The Difficult Questions
Director Markus Imhoof brings together the intensely personal with the sociopolitical in his latest documentary, “Eldorado” the story of Europe’s modern refugee failures that he balances against his recollection of his own experience of his family offering shelter to a young Italian girl during the Second World War. Since what is happening today is the biggest since then, it’s a fair point of comparison and one which gives an additional emotional charge as he returns again and again to the concept of who we consider to be “us” and how we put “I” first no matter what.
Others have dealt with this in the past but Imhoof opens the debate to consider the economics of the situation with the personal touchstone ensuring that his film retains a character of its own. As Imhoof looks through old family photos, he recalls how their ‘adopted’ refugee Giovanna looked when he first saw her. This echoes the modern footage of medics triaging the newly rescued – many of who are weak from exhaustion or simply bewildered by circumstance. He describes Giovanna’s story, a story like other stories. We see the human urge to help is and the dedication of those whose lives are marked by the regular pick up of people in over laden boats is clear and is not the hoped-for paradise. A refugee currently in Italy talks about paradise again, and his current predicament in what he refers to as ‘purgatory’.
Away from the boats, the director speaks into a camera at one of the many makeshift camps that have sprung up and which are run by mafia capos, who get rich from the refugee men’s labor in the tomato fields. He goes back to Switzerland, the border between his homeland and Italy scarcely to consider the way that refugees are fulfilling much-needed roles in society such as caring for the elderly but they are also snared by red tape and sent back to the place they fear most. Imhoof digs into the economics. How the product of the slave labor of the tomato pickers will likely be bought by their relatives back home using what little money those working in the fields can send them, or the way that European Union milk production is killing the ability of farmers in Africa to make a profit. These are, perhaps simplified and small examples, but they say a great deal about a global trading ring that creates a vicious circle for Africa.
There is a sprawling quality to the film, and the two time-period narrative takes a while to find a smooth flow, but Imhoof makes sure to it all and he gives a good balance of factual information and personal testimony, both from himself and others.
The film is about both the movement of people and the movement of profit and while the bank balance of Europe may come out looking good, it is morally bankrupt. Halfway through the film, “an Italian humanitarian compares the journey of an African refugee to that of Dante Alighieri’s epic poem. First there is the hell of traveling north through Libya, crossing the Mediterranean, second there is purgatory, arriving in Italy and then finally the paradise of arriving in Northern Europe.”
Director Markus Imhoof shares his childhood in Switzerland and his relationship with Giovanna, a young Italian refugee his family adopted during the war. The politics that tore him and his newfound sister apart are used as a way to look at the journey of African migrants arriving in Europe. Imhoof refers back to his perspective as a child, the confusion, trying to figure out why there are borders and why some countries are stable and others are not.
We see the stages that the refugees experience upon arriving in Europe. The director spends time with the Italian coast guard responsible for rescuing them from seas and making sure they are healthy. Most of these people are shell-shocked or relieved to be on dry land but their expectations of Europe are soon broken as they try to make a living. We go into the refugee centers where the newcomers await the verdict on their destiny. Some are deported and others find menial work. Those who refuse deportation are welcomed by the mafia in work camps, where they live in squalor and slave for pennies. We see the ugly realities of the refugee crisis with Imhoof asking the difficult questions and answering them with humanity.