The Two Speeds Frontera

Filippo Del, Italy 2005.

By Filippo Del Lucchese
JURA GENTIUM:  As Hannah Arendt speaks about “The human condition” your work suggests a reflection on the “migrant condition”. Why did you decide to speak about and prepare this project?

LAURA WADDINGTON: I think there were a lot of reasons. I lived illegally in the US for seven years. I was living very well but I came into contact with people living in bad circumstances. I knew some young Mexicans. They were working in restaurants and living ten or twenty to a room. They told incredible stories of how they’d come, literally swimming and walking across the frontier. At one point, I was arrested on the Canadian border and put in an immigration cell. It was a very frightening situation and I had the feeling anything could happen there. I came away with the impression that people without papers have lost all human rights in our society. When I returned to live in Europe, it too had become a desired destination for refugees. I saw a lot of racism, people being arrested and taken off trains etc. And I really wanted to talk about this situation. In 2001, I travelled in the Balkans and Kurdistan, where I met people, trying to get to Europe. I became fascinated by the journey they were making from Iraq and Afghanistan. I travelled along part of the route but ultimately I realised what interested me was Sangatte, the fact that this unbelievable situation was happening in France, only an hour and a half from Paris, where I was living.

JG: There’s a strong contrast in the film between people and goods travelling very fast through the Channel between France and Great Britain, on trains, at a speed as high as that of globalisation, with people trying to catch onto the bottom of these trains, hoping to be able to pass the border, taken away at that same speed. It’s like two globalisations, very different but very close at the same time.

LW: Yes, I was constantly struck by this contrast, by the collision of two worlds within one space. The refugees moved through the landscape almost like ghosts and I tried to portray them as such. It was very difficult for me to understand the co-existence of these two realities. The camp was only one hour and a half from Paris. Each night, hundreds of men were running through the fields, risking their lives, trying to jump on the trains, chased, like animals by the police. A few minutes away people were sitting watching television in their homes. In the film there are a lot of car headlights. For the refugees I met, these headlights represented the people of France, with whom they had very little or no contact. I never saw any French people walking along those roads. It is a big contrast between the refugees, who are always walking and the lights of the cars constantly rushing past.

JG: What was the most difficult thing during the shooting in Sangatte?

LW: At times, it was difficult because of the police presence. Most journalists, who were there, were the equivalent of embedded journalists. They were official journalists, working mainly in crews and with the permission of the Red Cross, who were themselves there under the auspices of the French government. I decided not to go through the Red Cross but to stay on the roads and in the fields. There were some strange incidents. I remember one night several soldiers with machine guns surrounded me and told me it was too dangerous to carry on. They said something might happen to me and that the refugees were dangerous. However, the refugees weren’t dangerous and the only danger I could see was their machine guns.
JG: The police violence is not shown so often on TV. How were you able to film the repression and the violence without consequences?

LW: In France, it’s illegal to film a police intervention if the policemen’s faces are identifiable. It was important to move quickly and think one step ahead. I always made copies of what I’d shot, hiding one copy and sending the other copies away from there. When the police came to tell me I couldn’t film or that I’d filmed illegally, I would insist that legally they couldn’t stop me. Since, they were following orders, if I sounded convincing, they’d grow confused and wouldn’t know what to do. I’d try to divert them and find a way to leave, while they were debating what to do. There were other pressures but I was determined to keep my tapes and continue making my film. I felt it was important to leave a trace or document of what I’d seen, however small because I had the impression the French and English governments didn’t want people to fully understand what had happened in Sangatte. On the 24th of December 2002 they tore down the camp. When I came back two days later, no trace remained. They left no memory, not even a sign or a statue.

JG: You speak about the fact that most people came from Afghanistan or Iraq, trying to flee wars and poverty. Would have it been very different if they weren’t really fleeing something, if they were trying just to find a new life for them and their families?

