A bar at Victoria? Not so fast

THESSALONIKI – Ceuta refugee camp, Morocco. Oumar sits on a concrete tower structure over the crashing waves, his eyes transfixed on Europe. So close yet so far away. Despite repeated failed attempts to set foot on the other side, his thirst is unquenched. «I have only got one specific aim and that is to reach Europe,» Oumar says with a tentative smile on his face. All Oumar wants is to live a normal life. But the land of promise has not been very welcoming to outsiders. Large numbers of people are sent back to their countries and those who manage to squeeze into Europe are forced to lead an almost invisible life: «If you’ve got your papers you’re in Europe. If you don’t, [it’s like] you’re not.» German filmmaker Andreas Voigt profiles five different individuals who strive to take root in five different European countries. His documentary, «Invisible: Illegal in Europe,» was recently screened at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival that opened a week ago. Since the genre’s explosion in the 1990s, documentaries have become one of the main turbines of the rights-oriented movement thanks to their unique blend of art, politics and powerful symbolism. The Thessaloniki event, now in its seventh year, has itself grown into a leading vehicle for educating and galvanizing audiences. Notwithstanding the documentary’s somewhat high-minded and arty image, the interest of the public as well as buyers has been greater in 2005 than in previous years. But encouraging as the commercial interest of foreign television networks may be, it’s highly unlikely that this idiosyncratic art form will become profitable business any time soon. Organizers this year addressed the rights theme with seven films – only two of them by Greek filmmakers – and a three-hour conference. More often than not, content was stronger than form, but when it comes to human rights, aesthetic excellence comes after conscience building. The characters featuring in Voigt’s film introduce us to the complexities of their grim parallel universe. Malika, a Chechen woman, fled to Poland with her family when the Russian clampdown started. Zakari, a former military officer in Algeria, escaped his homeland in fear of persecution and has been living in Germany without papers for a decade. The German authorities turned down his application for a residence permit, deeming that his case was not «serious enough.» Inside a Dutch prison, Prince is waiting to be deported back to Nigeria. Edita, a transsexual from Ecuador, lives in Paris on a temporary visa that she has to have renewed every three months. The repeated setbacks do not bend Oumar’s will. «Nothing ventured, nothing gained,» he says, hoping that his god will one day send him to another god’s land. «Allah will see to it that things turn out fine.» False hopes Also among the human rights documentaries showcased at the 10-day festival in northern Greece is «A Bar at Victoria Station,» where Polish director Leszek Dawid shines a light on the fate of western immigrants from former communist countries. Marek and Piotrek, two chronically unemployed Poles, decide to try their luck in London. The two men dream of opening a bar at Victoria Station but soon reality comes crashing down upon them. They brave illegal entry into the UK only to find that job promises were fake. Swindlers try to con them into purchasing phony work permits while even former friends turn their backs on them. As disappointment and desperation grows, the two men almost crack under pressure. «They would have better stopped us at the immigration office at the borders,» says Marek after yet another door has slammed in their face. But in the end the two men don’t lose heart. «In Transit,» shot by Turkish director Berke Bas, profiles immigrating families caught up limbo between their country of origin and their final destination. Three families, an Iraqi Arab, an Iraqi Kurd and a Nigerian, get stranded in Istanbul, one of the main transit routes to Europe and the United States. These transient migrants, who live in run-down housing in the city’s Kurtulus district, have to do clandestine work and put up with the discrimination of the locals. Another foreign production, «The Train of Zero O’Clock» directed by Iran’s Babak Shirin-Sefat, depicts the appalling living conditions for some 1 million Azerbaijani people in the wake of the Ghere Baagh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Greece’s Lucia Rikaki takes her camera to the small village of Patisderos in Crete. «The Other» documents the life of a Greek pupil whose classmates are all from Albania, while Chryssa Tzelepi, in «It’s a Sad Story,» follows the journey of an Albanian mother and her daughter who move southward when Albania’s economic and political system collapses. Also on offer at the festival is a selection of five documentaries that were screened at the Human Rights Watch festival in New York, including the controversial «Tying the Knot» where Jim de Seve takes on the issue of gay marriage. The film chronicles the struggle of gay activists against right-wing politicians and their difficult steps toward more respect and equality. Could documentaries one day become victims of their own success? Yes, but we shouldn’t worry too much about that. Talking about the problem The focus on immigration and human rights included a conference on Tuesday at the dock theater complex. The role of documentaries was praised. «When you watch a film about refugees you can feel a little bit of what they feel, you can understand a little bit better why they have fled another country and come to yours,» said Karen Farkas, of the UNHCR in Greece. In that way, she said, art and documentary films have the power «to rehumanize the dehumanized.» A skeptical Constantine Giannaris, however, said Greeks still have to come to terms with their changing society. «No one here wants to hear about Albanian migrants; not so much those who are asking for handouts but those who are firmly demanding their rights,» the director complained, commenting on the commercial failure of his latest movie «Hostage,» which is based on the true story of a bus hijacking by a frustrated young Albanian. Offering a sobering account of the status of refugees in Greece and elsewhere, Farkas stressed the need to look, listen, think and respond to their suffering. «We must ensure that they are not totally ignored or despised and are instead given a chance to live in security and regain a little bit of dignity and peace of mind.» Albanian-born director Bujar Alimani certainly knows something about this. When his home country crashed, he walked all the way to eastern Greece, tiptoeing round police roadblocks. Thirteen years later, he still finds it hard to grasp the paradoxes of identity in a world of flux. The recent soccer match between Greece and Albania, said Alimani, found him and his little daughter on opposite sides. «You lost, Dad,» she taunted him after Greece had won the game.

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