Refugees' plight in focus at Berlin film festival

 18 Feb 2016 - 14:26

Refugees' plight in focus at Berlin film festival
Assistants of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei decorate the columns of Berlin's Konzerthaus concert hall with lifejackets, on February 13, 2016, as part of a temporary installation intended to remind people of the ongoing refugee crisis. AFP/John MacDougall 


Berlin: This year's Berlin Film Festival shines a spotlight on the plight of refugees in a string of documentaries and movies as Europe struggles with its biggest migrant influx since World War II.

One man who survived the dangerous journey to reach safe haven on the continent, and is in Berlin to share his story, is Aboubakar Sidibe, 30, from the crisis-torn west African country of Mali.

"Like all young people, like those who live in Europe, we all want a future -- nothing big, just a future for me, a family, children, a job," he told AFP.

Today he lives in a refugee centre in Germany's Bavaria state, but he made the trip to Berlin for the premiere of the Danish film "Those Who Jump", which he helped to make.

The documentary tells the story of the hundreds of migrants who camp out on Mount Gurugu, behind a high-security border fence that separates Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla.

Sidibe was one of them, and filmmakers Moritz Siebert and Estephan Wagner gave him a camera to document life on Gurugu.

"What we said to ourselves was that we have talked a lot about migrants, but that we haven't heard their voices," said Wagner. "We can see here at the Berlinale that people are hungry to hear them."

'Tragedy before our eyes' 

No fewer than a dozen films in Berlin this year deal with those fleeing war and poverty.

In the official competition, Italian director Gianfranco Rosi received applause for the documentary "Fire at Sea", shot on a European frontline of the refugee influx, the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The film provides an unflinching look at the thousands of desperate people who arrive on the island each year trying to enter the European Union, and the thousands more who die trying.

"It bears witness to a tragedy that is happening right before our eyes," Rosi told reporters.

The director also accompanied coastguard rescue missions answering the terrified SOS calls of people on overcrowded boats, most arriving from Libya.

He captures the migrants' overwhelming relief to be on dry land, the shock that gives way to mourning for their dead, and the crushing boredom they break up with rough-and-tumble football games.

"I think we are all responsible for that tragedy and perhaps, after the Holocaust, it is the greatest tragedy we have ever seen in Europe," Rosi said.

'Right to happiness' 

Another documentary, "Havarie", traces the fate of a small rickety refugee boat in the Mediterranean, spotted in September 2012 by an Irish tourist who made a mobile phone video from the cruise ship "Adventure of the Sea".

The footage shows about 15 silhouettes drifting in a deflated zodiac, overlaid with snippets of conversations between coastguards and the ship's crew, the testimony of tourists, and the stories of migrants.

One of them is an Algerian man who has since been deported back to his country, and who recalled the difficulty of his original odyssey.

Despite his desire to return to Europe, where the woman he loves has stayed back, he says he won't try to return, concluding sadly: "No, never another trip."

In drama, too, the refugee theme looms large, such as in French director Aline Fischer's movie "Meteorstrasse" about the life of Mohammed, an 18-year-old Palestinian living in Berlin.

The story shows Mohammed navigating life with a charismatic but unstable brother, a surly German boss and a father back in the Palestinian Territories with whom he communicates only through terse phone calls.

"The films offer moments of emotion, new looks at existence ... one can detect things we can't always put into words," the director told RBB Berlin public radio.

Fischer said she was happy to see her film help spark broader debate about migrant issues, which was also the stated goal of festival director Dieter Kosslick for the Berlinale.

This year's festival features multiple initiatives to help migrants: donations can be made at terminals at cinema venues, and many festival internships were reserved for migrants.

Kosslick told reporters that "the overarching theme this year is the right to happiness -- the right to a home, to love, to self-determination, to life and to survival".