Refugees on Film: Assessing the Political Strengths and Weaknesses of the Documentary Style
P. Stuart Robinson
Abstract: The article considers one dominant tendency of independent filmmaking, and its impact on the treatment of the refugee (broadly conceived): the application of contemporary documentary methods to both fiction and nonfiction works. The goal is a preliminary exploration of the complex, context-sensitive political effects of the approach, sometimes dubbed the “documentary style”, as resistance of (and/or submission to) the hegemonic global-nationalist order. To this end, the paper investigates specifically how such filmmaking efforts may—or may not—redirect the phenomenological vehicle of imagination away from narrow nationalist imaginaries towards a broader humanist identification and emotional (and normative) investment in the stranger or “the other” per se. The focus is on two works in particular, Another News Story (Orban Wallace, 2017) and Before Summer Ends (Avant la fin de l’été, Maryam Goormaghtigh, 2017), identifying how the filmmakers’ broadly pluralistic techniques help avoid the potentially dehumanising pitfalls of more didactic approaches, but also generate their own potential limitations. While the slackening of the subject’s categorical—and the plot’s narrative—shape may be liberating, it also risks a phenomenological disconnection on the part of the potentially interested spectator. The cognitive effects—including impediments to memory and recall—may thus weaken the work’s potential as a vehicle of cultural awareness and social identification.