‘Tarifa Traffic’: Lives wrecked

THESSALONIKI – It was some three years ago that Joakim Demmer saw the pictures in the newspapers. Tourists were lying on deck chairs on the beach in Tarifa, Spain, and in the background the dead bodies of refugees were tossed up onto the shore by the waves. All Demmer could do was reach for his digital camera. Demmer’s award-winning documentary «Tarifa Traffic: Death in the Straits of Gibraltar» was screened on the first day of the seventh Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, a showcase for foreign and domestic films which opened its doors to audiences last Friday and runs to April 10. In this Swiss-German production, Demmer captures the plight of illegal African immigrants trying to make their way to Europe in search of a better life. Each year, thousands cram into the pateras, rubber motorboats that promise to smuggle them from Morocco to Spain. Many succeed, but a huge number meet their deaths in the treacherous seas off Tarifa, as their overburdened boats, and hopes, capsize. «The sight was obscene,» Demmer pitches in over the smoke of his cigarette in the «green room» cafe on the premises of the festival’s flagship Olympion Theater. Speaking to Kathimerini English Edition, he recalls the images that first prompted him to fly to the Mediterranean country and make the film. «I visited Spanish cemeteries and saw anonymous graves piled up into stone walls.» The fugitives crossing the strait carry no documents – only the clothes they are wearing. It is hard to identify them so they are buried with just a number. Sometimes, a brother or a father will show up to identify and take the loved one’s body back home. For people on the other side, collecting corpses has become a daily routine. But it’s never easy. «You get used to the pateras, but the dying… you just don’t get used to it,» Franco, a police lieutenant, says in the documentary. Mixed duties. Officers like Franco have to stop the refugees, but they also have to save them from drowning in the sea. «It is very complex,» Demmer says. «In the eyes of the police officers, the refugees are not criminals. Sure, they use violence if people try to escape – like all policemen have to do – but, at the same time, for them it is a big disgrace to see women and children die. There is a lot of compassion in them as well.» Demmer was born in Stockholm. That’s quite a long way from Tarifa, Spain’s most southeastern point, but getting there was never a problem for him. Others, a mere 25 kilometers away, are less welcome. Europe has set up the transit-free Schengen zone but raised walls against outsiders. The European Union’s fledgling common asylum and immigration policy is intended to put the brakes on clandestine migrants and bogus asylum seekers. As a result, many of them perish at the gates of «fortress Europe.» «It is absurd,» Demmer says. «Europe has never been a cultural hermit. People have been going back and forth between Spain and Morocco for thousands of years and, all of a sudden, there is a border and this has to stop. People living in Andalusia are now meant to have more in common with a Finnish peasant farmer than with those people living on the other side of the narrow strait.» Worse, it is immoral. «The decision to shut the borders is made in our name, in the name of Europeans. And it is a step toward the demoralization of our society.» Faced with the devastated foreigners, Europeans conjure up images of impoverished hordes eying their jobs and wealth. But Europeans, Demmer says, should know better. «Europeans have themselves always tried to find a better life. And they still are. I don’t think that these people have any less of a right to try. How can I tell these people that they are not allowed to come here?» Nevertheless, their drama is not just a cause for sympathy. A bit of admiration would be more appropriate, stresses Demmer. «These people are a kind of hero to me for they embody the aspirations of humanity toward a better future – despite the lurking dangers. It takes a whole lot of courage to travel all the way from central Africa to the Mediterranean. These people are not just victims. You have to see the greatness in the African exodus.» Demmer’s camera follows the coast guard and Red Cross helpers who have had direct contact with the refugee drama. When night falls, some struggle with silence, sometimes tears, as they bring fatal episodes to mind. A coast guard officer tells of his recurring nightmares. But what is to blame for all of this? «There is no solidarity among the human race,» the brother of one of the victims says, pondering the Tarifa deaths, an aphorism that sums up Demmer’s message. Complacent Europeans treat the fugitives as second-class beings, an attitude that draws Demmer’s ire. «People are basically very similar. There are cultural differences, of course, but I don’t think that an African has other basic needs than a European. Why should I care more about a German than about an African?» he says. «Blond Europeans surf during the day, full of life, and at night the dead Africans are washed up on land. That is actually the whole truth,» says a woman in the film. As long as blond Europeans surf in a sea filled with dead African bodies, the obscenity will remain. «Tarifa Traffic» is filmed with the aim of making you feel uncomfortable. Yet watching it you cannot help but hail the empowering impact of the camcorder on the human rights struggle. Focusing his camera lens on the pain of others, Demmer succeeds in inspiring a strong sense of solidarity with humankind. Hopefully, it will linger long after people have left the theater.

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