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When a film mentions the refugees, the poor or any other group pushed away or being outside the systematic world of power, I gladly refer to Paweł Mościcki’s text, On the Borders of Visibility, in which the researcher postulated finding such a visual key that would allow “to translate complex national, class and historical problems to a specific visual experience”[1]. In other words, it is the concept of “chiaroscuro” used by Mościcki. It is a search for such a form of visual representation that would stand in opposition to high-budget (nice, bright, technically solid etc.) cinema.

It is all about perspective. What will the artist – having expensive crew, equipment (drones!) and international support – tell us about the refugee experience, the situation of the poorest in Africa or the war in the Middle East? Well, at most he will use the topic to grab the audience by their hearts, and will get nominations for awards at international festivals. He will then smile at the people whose story was supposedly depicted in the film and then he will return to the quiet security of his expensive home.

A negative example would be the warmly received Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum from a last year – an Oscar-nominated film about a little boy from the Beirut slums. Except that the boy had a little too well-groomed hair, shots from drones more resembled a flight over a poor district of London or New York than Beirut, and the director herself had – as can be verified in the end credits – a separate makeup man for herself.

It is a perspective that only theoretically draws attention to the humanity of those who are in the margins. In essence, it is a brutal removal of their voice, their looks, their experiences, their perspectives. The Austrian documentary filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter does not make this mistake in his great Border Fence.

He doesn’t look for refugees at this Tyrolean-Italian border – we won’t see a single one in the film. Instead, the director tells the stories of the inhabitants, reflecting not only the atmosphere of the small mountain towns, but also the social moods of those who are the closest to the events heated by the media. It turns out that the healthiest approach is taken by those who live in the center of events, who know firsthandly what migrants are struggling with.

The people of Tyrol appear to be people full of warmth, openness and above all – common sense. Here one can see better than anywhere else, how strongly the natural, as it seems, desire to help people who lost home (a man who fed a group of refugees, humanly sharing a meal) clashes with subcutaneous fear of the Other fueled by the media and regulated by law (the same man has later called the police – the end result was probably deporting those people).

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The Border Fence is a place full of absurdities. Here a real wall crossing the border of two countries was to be build, but the materials for the construction of a metal mesh fence (let’s be honest, this metal mesh would also be a more symbolic solution than a serious one) have been locked in a container for several years. The attitude of the inhabitants of the border town to this fence is well expressed by one of the guards saying that “we all hope [the net] will stay here [in the container]”.

Even those who do not hide their anxiety about contact with the Others, do not speak a single bad word on them – like a worker of a mountain shelter, who is afraid of migrants, but none of them stole anything from him or did anything wrong. The Austrian documentary filmmaker clearly shows that it is not ordinary people who are detached from reality, but those who are in power – it is they who are blinded by the safe, civilizational, bright light that overshadows “chiaroscuro”.

The Border Fence is an extremely charming film, with its slow style and a narrative geared to listening to inhabitants of Tyrol, reminding the achievements of the outstanding German director, Ulrike Ottinger. Geyrhalter’s film is another documentary focusing on local experience, the perspective of a frontier resident in recent years. For example, the Finnish-Bulgarian Good Postman from 2016. Both films prove the truth of a simple rule – we are frightened by what we do not know, but a little humanity is enough to reach out to those who need help.


[1] Paweł Mościcki, On the Borders of Visibility, Political Critique, nr 24-25, 2010 -05 p. 49-58, online (only in Polish, sadly): https://www.laurawaddington.com/articles/54/na-granicach-widzialnos-769ci-on-the-borders-of-visibility

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Mateusz Tarwacki

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