When we learned that the Paris City Hall was opening a refugee camp at Porte de la Chapelle, we had been looking for months to find out where to put our film commitment to report on the so-called “migrant crisis”. It is during the summer of 2016 that we decided to make this film. More than 4,000 migrants were then in the streets of Paris, without resources. The State, which is in charge of receiving these refugees, does not move and lets unacceptable precarious areas settle, finally requiring humanitarian intervention. Porte de la Chapelle, a first reception centre is then set up by the Paris City Hall to receive the men (another one opens in Ivry for families and single women). The State was then confronted with its negligence and was forced to take over this place.
Revolted by the stiffness of our society, frightened by this Western position which is always so quick to protect itself, moved by our encounters with refugees in the wild camps of Paris or at home when we took them in, we were looking for a film to make. We wanted to share our view of them. And to try to change the way others looked at them. No, these people are not “migrants”, they come to us, they are “refugees”. No, they are not a scourge, they are our future, as our past and present prove. Yes, they are like us, human beings with family stories, jobs and dreams. Tomorrow they will be us.
We’ve been in the camp the whole time it’s been open. We met many refugees. Many did not want to be filmed. But with all those who gave us their agreement, we stayed stuck for the ten days they spent there. We filmed their first interview where the traces of the street are still visible, then the happy reunion with their compatriots, then the obligatory passage to the Samu Social to share their physical or psychological problems until they reached their room where they could finally rest. To exchange with them, the room was also their chosen place. There, they told us the reasons for their exile, witnessed the atrocities of the journey, expressed their hope for the future in France. Finally, after these few days of respite, we also filmed them at the Prefecture, where fingerprinting takes place and where the refugees learn about their fate. The atmosphere there is different. It’s cold, even icy, whether in the setting or in the words. Youssef, Zerbo, Obahullai, Alhassan, Djibrill, Guyot, Salomon, Johnson, Pavel... all of them have lived through the scandal of the French refusal to welcome them, looking for any pretext not to examine an asylum application.
Through our place at their side, in search of this humanity that interests us so much, this identity that they are asked to claim, we wish to create a bond of empathy. We want the spectator to become attached to each one of them, and for the mass to fade away. May we never again hear that it is waves of pests that invade us, but human beings seeking hospitality, a chance to live, to exist. Some in the crowd, who pass through the camp, some who represent many, some whom we meet by their singularity - their profession, their family, their suffering - some who awaken our humanity and underline the inhumanity of the Republic’s welcome. It is with these men that we are making this film, it is with them that we expose the evidence of this need for freedom for any development of our society. It is with you that we hope to convince as many people as possible.
Filming the thin, that is, the essential. In the twenty years that we have been co-directing, our behaviour as meticulous “naturalists” that we adopt with regard to what we see and hear of the human species, has always led us down this path. We like to unravel reality, that complex material that can’t stand being forced into commentary or headlines. We look for the exchange, the sequence, the confession where the unsaid shines through and brings us a lot. In the scrupulous observation of a face learning a decision, of the position of two bodies face to face for an interview, or in the attentive filming of silences accompanying a memory, we find the most accurate answer to our questions about man’s place in society. This is our way of doing things: telling the problems shared by many from a specific case.
With this film we wanted to report the point of view of the refugees passing through this camp, without being in the analysis of the enormous organization necessary for this. To keep the humanity of all within reach by following some of them as closely as possible during their stay here. To show this place with sincerity is to notice the small number of people welcomed, as much as the tremendous kindness of the social workers, or the harshness of the administrative response.
Against the perpetual exposure of mass and number, we wanted to show and hear the individuality of these men. This is why, as a first contact, we filmed them giving their first and last names and country of origin when they arrived at the centre. In this way they extract themselves from the place of “migrants”, which defines them only by their movement, as if it were their lot to wander.
These men, we choose to call them refugees, although they do not have legal status. That is a political position. We consider that they have a right to refuge. Let us remember that most of the people arriving in France come from Ethiopia, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Mali and Guinea, all countries that are in the grip of civil wars that are widely recognized internationally.
By making a film with the refugees we met at the centre we want to promote another reality about migration. It is always war, demographic pressure and poverty that push people out of their homes, but also access to freedom of expression and a peaceful country. Migration is part of the options and the pride of their life horizon. They are all on the run and looking for a better future elsewhere. In the interstice of their words, in the thickness of their stories, or in the placeless place of their dreams, refugees have entrusted us with their absolute present, a sweet utopia, as if it were self-evident: "I have managed to survive so far. Of course we are going to build this free world together. »
Our society should respond to this utopia, as an opportunity, as hope, as progress. But faced with this need for mobility, our society opposes borders, dams and then proposes reading grids, sorting grids, camp grids. The “humanitarian centre” is caught between listening to and understanding this utopia and managing “real politics”. The “humanitarian centre” is caught between listening to and understanding this utopia and the management of “real politics”. It is a symbolic and political representation of the ambiguity of French hospitality, from the first reception of the guest to the refugee’s integration project. Humanity and inhumanity confront each other in every nook and cranny. This sheltering allows refugees a moment’s respite. Finally freed for a time from the tension of the journey, from the violence of the streets, from the fear of the police, one feels relieved as soon as they pass the door of the bubble. The camp is indeed a humanitarian place, but not only because it is necessary to welcome “new arrivals”, but also because they must be protected - in the middle of Paris - from the police who come to dislodge them every two days. The “inside” is proof of the violence of the “outside”. We want to show the obligation of this welcome, a necessary rescue in the hostile sea.
The camp, a revealing and political place...
The centre has proved to be an emblematic place, where the field and the off-field allow a general vision to blossom with a personal feeling. Refugees in such a transit camp and a whole section of our society is exposed.
This refugee camp is also a small-scale representation of French society, which can be seen in all its complexity, from the reluctance of public authorities to the generosity of neighbourhood volunteers, from the rigidity of security and administrative delays to the empathy of health and social workers. They all come to show a part of us, without being fooled by where they come from or where they go. Thus, social workers are forced to assume an immigration policy that rejects people on the street when what they want above all is to keep them safe. The tension in their homes is visible when they cannot help but mumble or huff and puff or go for a cigarette to calm themselves. And this is shared by everyone involved in the camp, whether they are doctors, OFII employees or of course volunteers. The film reveals the organisation of the centre, with its contradictions, neuroses, conflicts and stories. The centre offers the consolation of a room, a shower and food, but it imposes the schedules, the portico guarded by security guards and above all the appointment at the prefecture.
We were allowed to film at the prefecture, where fingerprinting takes place and where refugees learn their fate: Dublin, or not Dublin. Return to the country where they left their fingerprints when they entered Europe, or no return. Brutality of decisions that follow strict rules that do not support exceptions even when they lead to absurd situations . The camp exposes the versatility of policies that change the rules so often to keep refugees in limbo. The discussions between Ofii agents, Emmaus employees and refugees trying to understand are striking. Also, whatever the new migration policies, the plans of many refugees will be shattered by this reality: the state does not want France to be a welcoming land, so let us accept as few asylum applications as possible.
We cannot share such a position. We cannot remain huddled up. The country of abundance in which we live cannot be maintained by us alone. By approaching the refugees, by meeting them, by sharing their utopias, we want to make them feel how much we can only enrich ourselves through contact with them. We need others.