Belgium, 2017, 63 min.
A camera hovers over the ground, through some bushes, and happens upon a tent, cooking utensils, more tents, and waste lying around. We enter ‘the Jungle’, the temporary and highly improvised refugee camp near Calais, France, a haven for refugees seeking to cross the Channel to the United Kingdom. Kalès is an exploration of this camp and its life.
Filmmaker Laurent Van Lancker, also an anthropologist, worked collaboratively with a number of inhabitants of the Calais camp during its existence, from April 2015 till November 2016, the film’s credits inform us. Although the direness of the living circumstances is evident, the film focuses on the everyday lives of the inhabitants. Van Lancker visits them in their various shelters or outside and shows them mainly through their (cultural) activities: making music, watching video, painting, singing, cooking, playing sports, telling stories, buying cigarettes, learning French. The people who have managed to reach this place are depicted as not only adaptive and strong, but also as creative. Dante’s Calais. This makes Kalès a very human film. Most media representations of refugees focus on the problems they supposedly cause and the dangers of refugees’ itineraries (which undoubtedly exist).
Most reports about Calais stress the abominable living circumstances, the reciprocal tensions and threats, the dangers of trying to cross to the UK, the frustrations of being in these circumstances, and the police forces trying to control the situation. Such representations de-humanize the refugees and restrict them to being problems and threats. In contrast, Kalès shows people (mainly men) who have found a way to calmly co-exist and create something of a life. The camp is a kind of separate multi-cultural society, a civilisation of its own. It seems to work. It is presented as a permanence rather than a passing station.
«Kalès shows people who have found a way to calmly co-exist and create something of a life, a civilisation of its own.»
The men joke around, contemplate and reflect on their situation, recount their dreams and anxieties and thereby share both their inner and outer life. They do not negate the less favourable aspects of their lives: risks, fears, murder, and health conditions are discussed but as one aspect of many others in their lives. The participants remain unnamed and we get to know details about their identities and origins only through the stories they decide to share. Much of their context remains implicit.
A couple of narratives recounted by inhabitants explicitly serve as metaphors for their situation. One is a story focusing on the idea that the real trouble lies ahead and the current situation is actually quite safe. Another is a poem describing the situation in and of Calais and the fatigue of the people and the city. There is also a story expressing the absence of help and the need for self-reliance. At both the beginning and the end of the film, an extensive quote from Dante’s Inferno summarizes what Van Lancker wants to make us see: the good that he found in this godforsaken place, the kind people sharing their experiences and existence. The argument of the hour long film thereby is presented rather explicitly.
The film’s calm approach is reflected in the camerawork and the sound design. Both are unobtrusive. Van Lancker silently observes (while one of the inhabitants deploys a very lively recording style, adding comments as he films). He generally stays close to the inhabitants, which creates a certain intimacy as well as a sense of claustrophobia. But there is also a counterforce: Calais being a coastal city, there is always wind and in the majority of images tents, tarpaulin, even a painting canvas flutter. In the background there is the motorway with its promise of passing to the UK. There is always some kind of unrest. People are often filmed with parts of tents or other housing in the image. There are no uncomplicated views ahead.
Eventually it becomes clear that the camp will be demolished and the film ends with the remains: the camera hovers over left over waste, through abandoned shacks and over the now barren land.
«The participants remain unnamed and we get to know details about their identities and origins only through the stories they decide to share»
Despite its sad subject matter, Kalès is something of a relief to watch as it not only provides an alternative representation of a social controversy but does this in a very tranquil and mellow style. In doing so, it re-humanizes refugees who, whether or not you appreciate their reasons for being here, deserve to be heard and treated with respect.