Between crossing and darkness: notes on (im)migrant spectres in Border

Ricardo Lessa Filho and Frederico VieiraLOGOS 52 VOL 27 N 01 DOSSIÊ INSTABILIDADE E CONFLITO DAS/NAS IMAGENS, Brazil, 2019. (Translated from the Portuguese).

By Ricardo Lessa Filho and Frederico Vieira

Translated from the Brazilian Portuguese


This article proposes, in looking at the images of Border (2004), a film directed by Laura Waddington, to study the question of refugees in the peripheries of the French region of Sangatte, where flows of migrants arrive daily from all corners of the globe. Through these images, we propose to look at the refugees as spectres – beings from another place and time that the western world seeks to refuse and exclude in every way – as well as approaching the issue of hospitality, historically denied to those whose lives have already been torn apart by fleeing death and war, desiring nothing more than a new possibility – a new land – to start over. Theodor Adorno (and the ‘ideal of blackness’), Hannah Arendt (and her little-known essay on refugees), Jacques Derrida (and his book on spectres and hospitality), Marielle Macé (on the concepts of ‘sideration’ and consideration) and Georges Didi-Huberman (with his expositions on refugees and the survival of fireflies) illuminate the theoretical and morphological intent of this essay.

When a spectres appears to us, it is our own genealogy that comes to light
Georges Didi-Huberman

The first scene of Border (FIG. 1) opens with a strange kind of chiaroscuro (anticipating from its first moments, the conflict, instabilities and graininess of its images): the shadow of night that envelops the Iraqi refugee, fills the image, the darkness that surrounds him, fiercely contrasts with the bright light of the projectors and the cars on the adjacent road, a blinding light, no doubt,for those who are fleeing, positioned for no other reason than to make visible – to illuminate – to the French and British police the bodies of beings in flight, in the peripheries of the Red Cross center in the French region of Sangatte. This threatening darkness permeates every image of Border, and we might go so far as to say that Laura Waddington (who filmed it with a single Betacam over several weeks in 2002) is closely following the demands of Theodor Adorno on the darkness of art after 1945, more specifically what the German philosopher referred to as the ‘ideal of blackness’ (Ideal der Schwärze), and that would become a favored attribute of openly ‘radical’ art (radikale Kunst), from Malévich’s suprematist paintings to Ad Reinhardt’s black monochromes, not to mention, in cinema, the silent black frames of the Guy Debord film: Hurlements en faveur de Sade (1952).

To survive reality at its most extreme and grim, artworks that do not want to portray themselves as consolation must equate themselves with that reality. Radical art today is synonymous with dark art; its primary color is black. Much contemporary production is irrelevant because it takes no note of this and childishly delights in color. With regard to content, the ideal of blackness is one of the deepest impulses of abstraction. It may well be that the current trifling with sound and color effects is a reaction to the impoverishment entailed by the ideal of black; perhaps art will one day be able to abolish this axiom without self-betrayal. (ADORNO, 2004, p. 40).

According to Adorno, this ‘ideal of blackness’ arises as a possible means for the visual arts to respond to the ‘black holes’ of Auschwitz and the massacres that failed to cease, even after 1945. This darkness pondered by the German philosopher can be read as the intrinsic conflict of all witness art. We never bear witness for ourselves. We bear witness for another. The witness emerges from an agonizing experience, lived several times over as something unspeakable, to which, from whichever position they occupied (author, victim or observer), they must lend plausibility in the eyes of others, in the eyes of the entire world. So, the witness gives form both to what they owe – in the sense of ethical duty – and to what they see. The witness gives, or owes, plausibility, seeing and offering based on an experience they themselves have had, no matter what their involvement, toward the other. It is in the act of giving voice and eyes to another that the fundamental conflict lies, the instability that is so difficult to measure.

And Theodor Adorno concludes: ‘Along with the impoverishment of means entailed by the ideal of blackness – if not by every sort of aesthetic Sachlichkeit – what is written, painted and composed is also impoverished; the most advanced arts push this impoverishment to the brink of silence (Am Rande des Verstummens)’ (ADORNO, 2002, p. 40). We can, without doubt, say that the ‘black holes’ of Auschwitz, to a lesser or greater extent, have never stopped terrorizing our reality – they never stopped silencing it. Border is, in its own way, a legacy of other times, it travels the filigrees of silence – of other silences, of other unspeakable things.

