Monday 25 February 2019


By Dimitri Keramitas

Laurent Van Lancker didn’t intend to make a documentary about the “Jungle”, the teeming encampment in Northern France of migrants seeking to wend their way to the UK (and which has since been dismantled).

The Belgian filmmaker was in the process of making a fiction feature and wanted to incorporate a single shot of the migrant camp near Calais (or “Kalès”). So he went, he filmed, and then he stayed.

A view of the camp, in Kalès.
The term “Jungle” is meant to indicate a wild state of affairs, but what impressed Van Lancker about the tent city of about 5,000 people - some estimates put it at 10,000 - was the sense of community he found.

The documentary he released a bit over a year ago is an impressionistic symphony of vivid images that are sensual even at their most gritty. At the same time, in a subtler way, it’s an aural collage of talk, music, and silences. The film has been making the rounds over the past months, as the immigration debate continues and Brexit draws near, and it was recently screened at the Centre Wallonie-Bruxelles in Paris.

It has as its epigraph a verse from Dante’s Inferno, and when, in the opening scene, we follow a path in a sort of wasteland, we expect the worst. We see many tents constructed out of tarp, but also plastic wrap, like very large garbage bags. Dark or black-skinned men can be seen walking aimlessly or lounging about, trapped in an administrative no-man’s land. The camera glides through the area in the manner of a Frederick Wiseman documentary, an exploratory approach that can seem meandering. There’s no propagandistic or discursive structural juggernaut, and as in Wiseman’s films, no intrusive voice-over.

Taking over the narrative at the Calais camp.
One thing that strikes us initially is that the tents aren’t little hovels, but spacious and orderly. Probing their interior evokes an impression of a desert nomad’s abode, where people visit and provide updates and information.

Some touches seem surreal: mobile phones and tablet computers are ubiquitous, and bring not only conversation with loved ones, but soccer matches from the homeland. There are even phone apps replicating traditional musical instruments. In the midst of make-shift life, a migrant will complain about a spot’s reception: “There’s no good Internet here.”

Inevitably, a commercial/social life sprouts here: a tent general store, a lounge, even what looks like a nightclub. Also, very discreetly, a brothel. The commercial life seems to be run mostly by Afghan migrants or refugees. We see one of them making cigarettes by hand and wrapping them in foil. We follow another merchant as he goes to an Auchan hypermarket to pick up supplies.

In addition to food for sale, the migrants / refugees organize a sizeable communal feast. We wonder where the money comes from. It’s difficult to account for every expenditure, but many saved up for their journeys to Europe, and may also receive money from family, NGOs and public bodies. In any case, material deprivation isn’t the primary concern of the residents.

Community in the camp.
Another surreal element is the juxtaposition of this supposed “jungle” with modern-day France. Aside from the surprise of some viewers on seeing a migrant shop at a French hypermarket is the sight of busy highways nearby, with drivers oblivious to what is happening a few hundred meters away. Even within the camp are boards covered with graffiti scrawls in English that one might observe in any bustling European city.

The imminence of Brexit at the time of viewing makes ironic the migrants’ desire to go to the UK. Some of the camp’s residents are taking English lessons, while others discourse on the historical links between their home countries, for example Sudan, and Great Britain. This evokes visions of Lord Kitchener and the Mahdi during the “scramble for Africa”; who would have thought the Fashoda Incident would find echoes a century and a half later in a migrant camp that contributed its part to the tensions leading to British withdrawal from the EU?  The imperial chickens took a mighty long time, but they’ve certainly come home to roost.

Van Lancker met numerous migrants and refugees during his extended stay at the Jungle, but he became friends with one Sudanese man in particular, Khalid Mansour, who acts as Virgil to Van Lancker’s Dante - a guide to the migrant limbo. At one point, Mansour takes control of the camera and leads the director (and us) on a shaky mock-tour, sardonically interviewing friends and acquaintances. The soundtrack also contains snatches of Mansour singing and reciting poetry.

