Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Flotel Europa – footage from 20 years ago that speaks to the refugee crisis today #belfest

“Welcome to Flotel Europa” said the Danish Red Cross worker as Vladimir and his family boarded the five storey ship berthed in Copenhagen harbour.

In the summer of 1992, the young boy escaped Sarajevo along with his older bother and mother and came to Copenhagen. 1000 refugees from the former Yugoslavia were housed in a floating accommodation block: five storeys of white prefabricated living quarters and common areas held together in a steel framework.

With an unreliable phone line, someone on the boat bought two second hand VHS cameras and taped messages were recorded and sent to relatives back home.

Vladimir Tomic became a film maker. Flotel Europa is his story of two years spent living on a ship, told by splicing together the surviving video footage with TV news reports from the conflict he had fled.

We can learn much about today’s crisis by reflecting on the testimony from two decades before.

Privacy could be found in the very basic sleeping, just a little wider than you’d find on the Caledonian Sleeper train today. Food preparation, recreation and the TV room were all shared spaces. The children learnt Danish and English in a Bosnian school. Traditions from home were celebrated along with opportunities to learn more about Danish culture.

Flotel Europa is partly a coming of age biopic as we watch Tomic fall in with older friends who romance the Copenhagen girls while he shyly pursues his infatuation with a girl Melisa he sees dancing on board the ship. (She’s seen the film and liked it!)

Watching the film in the Queen’s Film Theatre as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival, I couldn’t help wonder whether Tomic was inspired to make the film about the 1990s by the scenes of refugees now arriving in Europe. Rather than being housed in ships while waiting for their asylum applications to be processed, some are being accommodated in Greek registration camps.

Flotel Europa and Tomic’s retrospective analysis of his childhood years spent in Copenhagen is an object lesson about 2016.

There’s the same lack of privacy and long-term temporary living; the same need to learn new languages and integrate with new cultures; the same uncertainty about future location and employment and finance; the same worries about family who stayed behind and sudden phone calls bringing tragic news.

We see old divisions from the Bosnian war slowly re-emerge as the refugees settle into their new circumstances. Tensions that may be felt in modern day camps too. There’s also a realisation that after a couple of years on board Flotel Europa that the refugees have been trapped living in a bubble and isolated from opportunity. Familiar too are protests at conditions on board the vessel (rats and disease) and impatience with the speed of the asylum process and provision of more permanent landlocked accommodation. And his mother’s strength of character and hiding of emotion can be seen today in the faces of refugees holding families together with a stability that belies their inner turmoil.

The narration is gentler than a Mark Cousins flâneur film shot over a couple of days in a new city and the finished work is all the more remarkable having been pieced together from fragments of cloth created more than twenty years ago and never intended to be stitched into pieced into a coherent tapestry.

In the 1990s, the TV room in the floating apartment block was the hub for incoming news, full of people watching the international news reports and straining to see familiar faces. Today, media consumption is less collective with the mobile phone and its access to family and news more important than a torch for anyone displaced from their home.

Flotel Europa, with its twenty year perspective, is a fine way - albeit with a couple of adult themes amongst the seventy minutes - of thinking again about today’s crisis and our response to the needs on our doorsteps.

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