In the unstable, grainy images of Border we hear the voiceover spoken by the director herself (a profound tenderness in her voice), but above all we see the gestures of the refugees who desperately emerge to remind us of the ancestrality of their desires, as though in this recording an act of survival has erupted into the heart of all that blackness, as though the small light of Laura Waddington’s very simple camera could, albeit precariously, help illuminate the refugees in their desperate desire to cross.

That tender voice of Laura Waddington – whenever possible naming her ‘spectres,’ those beings she comes across during filming (even in the final credits, where the director makes the dignified gesture of naming all the refugees she met so that they can appear, that is, they can finally emerge into the light) – destabilizes the viewer profoundly. But to better hear it – her voice is sometimes a whisper, at times pained, at others astonished – to touch it, to elevate it to something more crucial, we need to examine the position taken, and of course, the risks inherent in capturing the exposed moments of those precarious and unstable lives, those darkened, wounded beings that burst into her images.

But what does it mean, to take a position toward a spectre? And how can a position even be taken when all positions (whether ethical or political, ethnic or anthropological) seem to cease to exist when faced with the simultaneous urgency of flight and of survival? Which potential position can Border take, then, when the fear of death or of prison/extradition is so latent in its images? In writing about the positions taken in the images of Bertolt Brecht (whom Adorno also cites in his ‘ideal of blackness’), Georges Didi-Huberman explains that this gesture carries with it a confrontation, in other words, knowing at the same time what one wants and what one fears, and recognizing in this confrontation – in this position – our latent fears and unconscious desires (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2018, p. 11-12). When we are able to take a position toward these oppressed beings, we inevitably choose dignity of life, and even in this choice we recognize the absolute indignity of the position occupied by these fellow humans in such a situation.

Was that not what Primo Levi (1959) was doing, in the ever-dignified final paragraphs of his account of Auschwitz, as he tried to find words to relate the absolute indignity of his condition and thus lend dignity to both his wait and to his own hope? ‘Being a man,’ wrote Levi, meant waiting, [or hoping], to see humanity, or simply even to see one other man, a friend: to be able to ‘see him again one day,’ to appear once more, as if this expectation introduced the possibility of making a people, of finding again that thing without equivalence: one’s own dignity.


Seeking dignity, especially around a border or at a frontier, demands of refugees a twofold condition: that of knowing that they are located at the limit of the crossing and at the limitations of their bodies – and even of their own finances. The refugee does not lose a world (their world of origin) to find another in which they must adapt; the refugee enters a continual process in which they must tolerate a deficit, a loss of world – of all kinds of worlds. Financial precariousness, difficulty in finding the most basic accommodation, problems with administration and multiple cultural and linguistic obstacles are some of the more common manifestations of this ‘phenomenon of declassification’ (BROSSAT, 2014, p. 133), which can easily end in a moral disintegration that affects the condition of the refugee.

In the face of the ‘migrant crisis,’ Macé (2018) alerts us to the fact that it is more common to allow oneself to be ‘siderated,’ (flabbergasted) than to consider the otherness inherent in the search for refuge. The author reminds us that the word siderate comes from the Latin sidus, sideris, the star: it means suffering the malign influence of the stars, of being stricken by stupor. As though immobilized in the face of terror, petrified, we no longer even use the word. Consideration, meanwhile, relates to the contemplation of the stars, which must be studied with intensity, scruples and patience. Hence the idea that considering the other involves the careful gesture of looking closely, taking into account, ‘taking into consideration.’ Thus, faced with the foreigner asking us for shelter, instead of ‘seeing lives, judging, trying, confronting and working to relate in another way to those to whom we must give our attention’ (MACÉ, 2018, p. 30), with ‘sideration’ we are simply ‘planet-struck,’ astounded by the extraordinary scenes in the camps, recognizing ‘relegation, misery and suffering’ as part of a compassionate viewpoint that immobilizes us more in the promotion of our own virtue rather than in genuine hospitality to others.

