Today the counting of dead bodies on European borders is commonly perceived as «the usual stuff». At the same time, a new trend is already apparent: surveillance airplanes and rescue missions are limited or even omitted in order to conceal the visibility of the catastrophe. People die better unobserved.
What can a filmmaker do faced with the trivialisation of a human catastrophe? In Eldorado – presented at the Berlinale this year – director Markus Imhoof uses his own personal memories to shed a new light on the current immigration crisis.
In tender voice-overs, the audience is witness to his correspondence and the exchanging of letters with his childhood friend and wartime refugee, Giovanna.
«Europe is participating in an on-going, perfected criminal act.»
Giovanna was a young, starving, Italian girl who was chosen by her family to obtain some temporary security for herself and her family during WWII. She was left at a depot station shortly after the breakout of war in Imhoof’s Swiss hometown (in close proximity to Zurich) amongst many other waiting and needy youngsters, as part of a children transport program organised by the Red Cross. Imhoof‘s family took in little Giovanna in order to help her and her family for a couple of months in the neutral country.
In times of rationing, Imhoof’s family shared their food in spite of all the shortages. Some months later Giovanna was forced to go back to Italy, only able to visit her family in Switzerland one more time before she had to leave. She died shortly after due to lack of medical assistance.
In this documentary, we witness how Imhoof‘s memories of his tender dialogue and correspondence with Giovanna become vivid and lifelike again.
After visiting his own childhood memories, Imhoof turns the focus of the film to the conflict and refugee crisis that we are now witnessing, and follows in a step-by-step manner the scandalising «paradoxes» of the current neoliberal world policy. The first images portray drowned people on Italian coasts. He documents the operations of «Mare Nostrum», which has so far rescued about 100,000 people’s lives.
The first paradox is quickly noticeable. Countries without a coastline dictated and signed the absurd rules of first registration, which makes a country responsible for a refugee even if she or he already had family members living in other European countries. These rules could only lead to a hardening of national immigration policies, as today’s Italy clearly demonstrates.
At the same time, Imhoof documents the administrative machinery, completely overwhelmed by the vast number of stranded people. His painful experience as a young boy at the depot repeats itself. He looks into hopeful eyes seeking help, without the possibility of effective treatment. He captures weakened bodies, people robbed of 1500 dollars by human traffickers on an overloaded Italian rescue boat, where mutinies can also break out in critical situations. He observes people being transported to equally overcrowded camps where they normally spend between 8 and 15 months, traumatised – often ashamed – unable to talk about their experiences and only left with the hope of asylum.
Often Imhoof is confronted with the discomfort of the institutions in charge. They are afraid to be represented as too cruel or too tolerant, and consequently to be attacked by adherers of right- or left-wing ideologies.
Forced into slavery
Consequently, Imhoof trains his camera on all those who benefit from the helplessness. He documents the life in the illegal ghettos, as well as the slave labour in the fervid heat of Southern Italy – remunerated by a ridiculous 15 euros a day. He shows people who are literally invisible to the state and are being left with no protection. Instead they are controlled by the mafia, who do not shy away from using physical violence from time to time. All this is being tolerated by the state and its law enforcement, as well as the population at large. They all «ignore» what happens, and not only in Italy.
«For 250,000 francs, the richer Swiss communities buy themselves the freedom of not having to house migrants at all.»
One unionist tries to act on his own, helping Imhoof gain access to a camp where he witnesses deadly hygienic conditions, filth, toxins – such as dioxin – and a lack of drinking water. Women aren’t even allowed to work in the fields, and must turn to prostitution for help. At night the local inhabitants line up to profit from their hardship.
On the other side of the border in Switzerland, migrants are placed in bunkers constructed as short-term protection for the civil population in wartime. These can easily awaken memories of abasement, robbery, torture, and rape in Libya’s prisons. For 250,000 francs, the richer Swiss communities buy themselves the freedom of not having to house migrants at all.
Imhoof remembers the large migration movements of the 19th Century and the waves of refugees caused by the two World Wars. In those days, hundreds of thousands of Europeans searched for places to survive. Finally he focuses on the real causes of the worldwide migration: the systematic corporate exploitation of third-world countries, which have been left without their own production facilities and have been robbed of their raw materials.
Cynically, as Imhoof demonstrates in terms of the global tomato production, the immigrants can buy back the expensive tinned version of the same tomatoes, which they harvested under slavish working conditions. On the other side, tax-free dumping prices practiced by the European Community – as Imhoof shows for dairy products – destroy the local production in Africa.
A permanent state of emergency
This enduring – and fundamentally catastrophic – mechanism places the local population in a permanent state of emergency. They’re barely surviving, without sufficient medical care or social protection – not to mention cultural offers or adequate education programs. In sum, the European Union’s oft-invoked ideological classification of political and economic refugees appears hypocritical and false.
«For all the daily crimes in Libya’s prisons and elsewhere, there are no trials and no convictions; there is not even a judge.»
Europe is participating in an on-going, perfected criminal act. It collaborates with all of the profit-makers in this system of exploitation. For all the daily crimes in Libya’s prisons and elsewhere, there are no trials and no convictions; there is not even a judge. Systematic torture and murder are accepted by the European community and its inhabitants. Moreover, they want to profit even further and are now ready to pay «head money» to Libya in order to deny asylum seekers the possibility of presenting their request. The drifting people in the ocean will be immediately delivered to Libyan clans.
Compared to this, the Swiss paradox seems nearly innocuous. Here asylum seekers are working for three francs an hour, and an effort is underway to build robots to relieve nursing staff instead of offering new jobs.
Imhoof combines his most personal and painful experiences with dry, analytical observations. Eldorado is thus a very necessary empathic view of the on-going mass murdering. Today, only empathy still seems to be a driving force, able to break the emotional mechanism of ignorance that has become a routine.