Real lives of refugees brought home at top Czech docs fest

'A Syrian Love Story', photo: archive of Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival

The plight of refugees was among the key themes at this year’s Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, with films such as Sean McAllister’s heartrending A Syrian Love Story helping bring the real lives of the hundreds of thousands of stateless persons in Europe home to audiences at the biggest event in Czech documentaries.

'Czechs Against Czechs',  photo: archive of Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival
The five-member jury at the 2015 Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival judged that none of the 16 entrants in the main Czech Joy category was convincing enough to earn the top prize.

But the panel did give two special mentions. One was for Czechs Against Czechs by Tomáš Kratochvíl.

The director started the film as an unusual video diary of an experiment to see what life was really like among the country’s Roma minority. With local tensions rising, Kratochvíl also encountered white racists, including self-styled street patrols and “ordinary” members of the public.

After Saturday night’s closing ceremony in Jihlava, I asked what had been his motivation in making Czechs Against Czechs.

“My motivation? It was my wife. She left me and I needed a change.

“The second motivation was that I feel that the Roma are in a really bad situation in the Czech Republic – I wanted to see if they really are as bad as everybody says.”

Some members of the majority society in the film come out with some incredible statements. They say outrageously racist things. Were you ever surprised by what you heard?

“An old woman told me on camera that Hitler should have killed all the gypsies. I think she should go to jail for that.”

“In fact I was not. Because such statements are very normal in the Czech Republic.

“It’s normal to say them at home. But saying them to the camera is really, really… both cases are bad, but an old woman told me on camera that Hitler should have killed all the gypsies. I think she should go to jail for that. It’s really bad.”

Czechs Against Czechs was made by the traditional dominant producer at Jihlava, Czech Television. In fact, the public broadcaster had no fewer than 36 original or co-produced documentaries in the festival this year.

Radomír Šofr oversees documentary development at Czech TV. I asked him if the station uses Jihlava as a marketing tool for its broad output in the field.

“Many young people come here to this festival and I think for Czech Television it’s very important to address them or to focus its works on young people. So for us it is very important marketing.”

If a film does well here, does that mean it will get more attention at Czech TV – will you give it a better time slot or a better release date? Will it kind of give the documentary more chance to be successful in the TV?

“I think it’s not so simple. Because our programme department has to select films for different times and sometimes films are successful here that are not for a mainstream audience.

“It’s not automatic that success here in Jihlava means, let’s say, a prime time slot on Czech Television 1 or Czech Television 2.”

Tomáš Hrubý,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
As a film festival, how does Jihlava compare to other events of its kind? Producer Tomáš Hrubý is in a good position to judge. He has been to many festivals with his company Nutprodukce’s successful drama Burning Bush and is also a regular in Jihlava.

“The organisers themselves call it a punk festival and I think there is an atmosphere of disorganisation, but in a good sense.

“There’s an intuitiveness to the organisation and a spontaneity – that’s what I love about it.”

What kind of experiences have you had here over the years?

“Many. I’ve been here as a jury member. I’ve been here as a visitor. I’ve been here as a filmmaker with a film. This year I’m just visiting and watching films and having great parties.

“And from all of these perspectives the festival is full of energy and still young, even after 20 years. It attracts very young people.”

Do you have any particular standout memories of one great night or great day here? Or great experience?

“Yes, I do. The best experience for me was when we premiered our first film here, three years ago. It’s called The Fortress…”

Which won, right?

Photo: archive of Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival
“Yes, it won the festival. I remember the atmosphere after the screening and the questions. The room was packed full of people.

“The film pretty much flopped in the theatres, but here we had the idea that was going to be a blockbuster. That was a great moment for us.”

Was that [the film’s failure to do well in cinemas] perhaps in a sense because much of the potential audience for the film were already here?

“In a way, yes. Jihlava creates this very interesting atmosphere where documentary films suddenly become hit films, where you have huge queue lines, which never happens in normal theatres.

“It’s like a micro-cosmos in its own right. But I think it does a great job in the promotion of documentary films in the Czech Republic.”

Among the most anticipated documentaries at Jihlava was A Syrian Love Story by UK director Sean McAllister, one of a number of films this year touching on the refugee crisis.

A Syrian Love Story follows a couple from the war-torn country over five years as the intense experiences they go through take a heavy toll on their family life.

Ahead of a screening, I asked McAllister – who became very close to the family and was himself detained by Syrian police during filming – how he had come upon the extremely powerful story.

“She smiled and said, The only person we blame for any of this is Bashar al-Assad – I blame him for arresting you and for arresting me.”

“I’d gone to Damascus in 2009, 2010, to look for a film. I was hanging out there actually for about eight months.

“One night I bumped into this guy [Amer] in a bar who took a call. I said, Who was that? He said, My wife, she’s in prison. And I thought, Wow.

“Then he said to me, If you want to make a film about this place, you should film my story.

“So I went to see him looking after his kids and I thought, That’s a story worth telling.”

By the time his wife Raghda got out of prison, you had already built up a relationship with him. Was it hard to win her trust? She was in a different position to him – you had got to know him already.

“It was really hard. Winning his trust took about a year. Winning her trust took about a year and a half. That’s why the film is over five years.”

