Filmmaker: Stephan Bookas

Refugee Blues by W. H. Auden

Poet: | Nationality: , | Filmmaker: ,

This 2016 film co-directed by Stephan Bookas and Tristan Dawes moved me to tears. That’s how effective, and affecting, I found this juxtaposition of W. H. Auden’s poem (text here) about Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany—read by a man identified only as Noah, a refugee and former child soldier from Uganda—with excellent documentary footage of contemporary refugees. Here’s the official synopsis from Bookas’ website:

Set to the verses of W.H. Auden’s 1939 poem, the multi-award winning “Refugee Blues” charts a day in ‘the jungle’, the refugee camp outside Calais. More intimate and unlike much of what has been seen in the mass media, this documentary poem counterpoints the camp’s harsh reality of frequent clashes with the French riot police with its inhabitants’ longing for a better future.

On Vimeo, Bookas includes a mini essay about the making of the film, which I found illuminating in its suggestion of how documentary poetry can differ from journalism. This was something I’d been thinking about because I recently attended a reading and slideshow from another documentary poetry project, which was a collaboration between a poet and a photojournalist: Julia Spicher Kasdorf and Steven Rubin’s Shale Play: Poems and Photographs from the Fracking Fields. Technically, Auden’s poem by itself would not be considered an example of documentary poetry, but as a filmpoem Refugee Blues certainly would qualify, in my opinion. Anyway, I hope Mr. Bookas won’t mind my quoting a sizable chunk of his post:

We didn’t set out to make a film at first – that idea came later – we just packed a car full of blankets, clothes, food and other items and went, not fully knowing what to expect. But of course, being filmmakers, we also brought along our cameras – to see if we might have the opportunity to document, to capture, to find the human story in all the chaos that was so ubiquitous in the media at the time.

Soon after our arrival, we found the people living at the refugee camp to be very warm and welcoming, as long as we assured them we weren’t news-gathering journalists.

We didn’t film anything to begin with and just walked around, introduced ourselves as documentary filmmakers and listened to people and their stories. Every single one of them was unique and heartbreaking.

Following these discussions, we asked if it would be alright to take out our cameras and start filming. For the most part the answer was a resounding yes.

We spent the following days exploring the camp and talking to people, discussing the situation and the political climate and spending time with them, being invited for coffee and food and allowed to film elements of their daily lives. This turned out to be the calm before the storm, as things culminated in a clash between the camp’s inhabitants and the French riot police on the road leading to the ferry terminal, symbolic for the plight of the refugees and their struggle against institutional powers they are unable to defend themselves against. […]

Of course, our film can’t possibly even begin to try and unravel all the lives and personal fates entangled within this crisis. But in some small way, and for us especially, it has given this tragedy a face that’s less abstract, more relatable, more human.

Read the full post (including complete credits).