Beyond this sideration, the precariousness of the existence of the refugee becomes inseparable from the lack of hospitality and the proliferation of the very opposite: tenacious hostility, open or latent, that the foreigner must face once divested of and expelled from their country by the violence of power or hunger: ‘This hostility is, in the first place, that of administration, of bureaucracy and of the State’ (BROSSAT, 2014, p. 135). But this hostility – which cannot exist without the urgent ‘fear’ of perceiving the refugee as a mortal threat – etymologically stems from the word hostis (enemy), while hospitality (Hospitalitas), in turn, derives from hospitalis (hospitable, guest), and as a variable adjective, arises from the Latin word hospes (one who receives/welcomes another), so that even in language the gesture of hospitality, of welcome, is always threatened by the hostile gesture of refusal of the stranger (BENVENISTE, 2016, p. 90).

It is worth recalling that, in Kant, the foreigner being welcomed gives their status and origin, their place and name; the Kantian view advocates welcoming the foreigner based on a contractualization; hospitality is possible, as long as the foreigner submits to guest rules and respects them as a stranger. For this reason, the guest, although a stranger in the place, must bring with them some notion that there are laws and rules to be obeyed. This notion differentiates them from the barbarian, of uncertain provenance, who has no mastery of the guest language and declines to state their origin, name or affiliations. Derrida (2003), however, deconstructs the Kantian notion of openness toward the other, stripping back the word guest, showing that its Latin origin is ambivalent and goes back not just to welcome but also to the idea of hostility, the enemy. What Kant outlines as hospitality, in the Derridean view means tolerance, which in fact corresponds to the opposite of hospitality, or at least lies at the edge of it. In the Kantian experience of welcoming into the home, the other is accepted to a certain extent, but their individual essence is dominated by the owner of the house, who places the stranger subordinate to the rules of their place. It is not uncommon for them to be given other names such as exile, refugee, deportee or stateless person, terms that put the hostility back into hospitality.

This is clear to see in the myriad administrative obstacles consciously placed in the path of refugees’ integration by state bureaucracy (obtaining the obligatory ‘identity document’), which give a real clue to the obstacles that end up desensitizing and institutionalizing this displacement outside the ‘public space’ (ARENDT, 1989, p. 335). Refugees don’t reside, they camp – and from one hour to the next, the ground can collapse under their feet at any moment. The temporalities imposed on them are discontinuous, or even vanished. The ground that holds them, or rather, gathers them unwillingly, is, to them, no more than a refuge – and Border allows us to see them always in flight – because it is streaked with all kinds of symbolic, invisible, subjective and cultural frontiers and borders.

There is no doubt that borders and frontiers kill. When discussing the superb philosophy of passage – and even of crossings – how, then, could we fail to mention the man seen as absolutely undesirable and who, by wishing to cross his border, was in a way killed by it, by its closing, understood at that time as a sentence of fate? Yes, we mean Walter Benjamin. In one of his final letters to Theodor Adorno, on a small scrap of paper on which he was able to write some words a few weeks prior to his death, we can sense in this epistolary act both his premonitory urgency and his precarious condition as a refugee:

‘But as you know, things currently look no better for me personally than they do for my works. […] The complete uncertainty about what the next day, even the next hour, may bring has dominated my life for weeks now. I am condemned to read every newspaper as if it were a summons served on me in particular, to hear the voice of fateful tidings in every radio broadcast. […] For some time now it has been impossible for foreign nationals to obtain a permit for a change of residence. […] I hope that I have thus far given you the impression of maintaining my composure even in difficult moments. Do not think that this has changed. But I cannot close my eyes to the dangerous nature of the situation. I fear that those who have been able to extricate themselves from it will have to be reckoned with one day.’ (BENJAMIN, 1999, p. 339 and 638).

‘I maintain my composure even in difficult moments.’ Maintaining composure, then, when nothing around can exist without the gravity of exclusion. Maintaining composure, when all exertion, all movement, is condemned by misfortune. Maintaining composure, therefore, when all you want to do is to cross the border so as not to fall into the hands of the ‘authorities’ and the perverse decisions of bureaucrats. Maintaining composure, when all is said and done, to have another chance to keep living. Was Laura Waddington, therefore, with the scenes of Border, able to show us the full extent of this ‘composure’ – even if it is merely external, even if merely as darkened images – shown by the refugees? Quite clearly, the lives Waddington films are in a state of constant waiting, always with this kind of composure of survival, people searching for the ideal moment to leave when everything around them is ‘as composed as possible,’ when the conditions for escape arise, even if scarcely, even if only minimally possible.