The Inferno becomes literal at the end, when the camp is not only dismantled but set ablaze by unknown arsonists (or by accident). Footage shows the firestorm engulfing what had been the communal infrastructure for thousands (fortunately after it had been evacuated). Mansour was able to obtain asylum thanks to Van Lancker and other volunteers with whom he became friends.

The screening of the documentary at the CWB in Paris was followed by a question-and-answer session attended by both the director and Mansour. To see someone who’d lived in the stark environment we’d just visited now appear in a plush Parisian setting was yet another surreal touch. The testimony of the two provided some insight into the ambiguous nature of the documentary, and the documentary form in general. Mansour seemed like a generic migrant in the film, but he stated that he’d been a journalist in Sudan until it got too dangerous, and also that he’d lived abroad, notably in the Ukraine, where he worked as an actor. In France, he has been taking university courses.

As for Van Lancker, the director not only filmed the camp, but placed himself among his subjects, developing a rapport with them. That he’s an anthropologist to boot, and never appears in the film, set one thinking about the contextual dimension of the documentary. It was also revealed that while mostly men are seen in the film, many women and children were also present. It was the director’s decision not to the film them, his selectivity skewing our perception of the Jungle.

While Kalès gives an invaluable taste of the migrant experience, one that contradicts the clichés of the mainstream media, it too must be supplemented by approaches that go beyond the sensory. One could also add a discussion of the “white saviour” phenomenon - which is very much in the spotlight during this current cinema awards season, but which doesn't quite apply in the same way to Kalès.

Production: Polymorfilms. Photos courtesy of the film producers.

Dimitri Keramitas is an award-winning writer and legal expert based in France.

Wednesday 13 February 2019


A documentary about a Cuban family facing an uncertain future had its world premiere Feb. 12 at the Berlin International Film Festival, one of the world’s most prestigious cinema events. La Arrancada (On the starting line) is a debut feature by Brazilian director Aldemar Matias, focusing on a young athlete who is having doubts about her role in national sports in the Caribbean country. The narrative follows her as she considers her future, which may well lie abroad, she reluctantly realizes.

Jenniffer, in La Arrancada.
Structured with sensitivity and shot in an understated style, the documentary eschews the usual visual clichés associated with Cuba. Instead, with nary a Cadillac in sight, it offers a story with a strong feminist sensibility, told as it is from the point of the view of the athlete, Jenniffer, and her mother Marbelis. The latter is a no-nonsense boss of a fumigation centre in downtown Havana who marshals her army of mostly male fumigators to destroy mosquito nests throughout the city. Away from work, she tries to ensure that her daughter and son fulfil their potential.

The mother-daughter relationship is at the core of the film, with some poignant scenes, but La Arrancada also addresses the role of young men who feel they have to quit their homeland to improve their lives. We see Jenniffer’s brother getting ready to leave Cuba, and travelling through several Latin American countries, even as Jenniffer struggles to find her own role at home in the competitive arena. This intimate account of a family in the “Global South” explores issues of emigration and youth unemployment and “unfolds the portrait of a generation unsure of what’s next in Cuba”, as director Matias says.

In the following interview, Matias - who studied in Cuba - discusses his background and the themes in his film (a Cuba-Brazil-France co-production, distributed by Miami-São Paulo company FiGa Films).

Director Aldemar Matias
Q:  Before we discuss the film, can you tell us about your background, where you were born and how you came to study in Cuba?

Aldemar Matias (A.M.): I was born in Manaus, Brazil. In my early twenties, I started working there as a TV reporter for local TV channels. It was always TV shows about arts or environmental subjects. Then I had the desire to spend more time with the people I was interviewing, to have the possibility to develop a deeper relationship with the characters. That’s when the interest for documentaries appeared. At that moment I already knew about the school in Cuba. It seemed like a holy land for aspiring filmmakers, specially from Latin America, Asia and Africa. Actually, the institution was initially thought to give high quality film education for these “3 worlds”. For me, It was a life-changing experience. It’s still my favorite place in the world. 

