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.|
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.|
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.