Migratory Words

A recent film allows beauty amidst crisis, capturing the painful poems of migration

Iva Radivojevic’s five-part essay film Evaporating Borders is a poetic, meditative study of migration, xenophobia, and belonging in Cyprus. The film charts the contours of Cyprus’ growing migrant population and the racism and exploitation that in recent years have risen to greet it. Since the film premiered in 2014, the relatively stable (if precarious and tense) climate of Evaporating Borders has exploded into a full-blown global crisis. This past summer, Radivojevic returned to Europe to shoot Notes From the Border which documents the daily arrival of more than 2,500 refugees to the Macedonian border with Greece, prompting Macedonia to declare a state of emergency.

The comtemplative style of Evaporating Borders might seem ill-fitted to crisis; in my opinion, the film’s style is its strength, offering a counter to the alarmism of the mainstream news cycle. Radivojevic quietly and deliberately provides context for the Cypriot case; the long and troubled history of the Turkish occupation (a conflict which produced its own migrants and set the stage for racial and ethnic tensions to come); the wide spectrum of migrant populations making Cyprus their home, from Filipino domestic workers to rich Russian oligarchs; xenophobic groups’ invocation of Hellenic glory days; and the silver lining of anti-racist activism.

Radivojevic is herself the product of war-wrought migration. Born in Yugoslavia, displaced to Cyprus, and (mostly) based in New York City for now, Radivojevic operates from a sense that home is at once nowhere and everywhere. This sense of refracted, bifurcated belonging permeates Evaporating Borders and asks us to think about the more lasting legacies of migration. Recently, we discussed what she perceived to be the root causes of the crisis, how her film stands in contrast to Facebook click-bait, and the place for beauty amidst disaster.

I wanted to start by asking you about Evaporating Borders as it compares to the current context in Europe. The film seems to depict a more stable refugee situation, albeit an uneasy and delicate one. Since you filmed, what has changed in Cyprus?

When I compare what’s currently happening with refugees all over Europe with the situation in Cyprus back then, it seems like child’s play. Mild. In any case, when refugees are making decisions about how to travel when they leave home, they tend to go by word of mouth. Whatever route or passage works, they send note back to their families. And people started realizing that what happens when people go to Cyprus is they get stuck there. They might get stuck there for years — four, five, six years — waiting to get papers. So people started leaving without waiting for papers or for legal processes to get resolved. So what’s happening in Greece and in Turkey now, with the surge of refugees, none of that is happening in Cyprus for that reason.

So many of the refugees in Cyprus went to Greece and Turkey?

All of the refugees that I’ve filmed with left soon after. They went to Turkey or Australia – basically, anywhere besides Cyprus. But those were mostly Palestinian refugees.

I want to talk more about the current situation, but first let’s focus on Evaporating Borders. I wanted to ask you about the voiceover in the film. You speak in Greek, a language that is not your native language. You also adopt a fairly casual tone. Talk about your decisions for how you shaped the voiceover and why.

One of the things that was really important to me in this film is that even though I grew up in Cyprus and I speak the language, I’m both an insider and an outsider. And the language gives me this insider’s look, because once you speak the language, you understand the culture much better. At the same time, I’m an outsider, because it’s not where I’m from. It’s not my heritage. So I have to be very careful when I’m talking about this community. It’s mine, but it’s not mine. I’m also talking about refugees who are not my community either, or I’m not in their community, even though we have this connection point of displacement, of fleeing your country because of war or whatever. I have to be very sensitive in handling all of it. For me, it was extremely important to be transparent about who’s speaking and why they’re speaking about the situation of these people. To do that, I had to make myself vulnerable. And one way to make myself vulnerable is to be open, but another way is through language. I speak Greek the way I speak English, which is with an accent, so any Greek-speaking person would know that this is a foreigner.

I want to look closer at something you just said. I’ve been thinking a lot about your relative privilege. It comes across in a very interesting way in the film. On the one hand, because of your background, you connect in a specific way to the people that you meet, for example the Iraqi youth, the anarchist kid you meet on the street. You say, he reminds me of myself. At the same time, there’s a moment where you go to Palestine and you talk about the privilege you have in visiting Palestine that the refugees you talk to (who are mostly from the Middle East) don’t. How does this affect the relationships you develop with the people you meet?