Q: Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?

A.M.: Not really. I was initially more attracted to TV because It seemed more accessible. The idea I had of filmmaking as a teenager was only big blockbusters, big fiction productions. I didn’t see myself there. It was actually a bit repelling to me. It was not at all a childhood dream or anything like that. It was built little by little. 

Q: What sparked the idea for La Arrancada?

A.M.: I already knew Marbelis (Jenni’s mom) from a previous short film I did, El Enemigo. Then, I was in Cuba trying to do another project, with multiple characters, that was not working very well. I called Marbelis to be part of it and to film a day at the beach. Her daughter asked if she could join in. When I saw these two interacting, that’s when I really saw the possibility of a powerful story, and I decided to focus completely on them. 

Filming La Arrancada in Havana.
Q: The film could have been set in many other countries in the Global South, with its themes of young people leaving their homeland in search of better opportunities, parents living with the sadness of distance, national uncertainty about the future, etc. Could you discuss your reasons for highlighting these concerns?

A.M.: I believe the intimacy of a family is a great place to portray bigger political contexts. When we see the lives of these two, we can understand better how complex it is to make these decisions, to deal with these uncertainties. Jenniffer might have the idea that she can reach better opportunities somewhere else, but at the same time, she cares about what she’s doing in Cuba, I mean, she’s very upset when she can’t compete. Marbelis might reproduce a nationalist speech in the morning for her workers, but at the same time she can help her son to leave the country. How do we know what’s the best life project for us and our kids? When we see particular family stories up closer, immigrants (from Cuba or from anywhere else) become more than just a number or statistics. It’s not as reductionist as “there is good, here is bad”. 

Q: La Arrancada may be considered a feminist film, even if this aspect isn’t over-emphasized. Many viewers will appreciate the comments from Marbelis, the mother, to her son in one memorable scene, where she cautions him about the misogynistic lyrics in certain types of music. Can you tell us more about this section and why you included it?

Havana community in the documentary.
A.M.: I think about Marbelis’ feminism the whole time! Not just this scene. But it’s not up to me to judge it. As a filmmaker, and especially as a male filmmaker. I love the fact that it just comes naturally: she might know nothing about concepts such as sorority or empowerment. But she’s there leading a troop of men every morning in the health district with “audacity and discipline”, as she says, alongside her sister Delaires. At the same time, she might make a joke with Jenniffer saying “she won’t get married if she doesn’t prepare the lunch fast”. The patriarchy culture is there as well, obviously. That’s her authentic personality and I have to be honest with its complexity. The same way she might call out her son for misogynistic lyrics, and then she can dance to it later. 

Q: The story is told in a very understated way, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions, especially concerning the role of women in “male” domains. Why did you choose this approach?

A.M.: I believe my job as a filmmaker is to open discussions, not to give conclusions. And to make the viewer empathize with complex realities and personalities. That’s why I choose to film in this way. But of course, I also need to take responsibility of the journey the viewer is taking and to provide the right path to generate the questions I want him/her to think about. 

One of the mother-daughter scenes in La Arrancada.
Q: The “actors” give very good performances, but we lack a certain context regarding the daughter - we don’t get to know her friends or her boyfriend, as the focus stays on the mother-daughter relationship. Are there particular reasons for this directorial choice?

A.M.: I have to say It’s weird for me to think of them as actors, as they are “real people” living their lives. The focus on the mother-daughter relationship is the most interesting for me in this context. They are the ones who have the strongest bond and that might be apart soon. Marbelis forms part of an older generation and, naturally, is more influenced by the Cuban system. Jenniffer is a new force, a generation that questions this model of life, but is also attached to it. She’s also the one who has the mission or the burden to carry on the sports legacy. The affection between mother and daughter makes all the contradictions way more interesting to me. It obliges both worlds to dialogue with each other.

