Last week I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion in Nottingham to accompany Fernand Melgar’s film La Forteresse (2008), as part of an event put on by the New Art Exchange for Refugee Week. Melgar’s film is a remarkable achievement, that has rarely, if ever been seen in the UK.
This a great pity, not only because La Forteresse is a haunting, disturbing and brilliantly constructed piece of documentary film-making in itself, but because it offers a powerful and humane antidote to the toxic vilification of ‘bogus’ asylum seekers ‘abusing our generosity’ that is peddled by three quarters of the British press, with the passive or active support of many politicians, who are too cowardly or too concerned with winning elections to challenge it.
When I was researching my book Fortress Europe I visited some detention and asylum reception centres, but this access was – with one exception – strictly circumscribed. I wasn’t allowed to speak to or even see the detainees, and I was accompanied by guards who made sure that I didn’t get anywhere near them.
Melgar was given six months to make his film in a Swiss asylum reception centre, where refugees are screened while making their initial claims. The film doesn’t say where it is, but the centre is located in the countryside and miles from anywhere, as is often the case. The building looks like a former hotel or posh house that has been reconditioned, with metal gates and doors, glass screens and a horribly institutional and prison-like feel.
It’s surrounded by mountains, which add to its oppressive loneliness and isolation – even more so in that the film was shot in winter. Melgar appears to have been allowed considerable latitude to film as he wanted. His camera quietly and unobtrusively observes the interactions between the detainees themselves, and between the guards and officials charged with listening to and writing down their stories and approving or rejecting them.
The film achieves a real intimacy with its subjects. No one seems to be acting for the camera. There is no voice-over narration, no explanations about anything that happens. It simply follows the painful and sometimes utterly heartbreaking process through which would-be refugees must to justify their right to remain in Switzerland and pass through the magic portal into Europe.
These interactions are the most disturbing aspect of the film, and as far as I know nothing like this has ever been filmed. The nearest thing to it are the ghastly interrogations in UK Border Force, but that was a nasty price off reality tv which presents even the most humiliating interrogations of ‘illegal immigrants’ as entertainment for the lager-on-the sofa crowd.
Melgar’s film, on the other hand, invites the viewer to consider the whole meaning of what it is to be a refugee, with a life on hold while trying to fulfill criteria that are rarely explained. It is quietly shocking and profoundly discomforting to watch men and women who have fled experiences that many Europeans can barely imagine, trying to negotiate their way through a bureaucracy that is clearly operating according to an unspoken code of scepticism and disbelief.
Some of the claimants have had family members horrendously murdered or killed in wartime. Others have seen friends and companions drown at sea. Many have undergone traumatic experiences that they don’t have the language to describe. Yet their futures rest on their ability to convince the officials who are interviewing them.
The post-panel discussion focused a lot on the theme of the ‘credible narrator’ which is one of the key elements of the film. What exactly do asylum seekers have to do to ‘prove’ they are telling the truth? Should they dramatize their stories – and risk being rejected for overacting as a result?
Or should they relate their experiences, as so many asylum seekers do, with a quiet matter-of-factness that belies the horrors they often describe – in which case they may not succeed in convincing the bureaucrats who have to assess their stories?
Should they be good storytellers or bad ones? In one scene, a young Somali man describes how he and his companions were stranded at sea until they were starving. When a young boy died of exposure, he says, he and his companions cut him up and ate him. His interviewer ( a Christian) is so moved by this that he reaches out and holds his hand in solidarity.
But when the story goes to one of his superiors, it is rejected, because, she says, the Somali didn’t manage to convince her that someone in that situation would have behaved as he did – as though she were rejecting a novel on the basis of its poor characterization.
Other interviewees break down in tears, whereupon the secretaries dictating their stories are required to write ‘ the claimant is emotional’. One of them was the Columbian graphic designer whose headless son was found floating down a river, killed by a rightwing death squad. Another was Ali, a clearly deeply-disturbed young man from Togo who cries because he wants his mother and father back and keeps saying ‘ I don’t know why I’m here. Why am I here?’
A good question, which Melgar deliberately leaves open. The obvious answer is that they are there because Swiss society – and Europe – takes it for granted that many of them are ‘bogus’ – and perhaps is looking for an excuse to reject them. The individual officials in the film don’t necessarily feel like this themselves. Some of them are very empathetic and clearly deeply moved by the stories they hear.
But the system is clearly operating according to a ‘ culture of disbelief’ that is hardly unique to Switzerland. One of the panelists on our discussion was an asylum seeker who is still trapped in the British bureaucracy, who said that he routinely goes through exactly the same kinds of interviews/interrogations here in the UK, by officials who take it for granted that he is lying.
At the end of the film, credits announced that some 3,000 out of just over 11,000 asylum seekers were given refugee status or temporary residence in the year in which it was filmed. All of which raises the question, on what basis were the others rejected? Were they not ‘credible’ – as the Home Office over here often declares when it rejects asylum claims – because they weren’t good enough? Did the officials who interviewed them find evidence to disprove their stories?
Or could it be that Switzerland, like many other European countries, simply found a pretext to reject them, because it doesn’t want to accept refugees or because it has a quota of rejections that it expects its officials to hit?
Whatever the answers, Melgar’s film is an essential and really quite astonishing insight into how ‘fortress Europe’ deals with the refugees who come to the continent seeking an entrance that, like the magic theatre in Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, is not for everybody.