Laura Waddington’s cinematographic gesture is also de-petrifying, because it interrupts our sideration; it leads us to consider such lives as entirely alive, when we sometimes see them ‘as non-lives, or as partial lives, or as already dead and lost in advance, even before any kind of destruction or abandonment’ (BUTLER apud MACÉ, 2018, p. 31). In Border we are challenged to consider refugees and migrants as lives lived and, thus, as lives exposed to violence and injury, lives capable of vulnerability, of being or not being lost, lamented or susceptible to grief. Instead of exposing only the sideration of naked life, Waddington points to how migrants and refugees are denuded by the violence imposed on them.

‘This isn’t a life’; yes, and no: it is always a life; and just to understand that it isn’t liveable we need to understand that it is absolutely alive. Lives lived under conditions of immense poverty, immense destruction and immense precariousness, lives to be lived, each of them travelled in the first person, and each one should be able find the resources and the possibilities to recreate a daily routine: to preserve, experience, build, improve, try, cry, dream and even a daily routine: that life, that living person taking risks within the political situation imposed on them.’ (MACÉ, 2018, p. 32)._

Whether among the humblest of beings (as the bodies in Border inevitably are) or the wisest of men (as Walter Benjamin undeniably was), the refugee is always someone who, first and foremost, must learn to invent themselves, to resist the series of administrative and policing devices aimed at corroding their existence, and not succumb to the challenges of precariousness – which can be regarded as both their vulnerability, like an open wound, and their possibility of being mourned, or worthy of mourning.


If we accept the idea that these ‘spectres’ are prowling around Europe and the whole world, that they are prowling around us – depending on whether or not they cross a frontier, border or channel, the obsession might be different, but it will be obsession to the last – then we must understand to which emotional space, which unforeseen part of our history we are to attribute their movements. Where do they come from? Or rather, given that they are ‘spectres’, where are they returning from? From which memory? From which historical reality? From which space of death are they returning (because they are both demanding our hospitality and fleeing) and which space of injustice do they stumble into (given that we want to deny them this hospitality)?

In We Refugees, Arendt also pondered the notion of the refugee as stateless at the same time as being the modern paradigm of discrimination and of oppression: ‘Now ‘refugees’ are those of us who have been so unfortunate as to arrive in a new country without means and have to be helped by refugee committees’ (ARENDT, 2009, p.264). The author of Men in Dark Times very lucidly perceived the degrading condition of arriving, like a fugitive, in another country without papers, without documents, with no resources; being ‘so unfortunate as to arrive in a new country without means’ and reaching another border just to stay alive. In Border, however, that subjective disorientation is, given the circumstances, no more than the consequence of a de-subjectiveness imposed on the refugees by the police officers in charge of their fate at the border. The refugees have a very simple desire: they want to pass. But the border – and the adjacent camp – immobilize them in an intolerable position, as if cursed by some ‘eternally temporary’ fate.

This brings us back to the spectral nature – grainy and dark – of these beings in Waddington’s film. It was Derrida who pondered the idea of spectres that interminably prowl western history and politics – who are returning to some place, always unexpectedly, just to cry out or clamor for their names and their legitimate position. ‘The apparition of the spectre,’ Derrida writes, ‘does not belong to that time, it does not give time, not that one’ (DERRIDA, 1994, p.xix), in other words, the spectre – its apparition, but also its re-apparition – is a thing of anachronism, of disjointed, wounded time torn asunder. Perhaps this time that the spectre cannot give, cannot offer (‘it does not give time, not that one’) is the result of the situation that refugees inevitably encounter, at least since the 1930s. That is why the spectres do not give time – because they can no longer wait for a ‘political resolution’ of their situations, which, as we know perfectly well, will never arrive.

At a certain point in Border (FIG. 2), we see some refugees literally as spectres, as transversal beings, but also darkened and luminous – like fireflies flickering ever brighter as the darkness deepens (and is that not what cinema is all about?). Figures who, at the start of this scene, are still illuminated, walking toward Waddington’s camera – and thus in our direction – half in the light and half in the dark, caught between the flickering of their desire to cross and their fear of imminent capture.

