Caterina Bonora, Jakob Brossmann

The plight of migrants trying to reach Europe in desperate journeys across land and sea has been described in countless reportage and documentary films. We have grown accustomed to the pictures of the ramshackle rubber boats teeming with people, and the sense of exhaustion and despair that they evoke. But we can hardly imagine what happens after these tragic moments, because we are rarely shown the rest of the story.

Jakob Brossmann’s Lampedusa in Winter is one of few documentaries that manage to expand the scene beyond the few cliché images we are served by the mainstream media and restores the humanity of both the refugees and the people whom they first meet here—the Lampedusani.

The Italian island of Lampedusa, situated closer to the Tunisian coastland (only 70 miles away) than to Sicily (127 miles), has been the first European outpost to receive the refugee flows from northern Africa for almost two decades. Hundreds of thousands of people have passed through this small island of 6,000 inhabitants in their effort to reach Europe. However, the island has become visible to the international public only after the increase in refugee flows since the 2011 Arab Spring, and particularly after the tragic shipwreck of October 3, 2013, when over 360 migrants lost their lives. And yet, its visibility has been very partial, with the main focus lying on the shipwrecks, the rescue missions, and the “masses” of migrants arriving.

The film reveals that there is a whole life on the island along and beyond the refugee emergency. The migrants are not fully integrated in this life—they are just waiting to leave the island and continue their journey up north—but they are still an active part of it. They are shown staging a protest for their right to free movement, just like the Lampedusani are later on shown protesting in the main harbor for their right to a decent ferry service to the mainland—the islanders depend on the ferry for food and medical supplies, as well as for waste disposal. The two groups appear to share a similar isolation and struggle not to be forgotten by the mainland.

The documentary takes on lighter tones when it provides glimpses of ordinary life in Lampedusa—the coastguards cleaning their cabins, the local junior football team preparing for the next match, the carnival parade timidly approached by a group of migrants. These ethnographic vignettes never reduce the protagonists to a stereotype of refugees, of islanders, or even of do-gooders. Perhaps that is why the documentary was so well received by the Lampedusani themselves.

Starting on June 20, World Refugee Day, the film has been made available in 9 different languages on a series of VOD platforms, thanks to the support of the UNHCR and other sponsors.

On the occasion of its first broad distribution, I decided to learn a bit more from its director, Viennese documentarist Jakob Brossmann. We discussed his motivations, approach and experience of shooting Lampedusa in Winter.

Caterina Bonora: A first question to collocate the film in time: did you start filming it in the winter just after the big tragedy of October 2013?

Jakob Brossmann: I had already been working on the film since the summer of 2011. The events you see in the film are mainly recorded in the winters of 2013 and 2014. Such tragedies are happening constantly, again and again. It is the media attention that changes. We had witnessed the same with the Arab Spring in 2011 [and its flow of refugees from Northern Africa], after which Lampedusa was forgotten again. And it was then that I decided that I wanted to present the island and all the things that are happening on and around it in a different perspective than mainstream television and news sources did until this point. And suddenly, without us knowing, it became a hotspot again.

CB: Because of the October 2013 shipwreck and the high number of victims…

JB: And we were asking ourselves if we should film directly after the tragedy. We could have been there directly after the shipwreck and see all the media gatherings and the politicians arriving, but I decided not to focus on the peak of the media attention. The whole project, as reflected in the decision to do it in winter, is a film about the long term living with the so-called emergenza, a term that became a permanent description for living in crisis in Italy.

CB: So the winter also metaphorically represents the quotidian problems that are there all the time and that are not so visible otherwise, in the summer, or to the tourists…

JB: It is also an approach that is very necessary in this question of refugee and migration, because the short media attention span doesn’t allow us to see beyond the catastrophe. We are just thrown from one headline to the other and from one catastrophe to the next. There is no space in newsgathering to describe the life of the Lampedusani people who have lived with migration for a very long time. This situation has been going on for 20 years in Lampedusa, and no other place in the world has been exposed in such a way to the arrival of refugees and migrants. So the idea was to move away from the heat of media attention, to look at normal life. We realized that most of the problems the people in Lampedusa are facing, are in fact not connected with the arrival of migrants. And this is, as I see it, a very important observation that we can apply all over Europe.

CB: So that’s the reason why you chose Lampedusa as your next project? What exactly was your motivation?

