Can a refugee in a film become too aesthetic, losing his ethical relevance?

Truls Lie
Editor-in-chief, Modern Times Review
Published date: November 7, 2011
Thomas A. Østbye.
Country: Norway 2011, 52min.

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.

Human | PlymSerafin Thomas Østbye

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 …

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