You are not welcome. We don’t want you here.
These are, probably, the two sentences that have caused the biggest discomfort during this year’s IDFA. Not because they were addressed to us, the audience, but because they reflect the harsh reality we are all trying to hide under the carpet; we all know at least one person who dares to speak these words out loud and we feel burdened by their inhumane mentality. Who are these words addressed to? The thousands of migrants arriving in Europe each year.
Directness is a typical Dutch trait. Guido Hendrikx takes advantage of that and he is being 100% direct in his first feature length documentary, Stranger in Paradise. Victims of his directness aren’t the migrants- they are victims of war and social turmoil, and that is enough. Hendrikx’s words aim to disturb us, the Europeans, the ones who either ignore the situation or watch it from a safe distance. We had the chance to have a chat with him, right before he walked away with the Special Jury Award for Dutch Documentary.
In 2013, I was entering my graduation year and I was looking for a graduation project. I was reading the newspaper and I came across an article talking about that cemetery in Lampedusa for migrants that had died in sea. I thought there may have been something there. When you read an article as a filmmaker, you wait before you begin your research and you start imagining the thing in your own way- I tend to do that too.
I went to Lampedusa in order to see if there was a story for a short film, but the reality was different than what I had in mind. I stayed for a week or so. Lampedusa is a small island, there is nothing to do, so I was just walking around. Without aiming to make a film, I started talking to migrants, who were just hanging out at the beach, swimming. What stroke me was the gap between their hopes for a future in Europe and reality. Almost all of them dream of Northern Europe, where they think they will definitely have a good life, education, resident permit… I am no expert, I only read the newspaper, but I felt like there was an imbalance between their goals and reality. That kept me busy.
When I returned to the Netherlands, I tried to understand what is the correlation between Europe and migrants. I made the premise that they desire to have the life of ‘the others,’ the ones on the other side of the sea. That is where it started.
Hendrikx wanted to show the correlation between Europe and migrants. He wanted to demonstrate the different manifestations and expressions that, in the end, all came down to the same outcome.
I decided to create four chapters (three acts, plus the epilogue) so I could make this correlation tangible, like you could feel it and you could see these different expressions. I also needed an instrument to embody these themes, these arguments, so I could show these totally different, radical sides. I would need three different people to demonstrate that. What was the alternative? Using an actor.
The use of an actor in a non-fiction film could raise some questions, especially when the purpose is to demonstrate a reality. How did he deal with that?
We were very transparent; I was never so transparent in anything I have done before as I was in making this film. The migrants were aware that Valentijn (Dhaenens) is an actor. We assembled the groups and I explained: “Today we have this lesson with this teacher, but he is in an actor, he is not real teacher. He will represent the sound of Europe towards you. If you don’t agree please say why and try to make it difficult for the actor.”
Didn’t these people’s spontaneous reactions make his filmmaking process difficult?
There were moments when everyone was yelling at each other. We did some editing in the first two acts because they were 45′ long. We had to do some classes a second time. Valentijn was well prepared, he was scripted, he knew what his arguments were. Sometimes, he had to improvise, based on the reactions. The migrants knew what to expect in the first class. They knew exactly what words would come to them. Sometimes, we did a second class with the same group, one hour after the first. Then we got more reactions. The epilogue was also scripted. It was a reflection of our experiences from staying in Lampedusa during our research.
What is it that makes Stranger in Paradise unique, though?
There are a lot of films on the subject but they are not self-reflected, I have to say. They try to portray the suffering of the migrant and that is it. I wanted to reflect on my role, what is my role as a filmmaker, what is my purpose, which economic structures do I depend on for making this film. Actually, the last scene was, in one sentence, the correlation between filmmaker- subject. During the research we experienced different things that we actually used in that scene. There was a moment where I researched in an asylum center and I had a conversation with a girl from Nigeria. She gave some information and she wanted to stay in contact, but that contact broke from my side, I think. She said “you got what you wanted so you don’t need us anymore.” There were phrases that I tried to incorporate in that scene. We worked together with three migrants for the last scene. We sat down with them and we said “this is what we want.”
Hendrikx demonstrates the two different worlds and their correlation in these three acts, but there is also another factor shown, more silent: the collapsing Europe. The beautiful yet wild Italian landscape, temples and monuments coming from a world very distant to us now, make their appearance between acts.