She seemed in a sense the more patriotic of the two and was more upset at leaving Syria. Did she in any way resent you for the fact that your arrest had led to the [filmed] materials being uncovered and them having to leave?

“That’s such a popular question. I actually went to film her and asked her that question.

“She sort of smiled and said, The only person we blame for any of this is Bashar al-Assad – I blame him for arresting you and for arresting me.”

'A Syrian Love Story',  photo: archive of Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival
Do you think your presence influenced their story at all?

“Yes, I think the way my style of filmmaking is, is that it does influence. When I studied to make documentaries there was this notion of fly on the wall.

“But at the same time I came across a different genre of documentary filmmaking from America which was called fly in the soup.

“That’s where you go along and you’re actually in the mix and you take the audience into whatever you’re filming.

“You don’t pretend not to be there – you’re very much there. And through that I think the audience see a bigger spectrum of what’s going on.”

The family obviously all went through a lot. But I got the impression that Ragdha was particularly traumatised. She’d been in prison and her country was destroyed. Would you say that’s a fair comment?

“For sure, yes. It makes you really think doesn’t it – the post-traumatic stress. If you look at all these refugees fleeing around Europe now… I think something like this film can show the hidden psychological damage inside people, it can be very profound.

“She first went to prison when she was 18, 19… She’s only spoken to me briefly and loosely about the specifics of what’s gone on. But having been inside the prison myself and seen the daily torture – it’s systematic. Then there’s no help for these people when they come out.”

'A Syrian Love Story',  photo: YouTube
The couple’s children are a big presence in the film and we see them growing up over the five-year period. Does their story add a whole other dimension?

“I think it does in a way. Because it’s filmed over five years you see them sort of develop and grow up – a bit like in that Boyhood film. You see them kind of grow from boys to men.

“But you also get some sanity from them, in a way. You see that the parents are falling apart and not making sense of the world. But actually it’s the kids who are the sober, sensible, sane look at what’s going on, really.”

Ideally, what would you like the viewer to take away from A Syrian Love Story?

“I don’t know really – the viewer can take away whatever they want.

“I think when they see the pornographic images of kids washed up on the seashore, and of faceless families coming in on boats… you can often somehow distance yourself of disassociate yourself from those images.

“But I think when they watch a film like this they’ll no longer just see a dead body of a boy on the beach – they’ll think of little Bob in this film.

“I think what this film does is characterise what the news just shows as images often.

“And I hope that when they look at the news again they don’t just see them as empty figures but they see them as human beings like them. That love and cry and live and die. Like us.”

“Refugees overcome big problems to get to Norway – and suddenly they are in a situation where they don’t feel like they have arrived yet at starting a new life.”

Migration was also in the spotlight in Imagining Emanuel and Out of Norway, companion films about one Liberian man. The first explores the protagonist’s legal limbo in Norway, whose authorities believe he is from Ghana – and try and fail to return him there.

Director Thomas Ostbye (who also presented his latest film Things in Jihlava) said Emanuel’s plight allowed him to explore a subject that fascinates him: identity.

“His life situation depended on him getting his identity across, explaining it. He had limited means of doing that, apart from talking.

“He didn’t grow up in Norway, so he doesn’t understand the culture as well as for example I do.

“So I thought, OK, maybe we can make a film about identity. And at the same time we will make a film about Emanuel’s struggle to get his identity across to the authorities in Norway.”

There’s one strange and kind of funny scene in Imagining Emanuel where you see a cell like where he was kept and you read on the screen a log of all the things that he did, because he was being monitored. It says for example, 12:00: Sleeping, 12:15: Sleeping and breathing. It’s really quite bizarre. Were there any other aspects of his treatment that perhaps surprised you or otherwise impacted you?

“Yes, the scene where he is monitored is a good example of how you build the identity of a person purely by so-called objective observation.

“‘He is breathing’, for example – what image does this give of that person? Or it also gives an image of the system that deals with identity in this way.”

Of course he’s breathing – he’s alive.

'Imagining Emanuel',  photo: archive of Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival
“That’s why they’re monitored, because many people have died in that situation or tried to kill themselves.

“But the most surprising thing making the movie about Emanuel is that Emanuel has been in a limbo situation where he is unable to do normal things that are needed to keep yourself alive and to sustain your own life.

“He had been in that situation for so long, after risking his life several times to get to Norway, and it was really surprising to me that he was not bitter and angry.”

Have your films become more topical, given the situation now in Europe with hundreds of thousands of people in Europe without papers?

“I think they are topical, because people talk a lot more about this topic. And I think they are kind of important because they deal with how we are dealing with refugees.

“They focus on how we deal with setting people in a situation where they are not able to do anything.

“In Norway people are put in asylum camps. They have overcome big problems to get to this place – and now suddenly they are in a situation where they can do nothing more but they don’t feel like they have arrived yet at starting a new life.

“If you stay a long time very close to the arrival point but you are not able to fully arrive and start, it’s very destroying psychologically. It’s economically destroying the society, because then it just costs money.

“Instead of people being viewed as a resource, they are turned into a problem. Then the image of these people becomes, They are a problem. And this is not the case.”