Q: The setting is also not given a focal role. We don’t see the buildings and cars (except once) that have come to typify Havana or other parts of Cuba. Why is this? 

A.M.: What we see regarding the context is what we need to tell their story. Their neighbourhood, the sports area, the health district. There’s also the wi-fi square which is a place that is part of Jenniffer’s daily life and very representative of this moment in the country. I really wanted to avoid showing Cuba “for free”. I was actually very concerned to not fall into the trap of making the usual circus full of Cadillacs and other cliché representations of Cuba. It’s very seducing because Havana just blows your eyes with so much visual stimulation, but we’ve had enough of that.

Q: The English title is “On the starting line” but “arrancada” could also be “torn” which accurately sums up Jenni’s situation. How did you choose the title?

A.M.: This great idea is from the editor, Jeanne Oberson. I believe the title must provoke a question at the end of the film. “La Arrancada” has the obvious superficial first layer/meaning connected to Jenniffer’s sports activity that you see immediately in the beginning of the film. But then you think about the title again in the end and you actually might question yourself where is this “arrancada” taking her? Will she be able to be “arrancada”? How is this “arrancada” going to be? At least, that’s what we intended to provoke. 

Q: This is a Brazil-Cuban-French co-production. Can you tell us about the production aspects?

A.M.: The production company is Dublin Films, from Bordeaux. The film was actually financed and post-produced in France, all shot in Cuba (with a Cuban crew) and directed by me, Brazilian.

Q: What is your next project? 

A.M.: Right now I’m in the post-production of a short film I did in my city, Manaus, and a 5-episode TV series about young dancers in Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Brazil who challenge the conservatism of their communities. Although I’m based in Barcelona, I want to keep researching new stories in Latin America, especially in the Amazon, the region where I’m from. By the way, the political moment we’re living in Brazil now urges new stories to be filmed. 

Text by McKenzie/SWAN. Photos courtesy of FiGa Films / Dublin Films. Readers can follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale

Thursday 7 February 2019



Nearly every writer from the Caribbean has a story about a “mad” character - walking the streets, disrupting complacency, revealing certain truths or suffering in silence - and scholars are increasingly examining this pervasive theme in literature from the region.

A new book, Madness in Anglophone Caribbean Literature: On the Edge, “takes as its starting point the ubiquitous representation of various forms of mental illness, breakdown and psychopathology in Caribbean writing”, according to the editors Bénédicte Ledent, Evelyn O’Callaghan and Daria Tunca.
In an essay titled “Madness Is Rampant on This Island”, the three discuss the writing of “altered states”, while other contributors scrutinize “madness” in the work of Jean Rhys, Jamaica Kincaid, Caryl Phillips, Junot Diaz, and Marlon James, among several internationally known writers.
A central concern of the book is “how focusing on literary manifestations of apparent mental aberration” can extend readers’ understanding of Caribbean narrative and culture. It also aims to increase questioning of the “norms that have been used to categorize art from the region, as well as the boundaries between notions of rationality, transcendence and insanity across cultures”.
The editors stress that the topic has been “relatively neglected in criticism, especially in Anglophone texts, apart from the scholarship devoted to Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)” - the response or prequel to Charlotte Brontë's novel Jane Eyre by the Dominican-born British writer.
They add that the new volume demonstrates “that much remains to be done in rethinking the trope of ‘madness’ across Caribbean literature by local and diaspora writers”.

The book grew out of a conference held in 2015 at the University of Liège, Belgium, with scholars including Alison Donnell, Rebecca Romdhani, Kelly Baker Josephs, Tobias Schlosser and Ping Su, alongside writers such as Caryl Phillips, Alecia McKenzie, Kei Miller and Desirée Reynolds.

(Madness in Anglophone Caribbean Literature: On the Edge is published by Palgrave Macmillan. Link: