Zed Nelson's documentary, Europe's Immigration Disaster, looks at the 2013 Lampedusa migrant boat tragedy
The Institute photographer was commissioned to make the film by Channel 4 for its investigative current affairs programme, Dispatches. The commission came shortly after the disaster and following a three month-long residency that Nelson had been doing with arts organisation Photoworks in Rome. During the residency, Nelson had started to develop a photography and film project about migration in the Mediterranean.
“Channel 4 liked what I’d done and wanted me to leave the next day to make a film about the recent disaster,” says Nelson. “I’m not used to working that fast – I tend to look at the stories, issues and themes behind the news. Normally there is time to research a project, gain access and think about the approach, but this was more of an immediate response.”
Working with only one assistant, Nelson located the survivors, who were being detained in an immigration centre on Lampedusa, the largest of the Italian Pelagie islands in the Mediterranean sea. He refused to film his subjects in the centre, but in a studio setting instead, commenting: “I wanted to give these people a platform where they felt they were being listened to, and to identify with them as humans… one of the main things for me was to show that they are real people. They’re not statistics, or a faceless number, crammed into boats. My intention was to get to know a few people and to tell their stories – to enter into a dialogue with them. By knowing who these people are – and seeing their personalities – it’s possible to feel differently about your level of responsibility, I think. Hopefully the film achieves that.”
Filmed over a five-month period, the documentary focuses largely on one migrant’s story – an 18-year-old Eritrean called Fanus – who recounts how, unable to swim, she survived for hours in the water after the boat capsized. “She had been raped and kidnapped and her parents had been bankrupted by paying the ransom,” says Nelson. “But when she got to Italy, her journey wasn’t over; she wanted to claim asylum in Sweden, so I ended up making the film about her journey.
“I was interested in trying to understand what might happen to these people,” Nelson adds. “I didn’t feel that the stories of the horror of the boat disaster itself would be enough; we [the audience] needed to know not only why these people had taken such risks, but also where were they going and what would happen to them.”
After being held in the immigration centre for several months, the survivors escaped and continued their journeys illegally through Europe, since Italy is seen as a difficult place to remain due to limited or non-existent assistance, says Nelson.
What emerges when Nelson speaks is a powerful picture of human determination against the odds.
“The challenge was to make a thoughtful, sensitive film that didn’t generalise. It was a very difficult subject to work on as the disaster had happened so recently, which meant I was working with a group of people who were grief-stricken and traumatised, and who were still very much in the moment of what had happened. I’ve tackled difficult subjects in the past – I covered war and famine early on in my career, and I’ve been in Afghanistan, Somalia and Angola – but I realised that the one thing you can’t protect yourself from is someone else’s grief.”
Nelson also mentions the ethical considerations he encountered while filming – namely, knowing when not to film. “You have to make important decisions very quickly, and know the ‘right’ way of making those decisions,” he says. “For instance, there were people I felt needed psychological help, and I thought it wouldn’t be appropriate to interview or film them, to make them relive what they’d just been through – although sometimes talking about a traumatic experience can be helpful.”
As boat crossings continue to take place, the film raises difficult but important questions about Europe’s current immigration laws and, more widely, the level of responsibility we collectively take towards other human beings. “Reports say that in the last 15 years some 20,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to get into Europe,” says Nelson. “We have to ask ourselves, are we okay with this death toll? If our laws state that we accept asylum seekers – and people have to physically be in Europe in order to claim asylum – [then] people are effectively being forced to make the periless journey across the Mediterranean. It’s a big problem, and one that we as humanity will have to face more and more as the [world] population grows and problems in other countries continue.”
Nelson has made one documentary film before – Shelter in Place, in 2011 – about the petrochemical industry in Texas, which had, in Nelson’s words, been operating without adhering to environmental laws, but he’d made the film independently. The Channel 4 film was a very different experience, he says.
“Making a film is a complex process. There are many more layers – music and dialogue, for example – but I like having those possibilities open to me. Also, working with a mainstream television channel meant there was certain criteria that had to be met, demands in terms of the editing process and compromises that had to be made, so it was quite frustrating, especially if you’re used to working in your own way. Plus you’re working with a far greater budget so there is more money at stake… But it was an exciting experience as well as demanding.
“Working on this film hasn’t taken me away from photography,” adds Nelson. “If anything, it has rekindled my love of making photographs – I like the simplicity and directness of photography.”
Europe’s Immigration Disaster by Zed Nelson, 11pm, tonight (Tuesday 24 June) on Channel 4.
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