It’s important for me that the people understand the gap between where I’m coming from into this story and where the refugees I talk to are. I don’t want to be talking about some absolute truth. I’m bringing my version of the story, and in order to do that, I need to be clear about what this privilege means. For me, it’s a matter of being transparent. How am I looking at these stories, from what point of view, and how am I implicated in the dynamics that I’m talking about?

There’s a point in the film where you say, I have no answers; can you do something? And yet you present a duality between ELAM, the xenophobic Greek Cypriot group, and the anti-racist, anti-facist activists that stage a counter-protest to their rally. It seems to me that these activists leave us with kind of a silver lining, like there is something to be done here. What do you make of that?

It’s very easy to feel helpless in these situations. When I say I don’t have answers, I don’t, but I think one thing the film advocates for is, it starts with me. Those activists have decided to speak out about these issues. They’re just as zealous about their views as ELAM, but it needs to be that way. In Cyprus, when I was growing up, there was no such thing as this lefty anarchist sort of group. That didn’t exist; that’s very recent. Or if it did exist, it was very subdued and invisible. So it’s a recent phenomenon, and it absolutely gives hope.

I’m curious about what Evaporating Borders tells us about identity. You yourself talk about having a hybrid identity, and it seems like a major theme in this film is the breakdown of legible categories that happens with migration. You seem to be pointing at a loss of a sense of self. At same time, there are these other categories that emerge: the criminalized refugee, for example. What are you trying to explore about identity in the face of migration?

I think there’s something very beautiful in tradition and culture and identifying with a specific tradition and culture. That creates who we are. At the same time, I can see the way that dynamic has been dangerous in Cyprus, with the rise of groups like ELAM and a government response treats refugees like criminals. With the title of the film, Evaporating Borders, I’m not saying that borders are disappearing. In part, I’m asking about the borders people create that don’t allow for difference.

Of course, these dynamics play out in complicated ways for people who’ve had to leave home. I grew up in two different places, and my parents are a mixed marriage and different religions. To identify with one thing is really difficult. At times, I feel like my background allows me to be more open, and at other times, I long to belong somewhere.

I relate to that, because my family’s from Puerto Rico and I grew up in Florida. There’s this ever-present feeling of an inability to feel at home anywhere. I keep expecting that I’m going to find my way home at some point. But I think that this is the position of diaspora, that sort of constant homelessness.

Right. But I found something really beautiful recently with that. I was visiting the former Yugoslavia, all the counties — Bosnia, Croatia, and so on — and then Greece and Cyprus. Because of language, I started to feel like I belong in multiple places, that multiple places are home. Of course, it’s a different kind of belonging.

It certainly contrasts with the starkness of ELAM, these images of people waving the Greek flag and shouting about Hellenic greatness. You’re rejecting a notion of cultural coherence in a certain way. You’re advocating for something radically different than the notion of racial purity that is growing in Europe.

Well, and besides the question of just opening up and being accepting, it’s important to say that structurally, this is caused by the West. This is a direct outcome of policies of Germany, of the US, England, and so on.

Along those lines, I want to talk about what’s happened with the Greek economy since you finished filming. In the mainstream media, the current refugee crisis is generally talked about is in terms of war and civil conflicts in the Middle East. In the film, you talk about – you’re at this market, and you say something like, Here the free flow of capital is celebrated; the free flow of the world’s citizens, not so much. What’s the relationship between forced migration, economic crisis, and austerity?

It all comes back to the economic and political system we live in. War, the refugee crisis, climate change, everything comes back to capitalism. Unless that starts to shift, nothing is going to change. Under economic austerity, people feel like, we’re losing what’s ours, and if I don’t have enough how can I give anything to you? Ultimately, policies about immigration and borders are about this economic system. And how does that change? Are we supposed to wait for benevolent company owners to change their way of dealing with things? But slowly things shift. There’s what happened in Greece this summer. The country objected to austerity. And in Spain you have Podemos, and stuff’s happening in Italy. Slowly, there are changes.

