Reflecting on the Project
Why, where and how would I film refugees?
My first encounter with the refugees lied on theoretical fountain and was developed throughout two circuits. The one was a series of news-reports of national and international media correspondents and anthologies of photojournalists, who both victimized or demonized the incoming refugees and the other were the diverse fora of social media, where I encountered simplistic arguments about how useful or not a refugee can be for our society, which also was in crisis that started five years before the refugee crisis of 2015.
Even though I had been more theoretically engaged with displacement and respect of the human rights of free moving, my own parallel experience of displacement since late 2014, when I moved for educational reasons from Greece to United Kingdom, was not always all-embracing but followed its own conundrums. While in the associated spaces in and out of the University’s of Kent campus, my basic rights of employability and respect of my ethnic and linguistic divergence were well respected and the narrative of meritocracy and multiculturalism were prevailing as ne plus ultra signposts, out of campus the local population and my employers were ignoring what they considered as “moralistic” norms. Several times in pubs and supermarkets, local public services and in neighbourhoods, I faced comments such as: “Britain has stood too kind too kind to you”, “You should not care about our own behaviour, as you are a passenger” and “Kent is one of the most welcoming counties in United Kingdom, and eventually unfairly so”. In my work-place, “See how Giorgos is working non-stop! What do ou expect, he is an immigrant” “He cannot the second job, he is an immigrant”. So, after “the refugee crisis” burst out, it was impossible not to juxtapose my world with other migrants’ and refugees’ worlds, my mishap-endings with theirs, although I would never dare to compare them, as their agony is much longer and not so promising as mine.
Four years after my moving to UK, during my postgraduate studies, I had the chance of proposing a project about what I thought s the most intimate issue for me, the representation of displacement by media and other social actors. Furthermore, I was encouraged by teachers, peers and accidental occasions to film the path of the refugees at Greece. When my supervisor, Dimitrios Theodossopoulos asked me what I was supposed to film for the Visual Anthropology module(Mike Poltorak), I responded consistently “a film about mental health. This is what currently arouses my imagination”. Instead my supervisor suggested me to integrate both my Master’s topic “Media and the homogeneous images of refugees” with a potential visual component into one grandiose project. Although I was initially hesitant, I admit that this integration helped me as a more tangible conceptualization of what a project could become and a more interactive engagement with the topic of my Masters.
After Christmas, I travelled to Thessaloniki, where I would meet Ilektra Kiriazidou, the supervisee also of Prof D. Theodossopoulos and a current Phd candidate of the University of Kent researching on the austerity and neighborhoods at contemporary Greece, and more specifically Thessaloniki. Since 2015, Ilektra had hosted multiple refugees in her house at Thessaloniki. Thus, she was quite familiar with the network of the NGOs who were engaged with the support of the local refugees. Although the first NGO she connected me to was unable to bring me instantly, within a week, in contact with Syrian and Iraqi refugees. I needed both to present a University reference letter the NGO and to profile along with the NGO staff the target group of Syrian or/and Iraqi refugees, while acknowledging any intention of filming, as there was a possibility that the refugees would not comply to the presence of my lens. The second NGO was more open than any other organisation I could find. Still, they were inhibited towards the use of camera and suggested that I should acknowledge my camera’s operation. However, any official authorisation from the NGO or the University was not necessary.
I started filming at the second day of distribution. I was very awkward to ask somebody for an interview. The rapid time of distribution did not offer many chances for deeper interaction with the migrants. Fortunately, the opportunity I hoped for emerged after I was called by three Afghani friends to take a snapshot. And the more friends and more friends. Suddenly, a migrant appeared at the front of my lens, as he wanted to check his own pictures. He was disappointed with his posture. I suggested to him to take the camera and photographed as he wished, as many times he wished.He accepted the call. He encouraged his peers to pose like models. A joyful atmosphere in a style of ‘wildcat arbitrariness’ overwhelmed the camp(De Bouzek 1989: 310), regardless of suffering, regardless of pain. This occasion was pivotal for the moments of filming to come. If I was to open the discussion about the representations of refugees by others and themselves, I could not stay any more in theoretical speculations or “intriguing questions”. Upon our interaction, we would need to exchange the authorship of the filming process.I left my steps and eyes to be guided by their own intentions, in their lives, in and out of their homes, throughout their hopes(Banks and Zeitlyn 2015). Our interviews captured less than a quarter of filming or photography. Most recording time covered the cooking in the Refugee centre, the distribution at the Afghani-Pakistani camp, and principally the games of any migrant with the camera, giving space also for artistic and transformative experience and representation(Blomfield and Lenette 2018).
To what extent could this editing be inclusive?
By speaking of representation, I do not mean that migrants and refugees anticipate for me to represent them. They already have come through smart techniques of self-representation, namely through posts in social media(Dekker et al. 2018), application forms for asylum in Greece and other countries(Mayblin 2017) and presenting their living conditions to reporters and photojournalists(Duley 2017).
Through my editing, I prompted first to de-homogenize the stereotypical vision the media and NGOs superimpose in our “social reality”. My first cut was received by the audience I tended to for feedback quite diversely. Some were confused about why I chose single reporters to introduce the film’s narrative. They did not foresee any critical aspect. Others were impressed that some migrants holding a camera seemed so happy, while at first seemed miserable. Although Rose illuminates few viewers to some extent considering the poor space-human logistics of the refugee camps around Thessaloniki, she does not cover the transition from the self-representation of suffering to a moment of joy and celebration.
As I discussed in the page Appropriating icons, I divided the representations of asylum migrants and refugees, principally by others and secondarily by themselves into three types of icons. The suffering icon, which entails imageries of suffering that purpose to encourage sympathy with the migrant(s) in pain(Sontag 2003). The solidary icon reinforces the exclusively NGO-related employability of migrants by showing clips of their committed labor in social emergencies associated with humanitarian reason(Fassin 2012). And the so-called, specifically in my film “successful-migrant” icon or anyhow you would like to call it, which navigates upon the dreams and plans that the migrants aspire to during migrating or after their establishment in the host-country destination(Shukla 2016).
Even though these theoretical concepts helped the most of my feedback givers, they still leave my main narrative unravelled(Rabiger 2014: 219-224). And because my video footage was not covering more than almost two weeks of fieldwork in Thessaloniki, where I would return much later than the submission date, I did not have the luxury to complement it soon enough to submit it to the Gulbenkian Cinema Festival of Visual Anthropology. Thus, to make my film’s narrative clearer, I focused more on the characters of Mehrang and Ali discussing which violence is worse, the global physical or economic war. Such radically opposite views lead to the same aporia: Why we tend to consider refugees and migrants, from any corner of the world except Euro-American North, as subjects with different needs, desires and dreams compared to us(Pina-Cabral 2017). I do not prompt to re-introduce the bipolar distinction known as “West-Rest”, but could we really imagine another world than the current postcolonial one, as the “happiness-seeking” migrants are cursed to be reproduced indefinitely? For them, the West will be portrayed by the media as happy, peaceful and successful. However, as the cases of Mehrang and Ali show at the credits section, as of many other migrants, free moving throughout borders is not guaranteed for all(Mayblin 2017: 30). And even after being established, migrants have to persuade for their own value(s)(Ben Shahn 1936), while, if possible, only the second and third generations of such refugees reap what their ancestors sowed(Shukla 2016).
APPOPRIATING ICONS - THE FINAL FILM