In the classes, we were so close and it was claustrophobic… There were no sounds from outside. In order to create a contrast we wanted to make these very wide shots. We needed as a part to reflect an exhale. I believe you inhale and exhale and you need them both. We found it interesting to make a reference in every wide shot to the European history, the Roman culture and empire. It is a little bit ambiguous and I like that. The shots are very beautiful or picturesque but you can also see how things are collapsing, they are falling apart.
Europe may be slowly fading away- time can only tell. Apparently, there are a lot of people glorifying its old days. How did they embrace the idea of this documentary?
When we tried to organize the first class, we had a lot of appointments and we were expecting around 13-15 people in the classroom. No one showed up. We only had 5 or 6 and they also walked away. I thought this was not going to work. But there was miscommunication. My fellow director who was assisting me with the shooting suddenly showed up with 15 migrants. That is the group you see in the film as well.
Traveling to Lampedusa and talking to all these people coming from war, hunger, poverty, danger, must have been really hard and stressful. He must have heard a tone of interesting stories.
There was this guy from Mali… When he went to Europe, he was half blind. He could only see through one eye. When he arrived in Italy, he went to the hospital and had a surgery. They gave him a blue eye. For me it was the personification of half Africa, half Europe in one person. It was an interesting symbol, the correlation. Why did they decide to give him a blue eye? He was a very nice guy, he wasn’t complaining, he wasn’t victimizing himself. He was actually quite grateful that he could have that operation. He said “I don’t have an opinion on Europe. I only speak for myself. I don’t want to judge anyone.” This guy, I still remember, he was a really, really interesting and special person.
How did this experience influence him, as a person?
It is a bit hard to say how was I influenced by this experience because I just finished with the project. The last 7 months I worked quite hard with deadlines. I don’t feel like I am in a position to reflect really on everything I experienced yet. I think it takes some time, always. For now I would say I have become a little more skeptical especially about the way the migrants are treated. In the Netherlands, there was always an image about how Italy is quite humane and how they treated migrants, but I visited some places, some camps. You become skeptical of whether they could really become part of the society because they are very isolated. They have no future perspectives. I think that the migrants who are either very clever or very persistent would be able to become part of the society.
Is the idea, the dream of a Paradise found in Europe, false, then?
There is a gap between what they [the migrants] expect and what their chances are. I don’t think all of them expect a paradise and they just sit down in a chair and the gold will come to them. Is it very naïve that they would like to get an education? Most of them would like to return. Just work and have an education is not totally unrealistic, I think. It’s just how do you organize something like this? It’s more a matter of perspective and perception. In the first act many people are really shocked and of course I understand it. It is very hard and direct and it is becoming populist and immoral. But that is our perception. You should also think where did those people come from and where are they now. All the people whom we had in the first act they just came from Libya. One thing we learnt when we were there and they explained how life was in Libya. It was a hell. They were treated like slaves. They were tortured randomly. One way, they have more life experience than we Europeans. It is interesting, this world of imagination is much different to us than from them. It is very difficult to say how it affects them.
Stranger in Paradise has definitely made an impression- hence the Award. Yet it isn’t easy for everyone to digest what they see:
Most people are impressed by the film. The problem, always ,is that, if someone doesn’t like it, they don’t say it. Most people like the epilogue because it gives another layer, it is what you need after the first 3 chapters. My intention was from the beginning to have this epilogue and I am happy with that. What was the most interesting reaction was this man in the first Q&A wondered why the Dutch authorities went to Italy to have this interview. He wasn’t even aware that the whole film was an act and I didn’t expect it. It is mentioned in the prologue, literally, but if you have some experience you can tell he is an actor. If you don’t know it by the first act, you have to know it by the second act. Apparently… The way Valentijn is playing is so stable and trustworthy that still people don’t realize or aren’t really conscious that this is an actor!
Stranger in Paradise is quiet some food for thought. It shows the ugly truth and the way it takes place really close to us. Will we keep ignoring it? Will we be able to create this Paradise, first for ourselves and then for those who are striving to get into it? I guess only time will tell. It is encouraging though to see that there are people who are willing to point out at what we are mishandling. I really hope that Hendrikx will have the audience he deserves with this documentary, so he manages to awake more of us.