You very rarely show faces of people you interview. We generally just hear them in voiceover. At the same time, you focus on quotidian details of their lives: playing cards strewn on a carpet, beds, a cup of coffee, a plate of cookies. Why did you approach your conversations with people in this way?

I’m not a big fan of interviews in general. In some cases I felt I had to include them, because, for instance, how else would you know that that MP is so racist? A viewer should actually see him speaking. But what is most interesting to me is the disconnect between image and voiceover. It can become a synthesis that penetrates more deeply.

It contrasts with the images we see of shocking or more spectacular images that we’ve seen in the past months. I’m thinking in particular of the image of the three-year-old boy who drowned off the island of Kos. That image went viral on Facebook. People shared it and transformed it into their profile picture for a week, and then it kind of faded out. You seem to refuse a certain way of making images of people.

Yeah, I cannot get myself to film sensationalist things. That’s not the way I want to communicate. Even in Notes on the Border, the scene that shows people fighting for food, even that feels questionable to me. Because what are we saying about people – ok, we’re saying people are hungry, but to some people watching that can translate to, these people are animals. So I have to be very careful about what these images mean to different people. If I had shot a picture of a dead boy, would I have used it? I don’t know. It’s sad that this boy had to die for people to pay attention. Afterwards Merkel announced that Germany is welcoming Syrian refugees, but like you said, that’s temporary. A few weeks later, the borders close again. How do we create things that go deeper than that? That change your views and how you approach things, and not just because you feel bad?

This is one of my biggest questions about the film. In many ways, we have expectations – or at least some people feel that in order to document pressing global issues, one should not be interested in aesthetics, in beauty or poetry. I’m wondering what role poetry has here.

Poetry is how I know to connect with people. In Evaporating Borders, that last poem for me is basically what makes the film.

Can you talk a little bit about the poem?

My translator Zahra said, I have a friend who’s a refugee, he comes from Iraq, and he’s a poet. I’ll ask him if he has anything to send. And her friend sent this poem, “Sea Sickness” by Ghassan Saadon:

Beyond this vast sea
I left and never looked back
at the wreck that was implemented in my soul
by the hands of that sad lullaby that we call “home”
therefore when the sorrow washes my heart with salty tears,
I can see inside me
the piles of disappointment
sleeping soundly
we will never recover from this sea sickness,
no matter where we land.
And we will always vomit our dreams, our memories,
and the faces of those we left behind
until we spit the last piece of home
and die.

It basically summarized everything that the film was about. It gets across far more than if I was to show footage of someone being beaten up.

Hmm. How else can I talk about poetry?

Can I tell you something that I think when I watch the film? I think in the case of Evaporating Borders, poetry asks something of the viewer. When we are looking at spectacular images of suffering, there’s very little we have to do to understand. In a way it’s all there, put on display for us to consume. Part of what I experience in hearing that poem at the end of the film — I’m being asked to contemplate the experience of someone who may never return home and has to carry that with him for the rest of his life. It forces me to do more work.

And poetry can exist in multiple ways. It can exist in the image itself – and in the framing: the breaks of the film, the choice of words, and so on. It becomes an experience. You get drawn into an experience: feel this. Not watch it and process the information but feel it. I think it’s important and has a different effect than getting bombarded with information.

This brings me to the last question I want to ask you, and it’s about the way you end the film, by quoting W. E. B. DuBois. I forget the exact quote—

Who should let this world be beautiful?

Yeah. It seems to be part of the solution you’re trying to propose for this situation.

There are many contradictions in the film, and there are contradictions in us all the time. Here I am talking about refugees and the situation they’re in. I’m criticizing these fascist groups, but I sometimes fall prey to their ways of thinking, too. And that’s normal, but we have to question and break it apart and ask what is a beneficial way to participate in the world. That’s why that question at the end is so very important to me. I want to pose it to everybody else. I want people to ask themselves, how am I making this world more beautiful? How am I not?