JB: In my artistic work and previous films I had already been working on the question of refugees and migration and back then I was working on a fiction film script about Jewish refugees trying to reach Switzerland in the 1940s. Up to 100,000 Jewish refugees were pushed back by the Swiss military. I was working on that project when the Arab spring was at its peak, I saw those TV reports and heard the name of Lampedusa again and again—there was often only the word Lampedusa with numbers and pictures of overcrowded refugee boats moving towards the camera. While seeing those pictures I started wondering what was there beyond the camera, how did the place look like where those people disembarked. But you could never see that place. And the fact of not being able to see that place started, as I experienced it, to create a void. In horror films, this technique is used a lot, because what you don’t see is what scares you the most. Europe and the European media is looking at the refugees coming towards us but we never see them being here. And I had the feeling back than that there was a lot of fear. So I wanted to show life on the island where they arrived, the reality that is not described in the TV reports. It may sound like the film is a critique of journalism, which it is to a certain extent, but in fact the work of the journalist is very important. However, it cannot supply us with all the information, with all the sensations, with all the thoughts that we need, in order to reckon with the situation. Because journalism is bound by limits of money and limits of time and by its own task to be short and precise, and it is not the job of the evening news to tell me that there are people in Lampedusa living a normal life. There are people everywhere living a normal life! But as time passed by, Lampedusa became such a strong symbol that no one could even imagine anymore that Lampedusa had some normal life.

So I wanted to break the formula: refugee equals catastrophe. But I couldn’t articulate that in the beginning. When I arrived the first time to Lampedusa honestly I was a bit disappointed because it was so…normal. The problems of the Lampedusani people seemed so banal at first sight. And then I realized, maybe this is good news, this is something we should reflect on and look at them, at how they cope. Because in some way they represent us Europeans and in another they are a very impressive example: I haven’t witnessed racism or xenophobia in Lampedusa, and this is something I think you feel in the film as well. I am sure that there are some racist and xenophobic people there, but they are not allowed to speak publicly. This is something quite special, and there are many theories why Lampedusa is dealing with migrants the way it does. One of them is that the moment you are actually exposed to the Other, when the encounter is happening, there is no space for hatred. We saw it also now, years later, in Vienna, that the anti-refugee mood collapsed in the quarters of Vienna where the refugee homes were established. So before opening the refugee centers in Vienna, there was about 25% of the population opposing the opening of centers and now, ever since they have been opened, only 12% of the population wants them to be closed. So in this encounter there is something very precious, which the Lampedusani people experience with another intensity than the rest of us Europeans.

For them, it is not just numbers, for them it is real people. Whom they meet of course only in very intense moments, because police and military still try to keep the two groups separated through the system of the camp. But as you see in the film, when the refugees are so desperate because they are not being listened to and are stuck on the island for months, they start to break out of the camp and the Lampedusani people start to meet them. And this is another question I was very curious about. How people deal with witnessing all the suffering and all the tragedy—every refugee arriving is bringing also very sad stories, as well as a lot of hope for a better life. And Lampedusani people know a lot about the conditions in which the migrants have to flee, why they do that and what their hopes are. And they also know a lot about how their hopes are destroyed by the way Europe is treating people who are arriving, who want to become new Europeans.

And something that really struck me was that the discourse around the topic is so different in Europe mainland than it is in Lampedusa. When I arrived there honestly I had the idea that people fleeing across the sea was something kind of logical. And this is because of the way it is described all the time in the media, while it is not very often discussed that they could come by plane: it’s not logical, it’s not given by nature that people have to risk their lives to ask for their basic right, the human right to asylum. This is something I understood in Lampedusa, and I understood it because local people discuss it all the time.

CB: So they actually wonder why it has to be this way, why there is no easier way to ask for asylum…

JB: Exactly. What you can see in Lampedusa, and what Lampedusani people understood before us, is how politics shape the destiny of hundreds thousand of people, of millions of people, in a really cruel and bizarre way. Those people who died in the Mediterranean Sea could have come by plane, could have asked for asylum in the European embassies, but, and this is the most important point, there are no legal ways for refugees to come to Europe.   

CB: And now there are even efforts by the EU to stem the migration flows in Niger and other African countries.

JB: Yes, they tried it before, it’s not so new. Before the Arab spring there were agreements with many states of the Southern Mediterranean and someone that was really successful in keeping migrants away was Gaddafi. In his Coastguard there were even ships donated to him by Italy. Since the bombardment of Libya, and this ongoing civil war that nobody is talking about, there are no partners on the other side of the Mediterranean.

CB: And what do you think would be a more sustainable policy on the side of the EU toward this crisis?

JB: Well, that’s a huge question. We are living the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War, there are sixty million people on the run worldwide, but two thirds of them are internally displaced. They have never even left their home country, they are only refugees within the borders of their own country. So if you put in relation 20 million refugees worldwide and the first world is almost a billion people, counting approximately, we have 500 million Europeans inside the EU, plus Australia, the US, Canada… In short, those refugees could be resettled with dignity, and at the same time the pressure in the refugee camps and in those countries that are now hosting them, like Lebanon, could be eased considerably.