Almost as though dematerialized by the darkness, the Sangatte refugees in Border are ‘things’ that are difficult to name at that point where their spectral nature makes them able to appear and disappear in a matter of seconds – they tremble with both the potency of their desires and the degrading state of their realities, the poor condition of hospitality in the western world. Elucidating on this complex – and even phenomenological – naming of spectres, Derrida writes:

the spectre is a paradoxical incorporation, the becoming-body, a certain phenomenal and carnal form of the spirit. It becomes, rather, some ‘thing’ that remains difficult to name: neither soul nor body, and both one and the other. For it is flesh and phenomenality that give to the spirit its spectral apparition, but which disappear right away in the apparition, in the very coming of the revenant or the return of the spectre There is something disappeared, departed in the apparition itself as re-apparition of the departed.(DERRIDA, 1994, p. 5).

They are there, before our eyes, walking toward the camera, almost confronting us face on. We could even say that they are challenging us to see them, to confront them – because they can almost certainly see us, perceive us, they beg us with their eyes for a response, a welcome, a recognized dignity.


The idea of a recognized dignity is based on the idea of glimpsing the other side of the frontier, the border, the other beings subjected to such conditions of dehumanization who inevitably beg for a response, an altruistic gesture, a returned glance. In Spectres of Marx, Jacques Derrida, with the formal and political singularity for which he is known, suggests that the spectre always exerts a kind of spectral asymmetry – which, when we de-synchronize the whole idea of symmetry, brings us back to anachrony, revealing our inability to see who is looking at us, to perceive the spectre as something that returns incessantly (knocking at our door or simply, breaking it down through desperation), which ultimately seeks to be seen, recognized and eager to tear apart the invisibility of its destiny. This is what Derrida called the visor effect:

‘This Thing meanwhile looks at us and sees us not see it even when it is there. A spectral asymmetry interrupts here all specularity. It de-synchronizes, it recalls us to anachrony. We will call this the visor effect: we do not see who looks at us.’ (DERRIDA, 1994, p. 6).


So the visor effect is, and could only be, a spectral thing, that is to say, the sensation, distressing to us, of knowing we are being looked at, surrounded by these beings from ‘other places’ that our subconscious whenever possible seeks to fear, to ward off, inevitably wishing to ignore or distance ourselves, but who before our eyes can do nothing but simply state their perpetual passage, their obstinate return. And that is why, in the same book, Derrida makes a point of noting that the visor – because its precise opening allows us to see without being seen by the other, but above all because it allows the legitimizing of the unknown – distinguishes itself from the mask because it is the supreme insignia of power, of this incomparable power: seeing without being seen (DERRIDA, 1994, p. 8).


It is humiliating to refugees when we demand of them that they do not demand anything at all, under the pretext that they have already been ‘saved.’ And indeed, they began by ‘saving’ themselves: they have fled from war, leaving everything behind as would anyone faced with mortal danger. As civilians, they have suffered the dehumanization typical of ‘collateral damage’ or of the ‘human shield.’ They have been reduced to nothing more than a strategic material. Europe gathers them but does not welcome them. It imposes on them the kind of reification inherent in economic calculations, migration quotas, demagogic agendas.

In his recent short book on images of refugees in the Greek village of Idomeni (a region bordering Macedonia, which receives one of the biggest flows of refugees in Europe today), Georges Didi-Huberman writes, with the moving formal tenacity that permeates much of his work, that refugees ‘are merely our own parents returning,’ and if they return it is to remind us that we are all children of migrants and that even refugees, who reveal themselves as spectral beings, are doing no more than returning to their primeval home (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2018, p.31).

Is this return therefore a return of our own ancestrality, and how it is then possible that the western world refuses at all costs a welcome – a gesture of recognition for these human beings ripped apart by fleeing from their countries – that it denies any notion of dignity or even the possibility of the most basic hospitality? In the magnificent book-invitation they wrote together, Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle ponder the ‘tearing apart’ of the conditions of hospitality in our world when the ‘foreigner’ has no name or sponsorship, when they come from the ends of the earth – from the Middle East or African continent, in particular.

‘“Displaced persons,” exiles, those who are deported, expelled, rootless, nomads, all share two sources of sighs, two nostalgias: their dead ones and their language. On the one hand, they would like to return, at least on a pilgrimage, to the places their buried dead have their last resting place […] On the other hand, exiles, the deported, the expelled, the rootless, the stateless, lawless nomads, absolute foreigners, often continue to recognize the language, what is called the mother tongue, as their ultimate homeland, and even their last resting place.’ (DERRIDA; DUFOURMANTELLE, 2000, pp. 87, 89, 102).

