“Invisible City [Kakuma],” a film by Belgian director Lieven Corthouts, begins with the tagline “can you build a home in a place called nowhere?” The thing is, the place in focus, Kakuma, is not actually called nowhere.
This may seem like a petty remark to start a review of a film that has won various awards, but this documentary is actually based on this distinction of Kakuma, the second largest refugee camp in Kenya, as nowhere—supposedly a direct translation from an unnamed “local language” we are assuming is Swahili. This is emphasized by Corthouts who continuously stresses that this place is an invisible city on a “lost road.” For me these forced distinctions symbolize, ultimately, what I found the documentary to be: keen on making a point but anchored on unsteady ground (with some shitty translation).
In the official description on the film’s website, it reads: “… in a world hit by in-human political decision making, this film wants to draw attention to the ongoing crisis in the Horn of Africa,” and notes that it “wants to be an antidote to the growing xenophobia.” To do so, it focuses on the hopes and dreams of three protagonists in Kakuma refugee camp: Nyakong a beautiful 8-year-old girl from South Sudan who has come to Kakuma without her mother; Claude, a 17-year-old from Congo who has left because of violence in his home village, and Khadijo who arrived from Somalia with her family when she was two years old and is consumed by dreams, so we are told, of getting a scholarship to study in Canada.
Images of these characters daily lives are shown. At various times Nyakong is captured walking to class, speaking to her mother on the phone and cooking with and for her adopted family. Khadijo comes to us principally in a classroom and working in her mother’s clothes shop, and Claude is filmed in various locations: doing construction work, getting a haircut, cooking and talking with friends.
It is nice to see the mosaic of life in Kakuma, and without a doubt the cinematography is striking. But because we hear about and connect these three lives principally through the third-party narration of the filmmaker, one is not convinced that their lives intersect, and may come to the conclusion, as I did, that they are brought together here in the forced pursuit of answers to the following questions provided in the filmmakers synopsis: “Can a camp really offer a future? Or is it just a waiting room, where the only option is to plan your journey to Europe?”
Let us be generous for a moment: for sure it is important that we acknowledge attempts for good in an inhuman world and to use all mediums to counter growing xenophobia. It is also human, beautifully so, to make accessible and value mundane images of people who have been forced to get refuge in often very inhospitable places.
At the same time, a film about “nowhere” that wants to draw attention to unnamed crises in the “Horn of Africa,” is probably not going to impact policy change in fortress Europe. And when it includes the experiences of refugees from Burundi, Congo, South Sudan, Somalia and elsewhere collectively in the shorthand phrase “crisis in the Horn of Africa,” it gives a pretty crappy geography lesson.
Like the assertion that Kakuma stands for “nowhere,” this documentary stands on uncertain ground. The characters are too different to reconcile in one theme, especially one that wants to highlight what it views as the ultimate dream of the majority of refugees in Kakuma—the desire to go to Europe. Many, if I am not being naïve, would return home if they could—very far away from the grasp of Matteo Salvini (the rightwing Italian government minister who wants all migrants and refugees deported back to where they came from), or as is the case of the principal protagonist, Nyakong, they just want to see their mother/family/friends.
Though many of the images are scenic and well shot, unfortunately, I could not shake the sense that they were also a bit voyeuristic. Related, the dominant third person narration by the filmmaker took away from our deeper grasp of the characters’ experiences: who were they beyond these images and their ostensive need for “flight?” What kinships, strong and futile, have they built in this place that may be a reluctant home? Certainly, the privileging of images without accompanying dialogue by the characters works to make them mere footnotes in the filmmaker’s tenuous argument.
When we are told that Khadijo has disappeared to Europe and is living in a detention center in Geneva, it happens quite suddenly without any details of her larger life and why she would, even with her all-consuming dreams of Canada and a possible arranged marriage, leave her home so abruptly. Likewise, when Claude (who had been speaking with friends in what seems like a staged conversation about the different routes to get to Europe) hears about Khadijo’s success, the film shows him dramatically asserting how he will get there, he swears, with his own two feet. Since there is not much texture and layering provided to show the lives of these young protagonists, the breadth and depth of their lives beyond their need for exile from this place, the narrated images of them arranged here do not concretely uphold the story told by the filmmaker.
In the same vein, perhaps expectedly, the film’s synopsis also wants to remind us that the filmmaker stayed here “in one of the toughest places on earth;” a description that gestures towards the lone Marlboro man-esque Eurocentric narratives of tough white filmmaker/aid worker/explorer going to conquer but also save in the badlands of Africa.
Interestingly, at the same time, and as is emphasized constantly throughout the film, Corthouts underscores his likeness to those he meets in Kakuma. This comes to light more pronouncedly when, in closing the film, Corthouts shows us images of Nyakong getting her hair washed while expressing how close he is to her, how he will make sure she finishes school, and how he has come back to see “a girl [Nyakong] who [like him] is trying to find her place in the world.”
Considering all the hardship and trauma that Nyakong has experienced, in Sudan and in Kenya, she most certainly is trying to find her place in the world, but is decidedly (unless your guiding mantra and alcohol of choice comes from the church of “we are the world”) not like Lieven Corthouts. I understand the need to show connectedness across all frontiers, and especially when you want your film to be the “antidote for growing xenophobia,” but in no uncertain terms is Nyakong like the filmmaker. Every experience of their lives comes from a much different script.
And, really, only white dudes will ever get money to make a film about “nowhere.”
Ultimately, for me, this documentary film misses the mark. While the images are beautiful and its underlying motivation understandable, the lack of a consistent connecting thread between characters who are not fully developed to stand by themselves does not allow for a visible and natural progression. In contrast to its mission, while ostensibly trying to make visible an invisible city, its young people’s hopes and dreams, this documentary succeeds in subsuming the characters into one core aspiration: their dreams to go to Europe. No mention, of course, of how most of the worlds displaced live within the borders of the Global South. As a consequence, for me the question the filmmaker really asks, and that we must problematize, is not “can you build a home in a place called nowhere?” but rather, “why would you seek refuge anywhere but Europe?”