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Where is the land of milk and honey? Swiss documentarist combines his own personal history with the predicament of African refugees crossing the Mediterranean, reminding Europe that fleeing poverty and persecution is no modern phenomenon - from the BFI London Film Festival

Markus Imhoof was just a little boy when his family welcomed a young Italian refugee named Giovanna into their home in Switzerland during WW2. Back then, Europe was in tatters, and the most vulnerable people came from within the continent, and not from across the Mediterranean. Nowadays, most refugees arriving in the wealthy Alpine nation come from sub-Saharan Africa. The colour of their skin is very different to Giovanna, yet their predicament has many similarities.

Both Giovanna and these Black refugees are seeking to reach the wealthiest and safest parts of Europe, and they are both fleeing violence. Most of these people come from the horn of Africa, particularly Ethiopia and Eritrea, countries still healing from civil conflicts and an independence war less than two decades ago. They arrive in Europe mostly via Italy – incidentally the country that colonised their nations in the 20th century.

The titular Eldorado is Switzerland and everything else north of it in Europe. A place of great abundance. There’s also a religious way of seeing it, as a refugee explains: Africa/ the Mediterranean is hell, Southern Europe (Italy) is purgatory and the rest above it is heaven. Imhoof cleverly sows together old letters and photos of Giovanna with dramatic images of EU ships rescuing refugees from overcrowded makeshift boats in the Mediterranean and the aftermath as they attempt to settle in Italy and Switzerland. These people were made to pay €1,500 per head by smugglers, we are informed.

There is one small piece of information that is very significant, particularly in the context of a film festival. Refugees are asked to step on a small red carpet in order to clean their shoes. Unbeknownst to them, the foot which they use (left or right) will determine their country of a destination. In festivals such as Berlin, Cannes and Venice, a red carpet is used to welcome film stars and celebrities. It is a place to shine. Here, the red carpet is a place of division, and it’s and symbolic the powerlessness of the refugee, entirely vulnerable to random circumstances.

The film ending is very powerful, as a tragic twist is revealed and the director makes an unequivocal statement about the nature of immigration, using an image of the globe with migratory routes in order to illustrate movement.

My only reservation about the film is that the camera is sometimes a little invasive, even if Imhoof is very well intentioned. Refugees demand not to be filmed at the “Ghetto” (a very precarious refugee camp in Italy), but images are still captured by a hidden camera. Plus the images of a family being denied entry in Switzerland, including a small girl having a tantrum, made me feel a little uncomfortable and question the boundaries of documentary-making.

Eldorado showed in the Competition (out of competition) of the 68th Berlin International Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. It premieres in the UK as part of the BFI London Film Festival taking place between October 10th and 21st.

By Victor Fraga - 22-02-2018

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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