But why, then, are refugees – whether in the 1940s, as Hannah Arendt (2013) so lucidly wrote, or in 2002 when Laura Waddington filmed the images in Border, or even in the present day, as demonstrated by Ai Weiwei in Human Flow (2017) – seen as the enemy? Or rather, why is ‘the spectre felt to be a threat?’ (DERRIDA, 1994, p. 48).

At one point (FIG. 3), Border shows us that same tearing apart of all and any hospitality toward ‘foreigners.’ French police officers mercilessly and cowardly throw refugees to the ground, whose only response are the desperate cries against the closing of the border. These beings revealed in the light have now become defenseless beings, (over)exposed to all violence from the police, from ‘good citizens,’ from ‘natives.’ In the images that flash up at this terrible moment of exposure, the refugees cling to their mother tongue and ancestral – and even archaeological – gestures to exert all at once their entreaty and rebellion, to confront state brutality, despite being desperate and unarmed.

In this sense, our fear of the foreign/foreigner arguably manifests itself because the refugee exists as a kind of spectre returning from another place and another time; a feared spectre as this means they must not be assimilated by us, they must not become a citizen like us, or even an equal, a neighbor – perhaps even because ‘when a spectre appears to us, it is our own genealogy that comes to light’ (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2018, p. 31) and when we insist on refusing the refugee’s arrival, we continue to refuse our own forgotten genealogy.


In the final pages of Survival of the Fireflies, Georges Didi-Huberman turns his attention to the spectres of Border, which he defines as firefly images (DIDI- HUBERMAN, 2018, p. 83). There is no doubting the metaphor between the images of Laura Waddington’s film and the tiny bioluminescent creatures. It exists because the refugees, immersed in darkness, flicker with an inextinguishable desire to cross, with hope for a destiny where their dignity is respected and, like the fireflies, they are at all times under threat from the artificial lights that seek, paradoxically, to extinguish them from our world:

Of all this, she [Laura Waddington] could get only firefly-images: images on the brink of disappearance, always altered by the urgency of their flight, always close to those who, to fulfill their plans, hide in the night and attempt the impossible, risking their lives. The ‘diagonal force’ of this film comes at the cost of clarity, of course: the need for lightweight equipment, the shutter at maximum, impure images, uncertain focus, invasive graininess, jerky rhythms that produce something like a slow-motion effect. Images of fear. Flash images, even so. […] Despite the overpowering darkness, these are not bodies rendered invisible, but rather ‘particles of humanity’ that the film manages precisely to make appear, however fragile and brief those apparitions may be. (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2018 p. 83).


One of the most powerful scenes in Border (FIG. 4) is when an older brother carries his younger brother on his shoulders – during their passage to Europe, they lost their parents in Pakistan. In this image, we can barely make out the backs of the two brothers, tied together – both physically and by blood – enveloped by the sinuosities of the land/hiding place they are trying to cross. We can see, in these seconds of hope – of tension, anguish, and certainly of dread – a desire to escape once again from misery and extradition – the latter of which, for these Middle Eastern youngsters, would mean a return to the horror of war and death. And so, like the spectral beings they are, the refugees in Border are always illuminated even in the darkness. They are always surrounded by reflectors and street lights, the light that seeks to blind them, to make them visible to the authorities, as though simply to confirm the annihilation of their desire to cross the English Channel, whatever the cost. But there is also in this flash of light something of the unexpected, the inexhaustible, we could even say inextinguishable. A light of desire that also lights the way, a light that will guide them out of the woods, out of the ‘threatening territory’ to somewhere offering something closer to recognition, somewhere they can finally find a notion of dignity once again, in spite of everything.

They are, in fact, an example of that ‘humanity thrown into the night, thrown again into flight’ (DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2018, p. 83-87). But the refugees are also beings of desire, or as Derrida wrote, beings of the future:

At bottom, the spectre is the future, it is always to come, it presents itself only as that which could come or come back: in the future, said the powers of old Europe in the last century, it must not incarnate itself, either publicly or in secret. In the future, we hear everywhere today, it must not re-incarnate itself: it must not be allowed to come back since it is past’ (DERRIDA, 1994, p 48).


