'#MyEscape' Employs Innovative Filmmaking Techniques to Cover the Middle Eastern Refugee Crisis

Director Elke Sasse doesn't need to embellish the refugees’ stories; their own cell phone filmmaking and interviews provide plenty of narrative depth.


Director: Elke Sasse
Studio: Berlin Producers
Release date: 2016-02-10

#MyEscape, screened at the New York City Independent Film Festival, is a unique documentary in which refugees trafficked from Syria, Eritrea, and Afghanistan control the vast majority of the filmmaking. The film’s footage constitutes largely of refugees’ hidden cell phone video recordings which depict portions of their several thousand mile journey over harrowing, stomach-turning conditions. The refugees provide voice over narration of their journeys, as well as uninterrupted, candid interview segments in which they reflect on the violent conditions which drove them from their homeland, and the victimization they suffered while being trafficked to Germany. Accordingly, the cumulative result of #MyEscape is a somewhat one-sided, but ultimately humanizing voice for refugees; one which serves as a compelling emotional response to nationalist propaganda that refugees are minatory threats.

Director Elke Sasse doesn't embellish the refugees’ accounts with sweeping wide shots or punctuated orchestral notes to influence the audience into feeling heightened emotions. Nor does she need to -- the refugees’ plaintive, if not at times poetic accounts of their journey fill the film with plenty of narrative depth.

The interview coverage at times reaches novelistic heights. A 15-year-old refugee from Afghanistan observes, “Only god knows how many people died in these waters.” Considering that over 7,000 refugees have died crossing the Mediterranean sea between 2015 and 2016, her statement is even more haunting. Another mid-20s Syrian student, whose face brims with gentility and intelligence, recounts that when he was stuffed with more than a hundred refugees in an inflatable life raft, “I thought about how my mom will see my dead body on the beach.”

The cell phone footage is low resolution, shaky, and at times scattered; audiences will experience sensory frustration along the way. And yet, #MyEscape’s use of cell phones has several counter-intuitive advantages.

Night shots are grainy and claustrophobic, which highlight the suffocating circumstances refugees had to endure during their journey. Likewise, a small frame of an isolated sand dune in the Sahara Desert where refugee children are at play, or the edge of a soaked life raft bobbing on violent seas, creates a sense of disorientating isolation and uncertainty. There's no sense of what's to come even ten feet ahead, or just how many miles are left before the next rest point.

Wobbly tracking footage absent any cinematographic luster presents refugee migration as an indiscriminate series of grueling events. When refugees finally arrive in Greece by sea, there's no triumphant moment; just a small frame shot of the back of people’s heads spilling out of a cramped dinghy. Some exhaustedly express relief. Others point their phones to the ground, where tents made of bed sheets await. An unconscious woman swallowed too much sea water is finally being tended to; the task would be impossible in an over-populated life raft.

Through its visuals alone, #MyEscape builds immense emotional frustration at a global community which has increasingly refused to facilitate refugee travel and access to asylums, thereby permitting human traffickers to run rampant. Hidden cell phone videos peak at traffickers with machine guns, which serve as evidence that refugees were not free to turn back once they began their expensive and arduous journey. A boy films his ride in the empty gas tank of a truck. As either a seasoned filmmaker would (or perhaps just a human being experiencing hellacious living conditions with a device to record them on), the boy continually returns his camera to an open fuel receptor which doubles as an air shaft.

#MyEscape will undoubtedly be criticized for taking a one-sided approach to the refugee crisis. The interview subjects are almost all young, soft-spoken, reflective, and thoughtful.

They represent an attractive demographic of rock musicians, students, professionals, and activists. Moreover, the subjects’ arrival in Germany is treated as a relatively soft-landing; all seem well situated in their new homes. It's indeed difficult to fully accept that this small sample size is a complete picture of Middle Eastern refugee demographics or refugees’ current situation in Germany.

Nevertheless, #MyEscape’s efforts to disabuse false notions about Middle Eastern refugees render it a successful documentary. Sasse effectively argues that refugees have the potential to be prized additions to any country, and should not be treated as “other”. Statistically, it has been proven that many refugees are young men and women who want the same things people in other peaceful countries are entitled to earn.

Notably, the film’s informational screen text employs nondescript Twitter hashtags, such as “#Germany” or “#Sahara”. This is an interesting touch, and not only for its obvious implication that the film was shot using cell phones.

We live in an age when hashtags are routinely used to chart hot trends, be it of celebrity status or President Donald Trump’s next sound bite. But the most important trends remain the timeless ones; the circumstances human beings have to endure to survive and have a chance to raise their families. #MyEscape uses cellphones to capture this reality, and in so doing argues for the use of new, hyper-fast portable technology to illuminate our world’s severe issues, rather than obsess over a buzzing fragment of political pop culture. Indeed, #Lampedusa deserves greater attention than, say, #SmallHands.

This is an important argument to advance, as the survival of millions of people -- and our planet -- relies on it.


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