This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Of the many directors who presented films at the Berlin Film Festival this month, Abou Bakar Sidibé may have had the most remarkable route into filmmaking. A Malian refugee trying to get to Spain, but stuck in northern Africa for nearly a year, Sidebé had not even thought about creating movies when he was handed a small consumer camera by two filmmakers. The duo, Moritz Siebert and Estephan Wagner, wanted to make a full-length feature about refugees traveling to Europe, but wanted it to be told on the subject's terms.
"When I was given a camera, I thought it was a joke," Sidibé says. At the time, he was one of approximately 1,000 men, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, living rough on Morocco's Mount Gurugu, a mountain that overlooks Melilla, a Spanish autonomous city on the African mainland. From the peak of the mountain, the lights of Melilla can be seen, but they are unreachable—protected by razor-wire fences and border guards armed with pepper spray, and truncheons. Nonetheless, being one of the few land borders into the European Union makes the enclave an enticing entry point for many African refugees.
Siebert and Wagner had a hunch. By giving a refugee a camera and finally letting the life of migrants be documented by migrants themselves, they would get a different perspective on life on Mount Gurugu. The result is the remarkable Les Sauteurs (Those Who Jump), which had its world premiere at the Forum section of the Berlin Film Festival this month.
Over the course of three months after he was given the camera, Sidibé, with the occasional help of his friends, filmed what was happening around him on Mount Gurugu. He filmed himself collecting rainwater to wash, he filmed men from the Ivory Coast taking on Malian men in a soccer game, he filmed what happens to men who break unwritten rules like informing the local police about the refugees' activities. (There is a remarkable lack of women in his footage.)
Mostly, the documentary looks at how Sidebé and his friends exist on Mount Gurugu, how they live in between their attempts to jump the wall dividing Morocco and Europe. The filmmakers aim to share a slice-of-life portrait of the area, rather than impose a narrative. Indeed, much of the time, the refugees are living in a state of boredom, though the doc itself is never boring. We're provided an arc by witnessing Sidebé transform from a barely capable cameraman to a filmmaker who frames his images. We also see the protagonist planning his escape to Europe, a gambit that involves trying to cross the border with as many men possible, in the hope that some may get through. When Sidebé finally manages to cross the wall, the film reaches a natural conclusion.
Now 30, Sidibé is currently in Germany seeking papers, though Europe isn't what he expected. "Europe is not the same as we see on television and the media," he tells me at a screening of the film. "When you arrive, you see the true reality of Europe, and I think it's not as good as it's made out."
For more about the documentary, I spoke with Siebert and Wagner about their motivations behind the project and the oddity of editing someone else's deeply personal footage.
VICE: Why did you want to make this film and put a camera in the hands of Sidibé?
Estephan Wagner: We have been interested in making this film for a long time, partly, in my case, because of my personal background. I come from Chile, but I have a German father who left when I was small, but he also left a passport behind, which made it possible for me to be here. I've always felt this—it's not a guilt really—but a sense of injustice, that some people are lucky enough to have this piece of paper, while others don't. It's not that you're a better person.
Before making this film, we have both been involved—on a personal level and as filmmakers—with migration and made different works surrounding this theme. Then in 2014, more and more, we started to read about these mass "jump" attempts, where sometimes a thousand people try to storm the fence in these big groups, in order that some may pass. We wondered: How can we go beyond whatever has been done so far about it?
How did you meet Sidibé?
Moritz Siebert: We found a journalist who lives and works in Melilla. For years, he's covered the refugee situation. We contacted him, and said, "Listen, we have a project. We want to give away a camera to a protagonist, can you help us?" He knew the people from the Mali community living in Mount Gurugu, including Sidibé, who had already been there for 14 months when we arrived.
Playing devils advocate, do you think it matters that you had an agenda from the start? This is a film made to prove something, rather than being objective.
Siebert: In a way, we had an agenda. That agenda had to do with a point of view. But we don't live in Melilla, we don't live on Gurugu, and we didn't hire a cameraman who made images for us. We were far away, we were in Copenhagen and Berlin. Sidibé could completely do what he wanted, or not do anything. Of course, in the editing, we took over again. During the filming, though, it's not like we could point and say, "Shoot this or that."
Did you ever give Sidibe prompts of what you wanted to see in his footage?
Siebert: We tried that in the beginning. We wrote out a list of scenes, which, from our research, we thought would be great in the film. A couple of things Sidibé did shoot, but most of what was on the list he couldn't be bothered with, and he filmed a lot of other stuff instead. That was a process for us, realizing that what he films is what he's interested in. It's so much better than what we thought and what our agenda was. But, yes, on a conceptual level, we had an agenda. But I think that is OK. I'm not afraid of that.
Wagner: That was part of the whole idea, the concept of the film, to say, "We are not just giving him the camera for an aesthetic reason, or to make it easier for people to identify," or whatever. We took the choice to give up responsibility, create power, and pass it over to him so he would have the chance to talk to us.
Can you tell me more about Sidibé's voiceovers in the film?
Siebert: We did several interviews with him, from a few days after he had jumped [the border], to when he was in Madrid, and several interviews here in Germany that we combined with his diaries. He had been writing his story down. It wasn't approached like a journalist or filmmaker. We didn't ask what do need to explain for the audience to understand what is happening. We wanted much more interior, insightful voiceovers. Sidibé obviously knew his story best and also, we used his turns of phrase on the voiceover so he could shape it in the way that he felt was right.
Also, I think, giving this distance gives the possibility for reflection and, therefore, the possibility to shape a different image of the migrant. When we talk about refugees, we are typically bombarded with this pitiful image of the poor man who needs our care, but we wanted to focus on the strength of people in this situation—not from a perspective of pity.
You had to pay Sidibé to film, correct? In the voiceover heard in the film, he says if he weren't paid, he would have sold the camera.
Siebert: That, for example, was important for us to keep in the final cut. It shows our distrust in the protagonist at the time. We didn't know if he was going to sell the camera. We didn't know if he was going to film at all. We didn't know him before. The relationship built up during the process. So it was important to show it was an economic relationship at the beginning.
Documentaries are traditionally about seeking objective truth. Then in recent years, with the rise of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, documentaries have become more subjective and are made for entertainment. Where do you see Those Who Jump in that context?
Wagner: We neither believe that we have the truth, or that the film does, nor do we want to see this film as 80 minutes of pure entertainment. This is an opportunity to try and open up a dialogue, where all too often we talk about something and we don't listen. So here, there is a chance to listen to somebody who talks to us, not in an activist tone, but very much in a human tone.
For more on 'Those Who Jump,' visit the film's website here.
Follow Kaleem on Twitter.
More on VICE: