Border: The Videographic Traces by Laura Waddington as a Cinematographic Memorial
By Eva Kuhn
The film I would like to talk about today is titled Border and was realized between 2002 and 2004 by the filmmaker Laura Waddington, born in 1970 in London. The film begins with an inscription stating the following:
This is a film about Afghan and Iraqi refugees I met in the fields around the Sangatte Red Cross camp, in France. Unable to get to England legally, they tried to enter the channel tunnel, hidden in trucks and on freight trains.
Sangatte is a small town in northern France, right on the sea, a few kilometers south of Calais. It is 35 kilometers as the crow flies from here to England-in clear weather, the coast is visible. Near to Sangatte is the entrance to the fifty-kilometer railway tunnel that runs underneath the English Channel and connects the continent of Europe with Great Britain. In addition to freight trains supplied mainly by trucks, around thirty Eurostar high-speed passenger trains commute back and forth each day. The ferry port of Calais also does a brisk business. There are more than sixty daily crossings to Dover.
At the time of the war in Yugoslavia, many Albanians from Kosovo came as refugees to the region, in order to attempt illegalized entry into Great Britain. They slept in the public spaces of Calais, and local and private aid organizations made provisions for the refugees and demonstrated to the authorities against their living conditions. At the end of September 1999, the French Ministry of Social Services impounded an empty warehouse on the outskirts of Sangatte and commissioned the Red Cross to install and maintain an emergency shelter there. Originally intended as temporary accommodation for 650 people, the warehouse at Sangatte became the largest refugee camp in France. At the time of its closure in December 2002, 1600 people were camping there on a daily basis. Since it’s opening, more than 70,000 people had stayed there.
Following the Albanian Kosovars, the new arrivals at Sangatte were increasingly Afghans, Iraqis, and Iraqi Kurds. For a small portion of the refugees, England was the first destination of their journey; for the majority, it was the last hope. England was generally made into an Eldorado while on the road-through constantly shifting the place where sights were set, and through communication with other refugees and government workers who said they should “try it over there.” In fact, at that time, access to the asylum process was less bureaucratic in Great Britain, and social services were better there than in France or other European countries. Especially in the camp, after all the disappointments along the way, the United Kingdom was made into an icon, and collective fantasies were formed and cultivated. And after every failure to cross the border, the country of their dreams seemed far away again, no matter how close it might be.
Each night the refugees attempted to cross the border to England unobserved. The camp served as a service station for the fueling and repair of bodies, and as a platform for information exchange. It was five kilometers from the refugee camp to the compound of the Eurotunnel terminal. In between lay the highway A16, which was to be crossed on foot. The compound, equipped with video surveillance and lit to be as bright as day at all hours, is surrounded by multiple wire or barbed-wire fences, up to four meters tall. Then as now, people searched for pre-existing holes in the fencing, cut their own, or attempted to get past the fences by climbing over them. Once the outer security systems had been dealt with, refugees attempted to climb aboard shuttle trains turning around in the terminal. Occasionally, they jumped from overpasses onto the roofs of approaching trains. Since the high-speed trains produce a high wind pressure, it is not possible to walk through the tunnel on foot. Nevertheless, such attempts have repeatedly been made.
Although security measures became more and more stringent, hurdles became higher and every attempt more dangerous, the refugees kept at it. Evening after evening they set out under cover of darkness, and generally were apprehended on their route. With flashlights, they were taken from the fields and bushes, or were plucked from the trains and brought by the CRS back to the camp. After a failed attempt, many went voluntarily to the busses-“police taxis,” as the refugees called them. The attempt to escape became a nightly routine. It was a job-a mission.
In fact, some people continued to make it somehow, to find their way through somewhere -hurrying with a fleeting shadow, keeping within the blind spot of a border guard, balancing in the off-zone of the surveillance cameras, making use of a technical malfunction or the blinking of the 300-eyed security force in the security command center. At the end of 2002, about ten people were successful each night. According to Red Cross estimates, in the three years between the opening and the closing of the camp, of the 60,000 camp residents, 85% succeeded in reaching England.
In May 2002, Nicolas Sarkozy was named Interior Minister of France, and in solidarity with his British counterpart, the like-minded hardliner David Blunkett, they proclaimed a “new era of cooperation against illegal migration across the Channel”. At the end of December 2002, the camp was vacated overnight and the entire building was torn down. But the spirits of Sangatte could not be driven away so easily. The migration continued and England still glimmers on the horizon.
This is my attempt at a brief overview of the geographic and political realty in which the video Border was made, and to which Laura Waddington’s documentary essay makes reference.
In September, 2001, the filmmaker visited the region and the refugee camp for the first time, and decided for ethical reasons not to film inside the camp. Instead, she went undercover with her digital camera, into the fields and streets between the camp and the Eurotunnel terminal, and took part in the nightly routes and routines of her protagonists. She hid from the police with them in the fields, and accompanied their tireless attempts to become stowaways and smuggle themselves across the border.
Laura Waddington risked adverse conditions and brought her physical situation, her point of view and her mode of existence, close to that of her protagonists. She became “interested” in the most literal sense-she was there, she became an intermediary and transformed the political event into a personal experience. She made no summary and constructed no overview. Instead, she left a blurry videographic trace-the trace of an encounter with a disturbing reality, the fragment of an action that she attempted in the fields and streets of Sangatte. No establishing shot would enable us to orient ourselves in the fields. No field commander surveys the situation. We are in the midst of the action-at night, often in high grass. The images are very closely tied to the filmer’s line of sight, and her movements. Most of the time, we see little or nothing. If there is light, it is from cars driving past, the spotlights of helicopters, or the flashlights of police searching for refugees in the fields. No omniscient narrator illuminates the situation, explains to us the politically complex constellation, or establishes the chronological sequence of events, as I attempted to do at the beginning of my presentation. In the voice-over the filmmaker narrates fragments from the lives and destinies of those she encountered, and also names particular events and key dates. But this information is not illustrated and confirmed by the images, as is customary in classical expository documentary. Together with the other thoughts, in addition to the music, they form a second trace. And this trace is always the trace of an “I”-not a conventionalized and disembodied voice, like that of the sovereign classical commentator, whose statements are to be accepted simply as facts, but the voice of an affected and compassionate subject.
Subjected to the precarious lighting conditions and the unevenness of the terrain, Laura Waddington’s camera operates at its technical limits. At the site of the event, it produces artifacts, pictorial disruptions, which obstruct the view of the represented and estrange the concrete, pro-filmic reality. The camera’s technical reactions become visible, on one hand in image noise, and on the other hand, in the blurring and stalling of the flow of movement, which has to do with the long exposure time of the individual images. These two effects mark the aesthetic of the video and place the motivic object at an aesthetic distance.
Because of the media-specific disruptions, the referential reality is expressed as a reality that has been transfigured. The visible reactions of the camera at the site of the action refer to the opacity of the images, and at the same time, they contribute to an abstraction of the concrete, to a dissolution of the particular into an approximate, which amounts to a type of un-realization of the real. For a documentary film, this is an astonishing turn. The individual takes do not present themselves as objective depictions of a given situation, but rather refer to the endeavors of a technical apparatus, which is impaired in its functioning and attempts to grasp its object in vain. The faces of the protagonists cannot be identified and their silhouettes remain hazy-they merge with the background into a smoldering noise.
What is shown to us in Border can hardly be deciphered, nor do we become caught up in a stringent argumentation or a coherent narration. Instead, we are confronted with unwieldy, salvaged material-with much that is dark and unelucidated, arranged in a fragmentary manner. Border is a witness to its object, without showing this object. Or, showing is here always connected with concealing, and the filmmaker’s testament implies the inaccessibility of the visible.
This approach testifies to a media-ethical stance: Laura Waddington’s protagonists hide in the noise of the image. She protects them from being dis-covered, from their visual exposure; she shows them confidentially, as secrets. This runs entirely contrary to conventional TV journalism, or even to critically intended documentary films, in which faces often serve as the most important carriers of identification.
At the same time, this approach also testifies to an epistemo-critical stance. In interviews, Laura Waddington talks of being overwhelmed, of the feeling that what she saw in Sangatte could not be communicated, and the constant impression that everything is much more complicated and more complex than people, or than she, is able to understand: “I knew I could only leave a very small and incomplete trace.”
As fragmentary as Waddington’s work is as a document, as a filmic tableau of a highly unsettling situation, Border comprises an entity – an entity, in which the semi-transparent shadow beings at the margin of collective consciousness wander restlessly in place. The film Border is not only the document of a biographical action; it is at the same time a representative filmic image for the disturbing condition in which these ghostly existences have found themselves. No papers means no identity, no face, underground and without any ground to stand on. With Border, Laura Waddington creates an image for this barely visible presence, a filmic equivalent for this paradoxical condition of sleepless stasis on the site of transit.
I have termed this filmic image a “memorial” [Denkmal.] I mean this in two respects: first, “memorial” in the sense of an appellative “think about this” [denk-mal-nachs]. Waddington is not concerned with explaining this pro-filmic reality; instead, she wants to refer to its presence and existence, and to bring it to our minds [Andenken ]. Second, I mean “memorial” in the performative sense, that the film itself keeps something in mind [Gedenken]: this is a film in which thinking, in the sense of reflection as a structure and process, is inherent.
I propose that the artifacts that the camera produces as a result of the critical light conditions at the location of filming should be read as the traces of a compassionate consciousness. In a first step, they are the traces of a camera-consciousness that accompanies the represented object. Through the voice-over, in which the filmmaker subsequently meditates on her experiences in Sangatte, this camera-consciousness takes on a personal voice, and the indexical images are set at a temporal distance and styled into ghostly images that recur in memory or in dreams. Subjected to the conditions of this location, filmic images are produced that, following Deleuze, can be considered metaphors for mental images. The technical impairment then symbolizes the deforming processes of time-producing a type of weathered or mentally processed image. The pro-filmic reality is expressed as one that has been internalized and appropriated; or, the videographic expressions take on the quality of subjective impressions, of dream images, of the images of memory.
This effect is enhanced in that Waddington’s filmic gestures at the site of the action hardly grasp what they attempt to see and to understand. This is demonstrated in how the camera movements are not subordinated to their object, in the sense of classic “following shots.” Instead, the camera movements remain visible as gestures, as actions that are not capable of catching up with their motif. In combination with the almost abstract, de-materialized images, these searching movements become the movements of reflection; they take on the quality of movements of thought. If one thinks about the conservational aspect of filmic recording, one might conclude that, with the insistent actions of her camera on the site of the event, Waddington anticipates the traumatic memory of this site. She reflects the experience-her own and that of the protagonists-in the lastingness of its effect. According to my research, reflection-aesthetic and media-aesthetic are closely interwoven in this film.
The radical subjectivity that distinguishes the film Border in many respects is Laura Waddington’s artistic answer to the encounter with an extremely complex reality, in which the difference between objective reality and subjective experience, as it is established in the theory of documentary film, becomes untenable.
Sangatte is one particular occasion in which the harsh reality of facts and the imaginary merge into one another. Many different stories are condensed at this site-the stories of media, of the refugees, of the smugglers. And the fiction has harsh consequences-the presentation of a person’s life story will determine their real fate, at latest by the time of their application for asylum. The hopes and projections directed at the other side of the Channel, dreams of better lives and local fears are as much a part of the reality of Sangatte as the three daily meals in the camp and the security measures of the Eurotunnel corporation. Sangatte also has a retroactive effect-as a defining and lingering experience, which will leave, which has left impressions and traces. In Sangatte, a heterogeneous aggregate condition of reality prevails, and this is the object of Waddington’s video reflection. She treats Sangatte both as the site of muffled fear and delectable hope as well as the site of bitter memory. In retrospect, Sangatte is guarded as a secret, is attempted to be repressed and forgotten. But the experience is haunting. It returns in memories and dreams.
“Border: The Videographic Traces by Laura Waddington as a Cinematographic Memorial” by Eva Kuhn for the Conference: “Images of Illegalized Immigration” Basel University, Switzerland 01.09.2009
(Extracted and adapted from the thesis: “Border ein filmisches Gedenken oder Die videografischen Spuren von Laura Waddington” von Eva Kuhn, Philosophisch-Historische Fakultät der Universität Basel, Kunsthistorisches Seminar Juli – Dezember 2006)