Seven years after the start of production, Miriam Faßbender’s documentary Fremd (Foreign) has finally been released in Germany. Faßbender portrays two men from West Africa who try to make their way from Mali to Europe. Being stuck in Morocco and Algiers for years, the prospect of going to Europe recedes into the distance. Fremd is a contemplative, yet highly political observation of patience and optimism in the face of despair. I met director Miriam Faßbender in Kreuzberg to talk about her film.
When did you get the idea to make a film about the situation of two African migrants who try to make it to Europe?
I’ve always been a political person and was outraged when I realized what was happening at the gates of Europe. I became aware of the phenomenon of African migration while working as a camera assistant for Shirin Neshat in Morocco in 2005. It was then that I saw the migrants from sub-Saharan countries who were stranded in Morocco and Algiers and it hit me how close Africa and Europe actually are.
I had always been occupied with the politics of migration and immigration, especially through the violent incidents against German asylum-seeker’s hostels. As a European citizen, it’s perverse to be so privileged and sealed off from the rest of the world at the same time.
Why did you choose to start shooting in Mali?
The main route of trans-African migration goes through Mali. Mali is one of the major junctions and gathering places because it’s the last stop before the desert. I chose Mali, because people from all over the African continent meet there. I wanted to make a film about economic refugees and not portray someone from a crisis area because I regard these situations as equal in a way. For me, poverty is also a valid reason to grant someone asylum and a work permit. Eventually, Mohammed and Jerry became my protagonists mainly because of their strong personalities. The original concept was to stay in the Sub-Saharan regions and not film the journey up North, but this idea changed in Mali. In the beginning, I had four different protagonists, but then decided to concentrate on two. In Mohammed I had found a person who didn’t have utopian ideas about Europe because he didn’t actually want to go there, although he admitted this only much later.
My ambition in this project was not to make an investigative report about what is happening on the journey of migration, but to give my protagonists a voice. The media at that time described African immigration to Europe as invasions or mass phenomena. They were never concerned with the fate of the individual. This struck me as absurd because these people could be your neighbours and your friends. When we were filming, Mohammed and Jerry were my age and had similar claims for life, like living in peace, free access to education, and health care. I didn’t see much of a difference to what I wanted.
You didn’t shoot the entire film yourself, but gave your protagonists cameras to film while you were gone. What was the idea behind that?
I wanted to translate the idea of being on the road into film, but at the same time didn’t want to endanger my protagonists by our presence. So I gave out four Mini-DV cameras. It was clear that they wouldn’t be able to film the entire journey and it was also clear that if they were in need, they would have to sell the cameras. The important thing was that they kept the tapes. These bits are gritty and have a different 4:3-format. Some of the tapes got lost on the way and some of the material was too intimate for me to use.
What was your position as a white woman director in this? How problematic was your involvement in a situation, which wasn’t yours?
When I started shooting this film, I thought it would take one and a half years to finish. The situation of the migrants was echoed in my own position because I had to wait much longer than expected. Eventually, it took seven years for the film to be released. During that time, my producer and I often got frustrated about lack of funding and the critique that a German woman would choose such a topic. I was on the verge of giving up completely more than once. My perseverance during the shoot and the fact that I always returned helped build up a trust with my protagonists. Of course, in the eyes of an African migrant, I am rich and privileged, being born in Europe and being able to come and go as I please. My advantage was being close to Mohammed who defended me against others who didn’t believe I was serious. I was certainly vulnerable and often defenceless, but through the long-lasting relationship towards him, it wouldn’t have been okay if something had happened to me. It became clear that my interest was not that of a reporter. Through that trust I was sure nothing would happen to me.
Could you always bring your political perspective and your ambitions as a filmmaker across? Could you communicate how important your film might be for a European audience?
By always returning to Africa with edits of the film and showing my work in progress, I think I could bring my message across. But it was also always clear that my perspective is European and that I am making a film mainly for a European audience.
And still, many people didn’t want to be filmed for other reasons. This stemmed from their experience with TV reporters. Some of these reports were aired in Africa and some migrants got phone calls from their families after they had been recognised and were asked why they looked so run-down or hadn’t made it to Europe yet. Their biggest worry was that their families would find out their real situation or how miserable they actually were, which is something that is never talked about. But at some point there was a great willingness to make their inhuman living conditions seen. The general idea is that as soon as you leave home, you are making money. The fact that that’s rarely true is a big dilemma and puts many migrants under enormous pressure.
Towards the end of the film, the weeks of waiting turn into years and the dream of Europe as a paradise is already shattered although no one has arrived there yet. Was it your aim to make a critical film about Europe?
My aim was to raise awareness. Eventually, these circumstances are caused by European politics. If Europe’s visa policies were different, and immigration laws were relaxed, the entire situation would be completely different. If the media didn’t construct an image of “the masses”, immigration wouldn’t have such a negative connotation. My focus was on personal stories, but I wanted to imply my stance against Europe as well without using obvious metaphors like walls or fences as film images. Europe’s politics must change, and not only because Europe’s wealth comes in part from its colonial history. I think all borders should be abolished, everyone should have the freedom to travel and should be able to decide where the want to live.
I didn’t want to make a film about the drama of the desert passage or people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea because I was more interested in the situation of waiting and being stuck. The most admirable quality is the migrants’ patience, their persistence and the way in which they take the situation with such composure, although time often seems to stand still.
Your film depicts a terrible situation, but it is nevertheless beautifully shot without being kitsch. How did you reconcile the political content with the aesthetics of the film?
I studied cinematography and the form was very important to me. I had to select the material carefully and much of it ended up on the floors of the cutting room. Bad framing and shaky images didn’t make it into the film, although the aesthetics weren’t my main concern. Also, I can only find beautiful shots if I am interested in my subjects. As far as pictorial design is concerned, poverty can be a rewarding motif. The sewing of the rubber tyre is one example, or the wastelands at the border of Morocco and Algiers.
Apart from that, you also need protagonists who keep you interested. Mohammed had a strong physical presence whereas Jerry is more of a philosopher. The more I got two know them, the more my cinematic language evolved. After all, you always have to be alert and react spontaneously to capture moments as they are happening. We also had an agreement that I would show them the final cut and they could interfere if they didn’t like something.
Did you pay Mohammed and Jerry?
It was clear to me that I would pay for petty things like the bus ride from Mali, cigarettes, or food while I was with them. Apart from that, there was no salary, because I wanted them to participate for other reasons. Everyone who worked on the film has a contract that guarantees them an equal share of all profits the film makes, including prize money.
Fremd, Germany/ Mali/ Algiers/ Morocco 2011, 93 min.
director: Miriam Faßbender, cinematography: Miriam Faßbender; Mohammed and Jerry,
languages: French, English, Arabic, Bambara, Sonray, Bassa (with German subtitles), distributor: Peripher
Fsk (25.04. – 30.04., daily 6.15 pm), director Miriam Faßbender will be attending the screening on Sunday, 28.04.
To win one of two free tickets, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org until 5 pm today.
Tell me why you want to see this film, subject line: European Union