And as things of the future, these spectral beings demand that we take into account their time and their history, the singular nature of their temporality or their historical reality. This time or history is undoubtedly a link between the refugees in Border, as those who have survived best, those who were able to bear the terror of the road and the deaths of their loved ones, and perhaps that is why they must continue with the ‘illegal’ crossing, because nothing else remains to them – no parents, no citizenship, no hospitality in any part of the world. On this idea of survival (survivance) – and the refugees in Border certainly fit that term – Didi-Huberman points out that it is first and foremost the definition of that which we believe to be dead, but which, through its anachronism (through its mutilation of any kind of static temporality) re-emerges to the surface of the world – and is that not precisely what spectres are? – when everyone thought these were things from another time and another land:

‘Survivance (survival) refers to all that which is believed to be dead, obsolete, finished and yet, in another place, at other moments in history, returns again to the surface of the world. […] ‘My’ lucioles (fireflies) are a political allegory that unites survivors both in the sense of survie (to survive a state of things imposed on us) and in the sense of sleeping images that emerge again thanks to a survivance over the course of time.’ (MATAZZI; DIDI-HUBERMAN, 2010, p. 86).

On this moving idea of survival, Border graces us – because this is without doubt a moment of grace – with a young Kurdish refugee dancing (FIG. 5), with no fear of letting his emotion show, his gestures, therefore, his own Pathosformein – that crossing, between temporalities, of the historical marks of the gestures of emotion and of ancestrality (WARBURG, 2014). Dancing at this time of consideration, faced with territorial instability, with the political and state conflict of his nationality – of his body as a political subject – building, albeit virtually, a visuality with gestures in the air and the furtiveness of his movements, an unexpected space for his dignity. For this, the Kurdish refugee is able to invent temporalities with which to confront his abandonment, in other words, he knows how to move and metamorphize in spite of everything, constructing in the face of his uncertain destiny the instants of a gesture that could never be repeated; or as Marielle Macé might write: a kind of ‘poetic rage,’ an anger that can measure the justness of his emergence without ever forgetting the ‘poetic’ nature of this angry revolt: ‘anger is that moment in which what is seen as little, neglected, plundered, is precisely what I cling to […], what I am ready for, to commit to, to enter in the arenas of conflicts, of uncertainties and of justifications’ (MACÉ, 2018, p. 35; italics our own).

These secret and unexpected gestures, the force of which seems never to expire, even within darkness and abandonment, and with great composure (remember Benjamin’s words to Adorno: ‘maintaining my composure even in difficult moments’), constitute in themselves a profundity – in the very place where profundity can only be established by its most singular temporality and historical reality – we could even say, a revolt (an anger), a reinvention of his place, of his own body.

There is no question that Border shows us only a tiny part of the ‘refugee crisis’ that devastates the world and Europe in particular. And beyond a forgotten genealogy, when we deny the refugee a legitimate place in the world, we are ignoring the history of our oldest anthropology and paleontology (LE BRAS, 2012, p. 31).

From the point of view of spectres, the images we see in the film, no matter how they are framed or mounted, however long the shots, whether listening to or making a poem through image or bodies, appear to be thoroughly imbued with respect for those who are there only for the purpose of passing, with respect for their most fundamental dignity. Therein, perhaps, lies the essential beauty of this film: images, fleeting but surviving, that convey the honorable desire to cross – wars, deaths, the English Channel. And when we insist on refusing a crossing, a passage, we also deny our migratory legacy, our own desire for survival, because it is abundantly clear that other beings came before us, other spectres inhabiting the very places we live today.

In Laura Waddington’s film, all apparitions – all spectres – seem to come and return from the land – like beings of undeniably tenacious archaeology. They emerge from it as though from a buried clandestinity (the humus and muck, the tomb and the underground prison), to then return – to then vanish – as though to the lowest parts, toward the humble, the humid, the humiliated (FIG. 6).


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‘Between crossing and darkness: notes on (im)migrant spectres in Border’ by Ricardo Lessa Filho and Frederico Vieira, LOGOS 52 VOL 27 N 01 DOSSIÊ INSTABILIDADE E CONFLITO DAS/NAS IMAGENS, Brazil, 2019. (Translated from the Portuguese)