. Conversations at the Edge (CATE)

Daniel Eisenberg’s Introduction to Les Messagers

Posted by | Nicky Ni | Posted on | October 18, 2018

To recapture yesterday’s screening of Les Messagers by French filmmakers Hélène Crouzillat and Laetitia Tura, we are sharing the text of Daniel Eisenberg’s beautiful introduction to the program. Daniel Eisenberg is Professor in Film, Video, New Media, and Animation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has been making films and videos at the edges of documentary and experimental media for thirty years.

In the late winter of 2017, as I was just beginning a stay in Berlin, my friend Nathanäel sent me a link to Les Messagers.  The film you are about to see describes a condition of extremes; of economic and political hardship, and a confrontation with the post-colonial condition that’s been sustained for decades. The situation of African migrants to Europe has ebbed and flowed over many years, but at this very moment has reached crisis condition…

Over the past few months, as Libya has cracked down on African migrants seeking to flee to Europe, and as Italy has clamped down on migrants who make it to their shores, Morocco has become the latest jumping-off point from the African continent for those who’ve given up everything to go to Europe. One flash point is Ceuta. It’s a Spanish enclave at the northern tip of the country, just 14 km from the European mainland. And although Ceuta and the other Spanish-flagged city on the African mainland Melilla, are just the latest points of departure for those desperate enough to risk their lives and whatever resources they may have for the unknown journey to Europe, this migration becomes visible to us only in moments of crisis.

Since the catastrophic migration of Syrian and Afghan refugees from their homelands in 2015, the silent and segregated presence of the foreigner, the stranger, and the exile, became ubiquitous on the streets of Europe’s major cities, a daily confrontation with the assumptions of privilege and distance… as we well know, our northern, western privilege allows us to live at a distance from the effects of that privilege: the colonial and post-colonial legacies, the dominion of economies that are based on remote cheap labor, resource extraction, and client state control. Who would want to live in these places?  The better question to ask is, how dire must life get to leave one’s home, family, culture, language and way of life? For leaving is a wager against the long odds of losing everything, including your life.

Differentiation begins to be felt… one is classified as a war refugee, another someone seeking amnesty, yet so many others, who do not fit into these neat European, juridical classifications remain present.  They are classified as economic refugees, and suffer the fate of in-between-ness. They are mostly Black, mostly African, and come from places as extreme as these others, but are not legally recognized as being in life-threatening conditions. Searching for subsistence, survival, or better job prospects and a higher standard of living is not something ones does easily. Economic refugees see little opportunity to escape poverty in their own countries and are willing to start over in a new country for the chance at a better life.

In a classic strategy of nationalist and racial politics: those on the right have instrumentalized the migrant as a threat to their own national way of life – an economic and cultural interloper, threatening cohesion and continuity. But the reality is quite different:  In the June 20, 2018 issue of Nature, the International Journal of Science, the headline reads:

“Migrants and refugees are good for economies”: Analysis of 30 years of data from Western Europe refutes suggestions that asylum seekers pose a financial burden.

So the real question is: what are the real motivations for these xenophobic responses? And perhaps a deeper question? Where does the responsibility lie for the historically catastrophic upheaval of peoples and cultures that the colonial adventure produced in the global south over the last 500 years?  That’s a big question indeed… but we shouldn’t shy away from asking it.

As for Les Messagers, I would only say that the film is not interested in a particular moment of crisis but the larger crisis in general. Seeing the larger condition through personal terms allows us to confront it with our senses, and through the poetic powers of cinema. That’s a power unique to this space and these tools.

In a letter to a friend just after the war in 1946, the prescient Norwegian writer Stig Dagerman wrote:

“A journalist I have not yet become, and it doesn’t look as if I’ll ever be one. I have no wish to acquire all the deplorable attributes that go to make up a perfect journalist. I find it hard to understand the people I meet at the Allied Press hotel – they think that a small hunger-strike is more interesting than the hunger of multitudes. While hunger-riots are sensational, hunger itself is not sensational, and what poverty-stricken and bitter people here think, becomes interesting only when poverty and bitterness break out in a catastrophe. Journalism is the art of coming too late as early as possible. I’ll never master that.”

I made a commitment to Nathanäel to find a way to bring the work to our students, to make visible one of the most important and chronic crises of our age.  I am thankful to Amy Beste and Nathanäel for their persistence in finding the right time and place for the film, and of course, to Letitia and Helene for their extraordinary, poetic work.