Putting faces to the nameless

Many films exist about the dangerous escape routes people have been taking to reach Europe since 2015 to escape war, conflict and precarious living conditions. In this very personal documentary, Palestinian artist Khaled Jarrar accompanies an old lady from Yarmouk, Syria, who was driven out of Nazareth as a child. By Rene Wildangel

By René Wildangel

Khaled Jarrar's film on the subject is deeply personal, which gives it a particularly interesting perspective. In 2015, he accompanied a family of Palestinian heritage from Syria along the Western Balkans route. The artist became aware of the family's plight when they lodged a direct appeal for help with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The elderly parents of Muna, who made the appeal, not only survived the horrors of the Syrian war in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, they are also survivors of the Nakba or 1948 expulsion from Palestine. As Jarrar explains in conversation with Qantara, he called the family and said: "I may not be the President, but I’d like to make a film about you." Muna was delighted.

The focus of his interest is Muna's mother Nadera Abboud El Hawary, who was almost 80 years old at the time. She was born in Nazareth in 1936. In the 1990s, Jarrar worked illegally in Nazareth at a carpentry workshop – just 20 minutes from Jenin, the town where he was born. His own grandmother had fled there from Haifa in 1948; he remembers her talking to him frequently about the escape as a child. There are plenty of personal references as a result.

In recent years, Jarrar has become a highly regarded international artist working in a variety of media. Arranging an interview with him isn't easy; he's always travelling for a range of projects to Paris, Leuven, New York, to the film festival in Montreal.


An alarming message

As an artist, he has frequently engaged with the subject of borders and flight. He designed an imaginary passport stamp for the imaginary state of Palestine; Al-Jazeera made a documentary about the project. In 2016, he travelled through the U.S. along the American-Mexican border, when Donald Trump announced the construction of a wall during his election campaign. Jarrar's most successful film to date, "Infiltrators" (2012), is about Palestinians seeking routes across the barrier separating them from Israel.

His initial contact with Muna is via Messenger. The family is already about to leave Istanbul by boat, headed for Greece. Suddenly Jarrar receives an alarming message on his mobile: "Help, Khaled, we're sinking!" Jarrar, who's sitting helplessly in a cafe in Ramallah, fears they have drowned.

Eventually, the family gets in touch from Istanbul and reports that the Turkish coastguard pulled them out of the water and brought them back – after a number of other masked border guards had destroyed the dinghy including its engine. Illegal "pushbacks" such as these have become customary practice on the external borders of the European Union. The second attempt is successful, and after several months of contact, Jarrar finally meets the family in September 2015 on the island of Lesbos.

He wants to board the ferry to Athens with them, but he's not allowed; the bizarre interplay of privileges, perspectives, belonging and distinction manifests itself in this scene. "I'm an artist," Jarrar exclaims, again and again, as though this were a matter of life-saving urgency. "That was so naive, but I really wanted to go with them," he says. "At the film screening in Montreal I shut my eyes, I found it so embarrassing."

Flüchtlinge auf der Balkanroute; Foto: Dirk Planert/DW
Khaled Jarrar's film "Notes on Displacement“ about a family from Syria with Palestinian roots is not only a commentary on what has become known as the ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015, but also on the current, no less dramatic situation which has yet again largely disappeared from the headlines. Jarrar aims to take a stand against this normalisation by showing the dramatic nature of individual refugee stories. The image above shows the tents of refugees in western Bosnia heading for Germany via the Balkan route

But the scene is consciously left in: after all, at this point, he's a protagonist; reflecting on his own story, but also his role as filmmaker, is at the core of the film: "First and foremost, I wanted to be with Nadera," says Jarrar. "The family took me along, the others didn't really know who I was. Nadera and her family were now my family, I wanted to escape this hell with them. I wanted to film, but I also had to survive, the distance had gone – totally different from the usual filmmaker’s perspective."

Filmmaker and protagonist – is that morally justifiable?

Jarrar is no longer merely the documentary filmmaker, he's also actor, supportive companion and himself affected by the inhumane circumstances along the way.

Nevertheless: Is it morally justifiable to accompany refugees and film them if you’re not actually fleeing anything yourself? Jarrar has a Schengen visa; but this is in a Palestinian passport with no official issuing state. The filmmaker and his family grew up under Israeli occupation. Where does this place him in the hierarchy of this bizarre system?

Jarrar grapples with these questions – to such an extent that he shelved the film for years, despite having received lucrative production offers shortly after filming. "When the boys in the film say, That's Khaled, he’s making money on the back of our suffering', in some ways they're right," says Jarrar. "But I definitely wasn't interested in satiating the market and its need for 'exotic' refugee stories and images that reproduce the 'refugee' stigma."

Today, not only is the film a commentary on what has become known as the 'refugee crisis' of 2015, but also on the current, no less dramatic situation that has yet again largely disappeared from the headlines. Jarrar aims to take a stand against this normalisation by showing the dramatic nature of individual refugee stories.

"Notes on Displacement" is the name Jarrar gives to his film and indeed, the effect is one of a diary full of thoughts and reflections, on the often absurd and degrading conditions along the escape route, the cold, the hostility, the endless series of camps with fences, sodden mattresses and mouldy food.

And the perception of people as "the refugees", as though this was their all-encompassing distinguishing feature, symbolised by a Swedish camera team whose reporter walks alongside Muna and Nadira with an umbrella, while the two women are expected to speak about their suffering in the pouring rain.


Germany, the promised land?

Jarrar's empathetic gaze, always lovingly directed at Nadera and her arduous journey, could not be more different. It is incredible how the old woman, at times sitting in a wheelchair, endures the difficult trip. The old woman breaks down in tears in just one scene – when she talks about her escape from Palestine at the age of 12: she was a primary school child, she loved school more than anything else. She still remembers how she took her homework with her: "Tomorrow you’ll go back to school," her mother promised her.

But she could never go back. Her one-year-old brother Nidal died on the journey, his mother had to leave his blanket and baby things behind. The fate of many families driven out of Palestine in 1948, people remembered by Jarrar in the current anniversary year – 75 years after the Nakba.

When they finally arrive in Germany, Khaled says to Nadera: "When you’ve got a German passport, you can travel to Palestine!" A moment of hope and joy for the old woman. Whether she really believes it we don't know, the film ends at this point. To this day, Jarrar finds it disturbing that in 2015, many refugees viewed Germany as the promised land. He bookends Nadera's story in the closing credits: a decision on her asylum application took years; she died in 2107 in Warstein and lies buried there.

Can there ever be true arrival? The hierarchies that Jarrar observes on his journey are perhaps too rigid for that. But as an artist, he is perpetually trying to dissolve them: "I don’t believe in states and borders, I believe in humanity," he says. His film is a powerful and poetic counter-concept to a world defined by boundaries and exclusion that Jarrar through his work is determined to overcome.

Rene Wildangel

© Qantara.de

Translated from the German by Nina Coon