The countries that are taking care of refugees in the biggest numbers now are all third-world countries, so a resettlement, a well-designed resettlement, could take a lot of pressure off of those regions, which would not only help a lot of the refugees that are still there, but also the economy of those places. And I think we have to overcome this push-pull thinking. In Europe everyone is thinking about how we can avoid attracting refugees, so the pull factor is highly overrated. And I believe that by making the journey, at least the end part, less dangerous, less expensive and less traumatizing, people would also have another approach on maybe leaving again, if they don’t like what they found here. It is easier to leave Europe in case you are not granted asylum, if you haven’t spent everything you have and lost a brother on the way here, if you could have just entered a plane, paid for a visa, and flown here…from Syria the ticket to Vienna is 400 to 600 euros one way. And the other point is…to deal with climate change and build up sustainable economies south of the Sahara, because the next issue will be climate refugees.

CB: Getting back to the film and the making of it, to a certain extent making such a documentary is a bit of an anthropological endeavor: being there for a long time, getting to know the place very well, the people...

JB: Yes, it is in a way a very open process. We got many awards, but I am especially proud of an award that was given us by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—they have an Ethnographic Film Award. I believe that you have to open up to people, be there for a long time with them to understand what their concerns are.  As Lampedusa is very often featured in the media, and people have given a lot of interviews there, I felt that it was extremely important not to ask the same questions again, but to be there, live with them, accompany them with the camera and win their trust. Because through their lives, and the situation that they lived through, they are giving a statement, a stronger one than in words, because you witness it with your own eyes. We are told so many things all the time, but the power of observational documentary, as I see it, is that you can witness the context yourself, through the eyes of the documentary team who had the privilege to spend a lot of time in places where other people can’t go.

CB: As you describe it, it really sounds a bit like the work of researchers. Some of the problems are the same, for instance, the local people being asked the same questions over and over again, by people that then go away and don’t really give anything back to the community. They just go there, take the piece of information and then leave.

JB: Yes, and they don’t have any control anymore about what is done with that. So, that was a concern. But at the same time we wanted to make a film that is also telling a story, and the camera must be ready and on the right place when things are happening.
We tried to make a film that is very open and observational, and not pushing you in any direction and not telling you what to feel and what to think. But at the same time we wanted to tell a story and to be approachable and also entertaining, because the people of Lampedusa—they also enjoy their lives, they know how to live! So we wanted to make a film that was not only for a small group of experts, but accessible for people that are not experts in documentary films or ethnographic films.

CB: But you also filmed a very political side of the island that is not related to everyday life, nor to the refugee crisis, but rather to the problems of the island and the way that they islanders deal with them, like the fishermen’s strike.  

JB: For me those things have a very strong impact on the community and at the same time they can give you a very good and strong insight into the community. In a very small village like Lampedusa, with 6,000 inhabitants, everyone knows what the ideas of the neighbor are, so they don’t discuss certain topics all the time. So as an observational filmmaker you have to think about situations where people start to talk…and to fight again (laughs).

CB: And that was kind of random that you were there when the strike happened…

JB: No, we knew that Lampedusa has a lot of problems, and if it hadn’t been the ferry, it would have been the school building, which is almost collapsing, or it would have been the problem with the garbage or the problem with the drinking water. There are so many different problems. So we didn’t know it would be the ferry, but we were prepared to find something that would concern all of the Lampedusani population very much.

CB: And talking about Lampedusa’s politics now, did you see that Giusi Nicolini, the former mayor of Lampedusa, was not reconfirmed in office? Do you think that was also related to the immigration problem?

JB: No, I think it has mainly to do with the way Giusi was celebrated at the political level in Italy, especially by the media. She became a sort of media star, and things like that create a very strong friction in a small community. I felt it was a little like the Obama effect. There was so much hope put into her and she received so many awards from all over the world and that created a lot of disappointment eventually. So I believe it has more to do with her success, than with her failures.

CB: You have also prepared some accompanying material for schools that screen the film. Did you have a pedagogical purpose when you shot the film?

JB: No, we shot the film as a documentary in the way we thought it would be appropriate. I wanted it to be a representation of what I could witness on Lampedusa and a contribution to the debate that is going on in Europe. I wanted it to be approachable for different groups, not only for documentary filmmakers. And I was surprised by the success of the film. I was surprised to be able to screen it at Locarno Film Festival, and to even get a cinema release in Austria—for a first-time documentary, it’s something very special. I realized how important a film can be, and we started to have discussions with students in schools, we have had plenty of screenings and debates. And I was really surprised by the students—most of them were like 12, 13, 14 years old—how accurately they observed what they saw in the film and how fast they were able to draw parallels with their own lives.

So I was very grateful for this experience. And it encouraged me to continue making films in a way that is not presenting you with the results, but rather giving you the opportunity to be a witness, to observe and draw conclusions for yourself.

Lampedusa im Winter. Austria, Italy, Switzerland, 2015. 93 min.

Jakob Brossmann is a fiction and documentary filmmaker from Vienna, Austria. He studied Stage and Film Design at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. He is the director of the short film Rückruf (Call Back), 2010 and Tagwerk (A Day’s Work), 2011. For Lampedusa in Winter he won several awards, including the Österreichischer Filmpreis for best documentary.

Caterina Bonora is associate editor at Warscapes. Twitter: @cate_bonora.