, which brilliantly portrays the other side of the struggle by showing one night in the life of an American family at the Mexican border in their daily routine: a young girl plays with her dolls, a teenage boy is taught by his father how to assemble a machine gun, and a wife cooking dinner and sleeping in front of the TV set. The father and his boy take a trip to join other armed civilian “border watchers” to hunt down Mexican immigrants, but this backfires in a dramatic way as the film develops.
The film intends to show a normal, “stable”—even peaceful—American life, and how it can produce such antagonism and organised hatred towards another group of people.
Simplicity in Godivier’s film urges viewers to think more than to just consume the visual product of the film: why/how could such a beautiful family be part of this wider system of operation? Is it the lack of gun control? Is it white supremacy? Is it the negligence of the government? Is it the radicalism of popular culture?
But as Godivier argues, such radicalism eventually backfires, even if done unintentionally. The usage of “my land” in the film is very suitable with the ongoing calls to build walls around so-called privileged countries in order to restrict other individuals from more unfortunate countries, even if the privileged has, in many ways, caused the unfortunate to be what he is.
Another short was Mehdi Felifel’s “Drowning Man”. An unemployed and unregistered Palestinian refugee in Greece agrees (more of having no choice) to be abused, either by his fellow refugees or Greek locals. One fellow immigrant asks him to steal sneakers from a department store in return for money. The shoe is so big, so the deal is not done. The protagonist walks around with the box of shoes and faces other abuses until he gets some money to eat. Afterwards, we see footage of the box floating on the sea.
As the camera follows the shoebox, I remember the writings of French film critic Serge Daneh about the new cinema coming out of Europe after the Second World War. Take for example Alain Resnais’ “Night and Fog” about concentration camps in Nazi Germany. The film does not show the process of killing or oppression of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Communists, opposition, and others. It, however, shows what has remained of these places: the railways, the doors, the empty bunkers where hundreds used to sleep away the pain of slavery.
The same is with Felifel’s “Drowning Man”: showing the floating shoe box in the sea is more powerful and thought provoking.
And speaking of thought provoking, we should mention Kornel Mundruczo’s “Jupiter’s Moon”, which depicts an action/drama about a Syrian refugee trying to cross the Hungarian border with his family, only to be shot by a racist cop. A doctor who works in a refugee camp, who sometimes makes profit of the immigrants’ miseries by accepting bribes to help them escape, meets the Syrian refugee who was shot, only to find that the man has special powers.
The plot escalates as the doctor abuses the powers of the refugee and manages to profit out of it. But this backfires, as the refugee gets involved in a terrorist attack, which leaves dozens dead, and is then hunted down by the police. The doctor and the refugee become wanted by the police, losing the sympathy of many people who previously helped them.
The political connotation here is very interesting. Mundruczo’s argument is that European governments (played by the doctor), filled with guilt from what is happening in the Middle East, are allowing refugees (played by the Syrian refugee) in only to benefit from them both financially and politically (referring to the superpowers of the character).
This exploitative relationship, however, eventually ends, when some of these refugees are radicalised and commit terrorist attacks. This leads to more extremist and racist forces (the security apparatus hunting down the Syrian boy), with no differentiation or sympathy, and leads also to losing the support of people who once helped refugees, after they realise that their everyday life might be endangered.
The discourse in “Jupiter’s Moon”, as director Mundruczo put it, is not just about the problem in Hungary but about the question of immigrants in Europe.
Another film was Fatih Akin’s “Aus Dem Nichts” (In the Fade), which takes on the struggle of an immigrant to seek justice and avenge her family, within the umbrella of the law or outside it. The film points out that due to the prejudice, victims of assault can be looked at as the perpetrators, only because they are immigrants.
Filmgoers and guests at Cannes were also given the opportunity to witness an extraordinary virtual reality experience. Directed by four-time Oscar-winner Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “Carne y Arena” (Flesh and Sand) gave the audience a sense of terror of what it feels like to cross the Mexican border as an immigrant.
In the screening halls of Cannes, with the attendance of hundreds of journalists, critics, producers, filmmakers, and artists, these films among others were screened, giving space for the conversation about the immigration question worldwide in all its humane angles, not just from the oppressed point of view, and not just the Middle East crisis.
The question/hope remains whether the films can assist in raising our consciousness of our surroundings, with the attempt to create more dialogue, acceptance, solidarity, and resistance. I always remember the famous words of Communist Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci when he wrote in 1929 that he is “a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” The discussed films are brave to tackle and openly express the pessimism over the immigrant crisis, and the shameful position of world leaders towards it, but the films should also act as a starting point for more activism.
After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the rise of militancy against occupation forces, the Pentagon held a screening of “The Battle of Algiers”, with the objective of giving security officials a sense of how to counter guerrilla warfare in conflict-torn Iraq. Obviously that didn’t work and militancy has reached its highest peaks, and the occupation became more and more oppressive and violent. Some might argue that had former US president George W. Bush and his aides learned anything from the film, we might have had a different Iraq and a different Middle East.
With the Cannes films expected to be screened later in different parts of the world and to diverse audiences, which is the purpose of the very professional film festival, one can only hope that the films could also act as explicit messages to world leaders.