I feel some discontent regarding both a recent documentary and a video-installation. The doc-essay Imagining Emanuel by Thomas A. Østbye – to be screened at HotDocs – has the refugee, the immigrant, as its topic. The young immigrant escapes from a civil war in Liberia, and travels to Norway in the propeller room of a ship, sitting there wet for several days and nearly freezing to death. He is imprisoned in Norway, and during the monthslong wait to be assessed for residency as a political refugee, he feels totally insignificant, becomes depressed and wants to die.
The Norwegian director’s intention is to set up a mirror for the audience, a reflection on our own categorizing gaze. And he does it well, with very “sensual” images, sharp colours and excellent composition. He prolongs and “dwells” on situations, for example with the police and social workers. The director’s voice-over though, has a naïve tone, and after a while the film becomes a little too distanced from its subject matter. Director Østbye has already copied in his previous award-winning doc Human (2009) both content and form from the Danish director Jørgen Leth’s film Life in Denmark (1972) – people isolated in a black studio talking about who they are. This approach is again repeated in Imagining Emanuel. We all copy other filmmakers, so for the most part my discontent stems from his use of a distancing form in the very deeply ethical situation of the refugee. Do the aesthetics really add much to the problem? But there is something in his dwelling on the vulnerable face of the police officer – a family man? – applying the harsh immigration rules of the new rich Norwegian Government.
And yes, the director gets what he explicitly stated was his intention – for something inhuman to reveal itself. But it becomes too arty. In a way, Imagining Emanuel does violence to the subject, as he “uses” the immigrant as an aestheticized object. At the same time, Emanuel himself manages to get his fragile message through: he asks to be accepted as a human, not as an animal – as he explains, humans work… The acclaimed British artist/director Isaac Julien similarly reveals the “immigrant” or the “walker” in two installations, recently shown in Oslo. In the first named Fantôme Créol (2005), he makes a collage of rushes from African cities and desert landscapes put together with ice-cold Arctic areas. The image work is sharply composed and colourful. The film focuses on a mass of wandering feet, bicycle wheels, hands, faces, soldiers, a skilful dancer – and two returning characters: one white-dressed, bald-headed, staring woman walking in the sandy South, the other, a black-dressed man walking on a glacier in the North.
“Cinema” as such is also a theme in several cuts; a roundabout named “Place des Cineastes”, outdoor cinemas in the sand, and film reels. Another reflection on our categorizing gaze? The other video/film was in Oslo an installation named WESTERN UNION: Small Boats. It centres around African immigrants on the way to Italy, via Libya. Just as we read in today’s newspapers, their arrival in Lampedusa is a problem for the Italian government. Julien’s colourful camerawork on the refugees – not real refugees like Emanuel, but actors or models – is presented in perfectly composed forms. I was quite taken by the images of these beautiful people and landscapes, but my discontent surfaces again: The filmmaker’s concentration on form creates distance from the content. Julien’s attitude is also amplified by a connected text on the artwork/film written by Iain Chambers – who to explain this work name-drops about ten cultural theorists in four pages.
Has Julien in his aestheticized, but very beautiful installation on the “other” blocked ethical insight into these people’s lives – those who strive to survive war and poverty? One image is the bald-headed woman looking out from a cave through bars, another one shows 5-6 perfect looking bodies standing on white marble-like ground by the edge of blue water. Or a third, with blue fishermen’s boats on the sunny, sandy beach. Aren’t they all too appealing to our senses to address the issue at hand? But my discontent leaves me. In other clips from this film/installation, Julien pays tribute to Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) and the places that masterpiece was filmed: we are in that film’s decadent palace, a luxurious room with plush-green furniture, gold-coloured chandeliers and a leopard painted on the tiled floor.
A dancer rolls and throws himself around on this hard floor. Another dancer rolls around on large grey stone stairs. Later bodies rotate on the glaciers and icy reaches of the North. These bodies also strive underwater, rolling around, “drowning”. I have to admit that in the end these bodies move me – as the installation is huge with five screens and several impressive sound sources. The screening ends with six refugees earlier seen in a boat on the way to Lampedusa, now lying in silver-foiled body bags – ignored on a tourist beach in Italy.
I was moved, but also felt discontent. So I couldn’t help asking Julien in Oslo why he used all this beauty in his films, as it may bleach out the moral issues? The black artist seemingly from London’s upper class answered: “Why not!?” Later that day, I remembered that the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben wrote about the refugee, as the “naked human” (Homo Sacer, “the accursed man”) – as the Others, without rights, those who can be killed with impunity, those “without any political value”.1
As people of no significance, paperless, without work, they are not seen as “humans” – so the sovereign governmental power controls their “bodies” through what philosophers call “biopower”. Today, it is predicted that one billion of the earth’s population will migrate in the hunt for better life conditions and work over the coming decades. Globalization from the South is unauthorized, but unstoppable. But my discontent about the two excellent filmmakers arises when they address the refugees as aesthetic objects, at the risk of somehow reducing their significant humanity.
1 See giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. 1998, Stanford university Press.