The Black Mediterranean and the limits of liberal solidarity

A new documentary film addresses the complex entanglements of a violent Mediterranean passage.

Still from When Paul Came Over the Sea.

The Mediterranean has become a graveyard where black and brown bodies transit a hostile and deadly passage. While the rise of the far right in Europe and border externalization have resulted in a drastic drop of the number of refugees and migrants crossing the sea, more than 1,500 people have died so far in 2018 trying to reach Europe; making it one of the deadliest years. Far right policies, dead ideologies, and cultural wars also fundamentally altered Europeans’ view on issues of forced displacement, resettlement and solidarity.

When Paul came over the Sea is a now-celebrated documentary that highlights these issues through the encounter between two men: Jakob Preuss, a German filmmaker, former reporter and political advisor to the Green Party, and Paul Nkamani a Cameroonian migrant and political activist, whose work against the autocratic government in his home country resulted in him being expelled from university and abandoning his dream of being a diplomat.

Preuss lays out what is at stake from the perspectives of both the migrant and the European. The documentary opens in an informal settlement on the outskirt of Melilla, a Spanish exclave located on the Moroccan side of the Mediterranean, where Paul and other Cameroonian migrants live while waiting for an opportunity to reach Europe. The candid conversations between Preuss and camp residents and Nkamani’s story of his journey from Douala through Nigeria, Mali and Algeria, offer an important summary of the conditions and motives behind forced displacement of African migrants.

The major tension in the film revolves around Jakob’s decision whether to become an active part of Paul’s pursuit of a better life, or to remain a detached filmmaker. This suggests the limits of solidarity at work in the project. The documentary’s epigraph further motivates this observation: A quote by Frederik Douglas on migration as a fundamental and undeniable human right, and another by Paul Collier, from his book Exodus: How migration is changing our world, in which he rehearses an argument that refugees are drawn by Europe’s generous welfare systems. Throughout the film, Preuss is on the fence between the two.

While other documentaries on the refugee crisis, such as Ai Weiwei’s Human Flowavoided analysisWhen Paul came over the Sea attempts to be too informative; there is overemphasis on actors and policies such that the voices of both protagonists are relegated to the background. Preuss focuses on feeding the curiosity and interests of a European/German spectator who wants to find in his documentary available answers to a hotly discussed topic and draw easy conclusions on the refugee issue.

Throughout the documentary, Preuss’ political activism feeds his ethical approach to the question of the Black Mediterranean: How should the European subject react to the refugee issue? The central ethnographic narrative attempts to uncover the many sides of the Mediterranean issue beginning with Nkamani’s reasons to migrate, to his struggle to settle in Germany. In contrast to Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, Preuss’ investigative preoccupation and analytical aesthetics spares viewers the widely circulated and grim images of drowned bodies. The deadly passage is narrated instead through Nkamani’s memories and language. Still, the filmmaker organizes and manages the visual narrative of his social and political relationship with Nkamani in the service of particular identity politics that always produces the other as a subject in need of rescue. Again, the white male hero is faced with an incomparable challenge to his political potency. Preuss’s anxiety mirrors Germany’s political and cultural responses to the refugee issue at the national level.

Counter to this driving interest, Nkamani emerges as a larger-than-life figure whose refined personality, superb emotional intelligence and strong communication skills allow him to navigate complex and hostile spaces that cut across gender, race and class. In a revealing moment, we see him, after surviving the crossing to Spain in which half of his companions drowned, chatting over the internet with someone who remained in the Moroccan camp. The camera zooms on Paul writing news of his last moments with one of his friends; he then decides to delete what he has written and replace it with a more delicate and compassionate statement.

While the meeting between Preuss and Nkamani is framed as accidental, it becomes clear, as the film develops, that their encounter wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for their intellectual, political, and professional affinities. Moments after Nkamani is introduced, Preuss narrates: “I will never be sure if I chose him or if he chose me… in any case this is the story of our encounter.”

Their relationship cannot however be framed as a friendship. Rather, it uncovers the limits of solidarity at work in the documentary. From the start, their meeting is motivated by pragmatic, mutual interest. In Nkamani, Preuss finds an interlocutor who allows him to have a clear and balanced discussion. Such a meaningful exchange is what fulfills the filmmaker’s desire to investigate the dynamics of the refugee experience. Nkamani is a complex character, who appropriates and stages different and conflicting discourses to negotiate and ensure his safety. During his stay at the Red Cross shelter and quite aware of the guiding sympathies of European refugee policies, he asks the Red Cross instructor about “how can one prove his homosexuality?” in order to ask for political asylum. The Senegalese instructor tells him “you need to have a good story to tell.” Nakamani further questions, “To prove that you are homosexual do they ask you to do it?” These questions suggest that he is capable of mobilizing a rhetoric of false victimhood to secure the sought-after refugee status. In a video released a few months after the documentary, we see Nkamani giving his “message back home” in which he urges anyone thinking of migrating to Europe “to do it the legal way.” This is a stark departure from what he states at the beginning of the film, that sub-Saharan migrants and refugees are “nothing but a burden… that’s why [they] have to leave… [and join] those who were lucky with jobs” in Europe.

The documentary’s emphasis on the personal and the ethical manages to introduce often overlooked dimensions of the Mediterranean passage, such as religion, masculinity, interracial communication and dreams. In an almost lyrical scene, Preuss and Nkamani reflect on their dreams: Preuss recalls a nightmare in which he leaves Nkamani behind in a metro station, and fears of his arrest, while Nkamani recounts dreaming of filth, rubbish and waste and explains that “at home, you always interpret dreams of the opposite way.”

When Paul came over the Sea oscillates between the rational and uncanny, between the ethical and the subjective to offer an important documentary. Despite its forced narrative and overly ambitious intentions, it is a hopeful examination of the complex relationship between Europeans and African migrants and a must-see for those interested in the Mediterranean migration issue.

Further Reading

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