LW: There were many people in the camp from Iraqi Kurdistan, who were living under a government, which was considered relatively safe at that time. A lot of these people had come for economic reasons. They weren’t fleeing war. I didn’t talk about this aspect in the film because I felt anyone who made such a difficult journey, leaving their family and friends and often travelling two or three years under terrible conditions must have a reason. I felt it wasn’t for me to judge them. However, the more time I spent in Sangatte, the more I realised how little I understood of the situation. It was extremely complicated. I was there in the period after September 2001 so among the men arriving in the camp, there were not only Afghans, who’d fled the Taliban and been on the road since years but also Taliban, fleeing the Americans. There were a lot of contradictions and different stories. I remember in 2002, I also met people from Iraqi Kurdistan, who were extremely worried. They talked about the presence of Al Ansar in the hills around Halabjah and their fear that Iraq would soon be the centre of a disastrous war. Later, I felt Sangatte was a mirror held up to the world. And that we had chosen to turn our backs to it.

JG: Why did these people try so much to reach Great Britain instead of staying in France or other European countries?

LW: Not everyone had set out with the intention of getting to Britain. Some people had been constantly pushed on from other countries in Europe and Britain was their last hope. The smugglers encouraged everyone to dream of England because they could charge very high prices to get them there. There were also cultural and social reasons. Many of the Iraqis and Afghans had family or friends living in the UK and spoke English, not French, so they knew it would be easier for them to find work there and that the work would be better paid and the social security benefits higher and easier to access. At the time, it was much easier to be illegal in the UK because there was no identity card system. In France a policeman could stop someone at random on the street and ask for their identity card. In England this was not possible, although unfortunately that is now changing.
JG: What about women in Sangatte, we don’t see many of them?

LW: There were very few women in the period I was there, in 2002. The situation in Sangatte had become so hard that many men decided to leave their wives and children further back along the line, for instance in Rome or Greece and to continue to Sangatte alone. They intended to find a way to send for their families once they reached England. Several families got split up along the journey. I met many women and children in parks in Rome who’d been separated from their men when the smugglers put them in different boats or trucks.
But also I was filming in the fields and the women didn’t go this way but hidden in trucks with smugglers. The fields were the only area of Sangatte not controlled by the smugglers and passing through them to try to jump onto the trains was the most dangerous way of crossing. Only the poorest refugees, who couldn’t gather money to pay smugglers, such as many of the Afghans who’d fled war and had no one to send them money, went this way.

JG: And what about the people of Sangatte, was there only racist or disinterested people?

LW: There was a group, not from Sangatte but from the area around Calais, who tried to help the refugees. They played a very important role after the closure of the camp in December 2002 because hundreds or refugees continued to arrive. They were sleeping outside and the situation became very difficult and violent. This group helped the refugees by bringing food each night to the bunkers, where they were hiding from the police and sometimes giving them showers, medical attention or refuge in a church. They were put under a lot of pressure. The government passed a law, saying it was illegal to help people, who had no papers. Their phones were tapped and two people from the group were arrested and charged with being smugglers. Eventually, they were acquitted. However, the situation and the police violence continue today.
JG: Let’s speak about your previous film, CARGO, that was also a tale of a journey. How are the film related one’s another?

LW: The Rotterdam Film Festival commissioned me to make CARGO for their 30th birthday with films by nine other filmmakers for a project called “On the Waterfront’”. They asked us to each shoot a video diary in a port of our choice. I decided to travel on a cargo ship to the Middle East with sailors from Rumania and the Philippines. The sailors, I filmed, were living in a sort of limbo, transporting Europe’s goods but not allowed to go ashore. In making this film, I became interested in the idea of Europe’s backdoor, the double life, existing on its borders. Like the refugees of Sangatte, the sailors in CARGO move through the landscape, almost like ghosts.

“The Two Speeds Frontera’” Interview by Filippo Del Lucchese,, Cinema e Globalizzazione,, Italy, February 2005