Voice of Africa in the Forests of Europe
Award-winning film focuses on the experience of African refugees in Germany
By Petar Hadji-Ristic
Shackled and spread-eagled out on the ground in a forest clearing the Africans and other asylum-seekers are spared not even a side glance as the smartly-dressed woman high steps past them, gets into her car and speeds away. Her face is the only recognisable one to be seen in the final seconds of the documentary film, Forst (The Forest).
The preceding 50 minutes are for the voices of the refugees, clips of their interviews set to grainy black-and-white views down long corridors, through windows and out into dense forests.
“They isolate us. They put us in the forest so they can treat us how they like,” says the voice of a woman as the documentary begins. “But nobody hears. Nobody will know that they are treating someone like this in the forest.”
Back in 2001 Ascan Breuer, then a 25-year-old student in Berlin, first heard those voices at a country-wide demonstration against the German residency restrictions for refugees and asylum-seekers. They had massed at the end of the same street that leads from Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.
That experience set him on a three-year odyssey to find those refugees again in their forests and let them tell their story on film. The conceptual artists Ursula Hans Bauer and Wolfgang Konrad as well as four other filmmakers joined him and audaciously tapped the coffers of the Austrian chancellor’s office, the city of Vienna and two Austrian states to finance their subversive enterprise, which was to win him the prize for last year’s best documentary at Austria’s Diagonale Film Festival in Graz.
“The interviews we used are representative,” Ascan explains, sitting in the kitchen of his girlfriend’s Berlin flat after a film showing in the German state of Thuringia. “Every refugee told us that for the first three months after arriving in a camp they suffer from insomnia and fell into depression. Every refugee said that they entered the forests without knowing what would happen or how long they would remain.”
Ascan makes no apology for being uncompromisingly on the side of the refugees. Never did he approach a camp bureaucrat or politician to ask them to explain themselves. In contrast to the inaudible standpoints of the system’s sufferers their point of view is in any case dominating the public consensus, he states.
“Refugees are at the lowest rung of society. Exiled. Anyone who has taken an elementary introductory course in psychology knows that when you set up such a system people will react in such a way,” he explains. “They will fall into depression. Some will be driven into insanity. The refugees are not being paranoid or talking gibberish when they rail against the injustice they are suffering. The deliberate purpose in isolating them is really, just as they say, to break them.”
Nowhere in the documentary is the face behind the voice ever shown. This is deliberately to reinforce the message that they speak for every refugee from the myriad of recordings collected during two months of filming. “If we had shown a face the audience would have felt sympathy,” Ascan adds. “That would be a condescending gesture.”
The interviews fell into three groups. “We did many interviews with refugees who were completely broken,” Ascan says. “They explained nothing more than their leg had been hurting for a year and the doctor could do nothing to help them.” Then there came those who had moved out of this stage and had made some kind of compromise to survive in the system.
And then finally there was a fraction of those who had decided to organise themselves. These were associated with the Voice Refugee Forum, Women in Exile and the Caravan for the Rights of Refugees and co-operated with the making of the film.
The final voice, once again unmistakably African, with a deep West African inflection, suggests what the refugees want of the audience. “We always tell the people who work with us in support groups: ‘Look, if you take our struggle as your struggle then we can walk. But if you think we are just miserable, helpless people who need support from you, we do not need that kind of support’. “Not until we are able to come together in a clear position, is it ever going to hurt the authorities. The only time it hurts them is when the ordinary man in the street understands what is happening in that forest there.”
For more information about the film, readers may visit: www.forstfilm.com
A video of the film may be ordered from sixpackfilm at: www.sixpackfilm.com
Or from Ascan Breuer (firstname.lastname@example.org).
The article appears in the April/May issue of The African Courier magazine, which is currently available in train stations and African shops across Germany, Austria, the Benelux, France, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.