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She's filming a documentary on the massive migration of Syrian refugees. But do filmmakers like Linnea Langkammer '14 contribute, in any way, to stopping the atrocities?
By Edward Weinman
ou were heartbroken. The image of the 5-year-old Syrian boy, having been pulled from the bombed-out rubble of his home, perched on an orange ambulance seat, his little body covered by concrete paste, his face bloodied, his floppy hair the color of pitch.
How long before you looked away from that face?
The face of war. The face of Aleppo. The face of Syria, a nation swallowing itself whole by civil war; unraveling because of Assad, because of ISIS, because of Russian and Syrian bombs dropping from the bright, blue, cloudless sky; because of Western indifference; because, well, because it’s the Middle East.
His name: Omran Daqneesh.
You saw the photo. You watched the video—Omran’s too tired, bewildered, afraid to remember how to cry.
Your stomach hurt for days. It must stop, you thought.
The violence didn’t stop. The bomb strike that left Omran literally shell-shocked killed his 10-year old brother, Ali, who died three days later. For him, the struggle is over.
It’s only the dead who have seen the end of war.
That photograph. Maybe you felt that you had to do something about the hundreds of thousands of refugees spilling out of Syria, desperate to escape to Turkey, and then to Greece aboard battered and crowded dinghies.
All the suffering children caught up in war. We have to fix this. Stop the carnage, you thought. Or, maybe, you saw the image and just turned the page of the newspaper. Linnea Langkammer ’14 grabbed her camera, saddled up on an REI Novara bike and rode east: 6,000 km from Munich to Istanbul.
“I remember seeing the photo of the little boy in Aleppo. I also remember the image from last September, of the toddler [Aylan Kurdi] lying face down on the sandy shores after the boat taking him and his family to Kos capsized,” Langkammer says.
She is a filmmaker who felt compelled to set out on a 12-week excursion, riding through Germany, Austria, Serbia, crossing the Macedonian border town of Gevgelija into Greece, and then ferrying across the Aegean Sea to Istanbul.
She pedaled east to retrace, backwards, the route of the refugees escaping the Hobbesian state where war has led to the death of at least 470,000 Syrians, according to the Syrian Center for Policy Research. That was a February 2016 estimate. It’s now fall.
“Describing these images as horrific seems too simple, but finding words for pictures like these seems futile. Yet I often wonder how these [images of the children of war] and stories affect the public. In the short run, their impact seems extreme: the world comes face-to-face with the horrors of this crisis.”
Langkammer rode to document the migration of these refugees and will produce Facing East, a documentary film focusing on the movement of persons who have been dispersed by war. She rode to find out what happens after images like Omran’s saturate our airwaves, websites and social media channels.
Tristan Borer says not much happens. The professor of government and international relations at Connecticut College says that the golden rule for human rights groups is that “if only enough people knew about a crisis they would do something” to help stop it.
“Of course this turns out not to be true,” says Borer, who edited Media, Mobilization, and Human Rights: Mediating Suffering. In the book, Borer explores what impact mass media portrayals of atrocities have on activism.
“We have information about what’s taking place in Syria. The problem is not, ‘Oh, I had no idea this was happening.’”
Media coverage doesn’t help end atrocities, Borer says. Therefore, the only way to stop the violence in Syria and resolve the refugee crisis is peace.
“Short of peace there is assistance to refugees. That’s what we are good at in this country.” While NGOs crank up the aid dollars to provide food, blankets, medical equipment and tents, the war continues, a war that has, since its start in March 2011, dropped Syrian life expectancy from 70 years to 56. The SCPR puts the war’s economic cost at $255 billion.
But who can think about economics with an estimated 11 million Syrians on the move?
While some of us turned away from the images, Langkammer biked with that camera of hers.
She understands Borer’s cynicism toward the golden rule of human rights groups. Like Borer, the filmmaker knows that
too much exposure to suffering creates what’s known as compassion fatigue.
Still, she kept riding. Her goal: document.
Why did she bike? She wanted to slow down time, experience the physicality of crossing through overcrowded borders, or “closed” borders, not because she thought it would help her intuit what Syrian refugees endure as governments and political leaders close the doors of their countries under the guise of keeping us all safe from terrorism.
Langkammer knows the refugees stuck in the no-man’s-land that exists between borders suffer a constant nightmare. She’s only visiting this nightmare, able to ride away at the start of her final year at Temple University’s MFA program. Her film is, in fact, her thesis project.
Before she left the refugee road for Philadelphia, though, she filmed numerous displaced persons, some having made it to the sanctuary of Germany, others stuck in camps in Greece and Hungary.
She documented Syrians like 21-year-old Abdo Janat, from Aleppo. Abdo was attempting to travel from Libya to Italy when the rowboat he crowded onto with 200 other refugees sank. He was one of only four survivors. After being rescued, and evading Italian police, he trekked to Germany, where he hopes to one day attend college.
Abdo now has an intense phobia of water.
“I just want a person to take this memory from my mind and put it in the rubbish,” he pleaded into Langkammer’s camera.
Susou Janat, a 28-year-old, also from Aleppo, talked about the loss of her home, her gardens, her balconies. Her family had a life in Syria, she said, then: “One day, nothing ... They take you to the point of the boat. And then you have to go.”
Susou and Abdo are cousins. She traveled separately from her cousin, by bus, boat, train and car through Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria before finally making it to Hamm, Germany.
Another Syrian refugee spoke to Langkammer but feared to reveal his name. He’s 21. From Homs. He currently lives in a camp in Germany and works as a translator, helping doctors and refugees communicate. He spoke about trying to get through Serbia:
“They put us in the prison. We pay a 100 euro fine. We get out, and the same day we try again.”
Can you hear these dislodged and dispossessed persons speaking?
Langkammer rode so we could hear the stories about how war has turned their lives inside out. It might not change anything. Whether or not you see her documentary, she saw no choice but to document.
“As filmmakers, photographers, journalists, what else can we do but continue to explore?
“Film is about the construction of something greater than the specific moment captured. In the case of the refugees, it’s not simply the retelling of their stories, but a visual and visceral exploration of what their life was and is.”
While this exploration has no power to stop a war or reduce the time spent in refugee camps—the average refugee spends 17 years in a camp—telling these stories instigates action. Certainly, pictures like those of Omran and Aylan create outrage and sometimes can embarrass, even shame the political leaders who scream the loudest about keeping refugees away.
Karolin Machtans, an assistant professor of German studies at Conn, says photographs can recalibrate the self-image of a nation.
“The image of refugees walking on the German autobahn [conjured up] archaic images of flight and expulsion in the 21st century,” says Machtans, who is teaching a class on the European refugee crisis. “That’s when Germans realized this could not happen.”
Germany has one of the most open borders in terms of welcoming refugees. While the U.S. offered entrance to 10,000 refugees in 2015, Germany has accepted asylum applications from more than 57,000 out of the 103,708 that have applied, according to the German Federal Department for Migration and Refugees. The success rate among Syrians being granted asylum is 93.2 percent. On top of these numbers, Germany housed more than 700,000 asylum-seekers in 2015.
One reason Germany has been so welcoming is that since World War II the country “looks to constantly reinvent itself as a more multicultural society,” says Machtans. She also notes that Germans themselves have a history of being refugees, especially after the war, which is why the older generation of Germans has, for the most part, supported the country’s refugee policy.
“My grandmother walked part of the way from Elbing, Poland, into Germany with two kids in her hands and could only feed one, which is why I have a father not an uncle,” Machtans says.
However, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party only received 17.6 percent of the vote in the recent Berlin state election. Merkel herself acknowledged that the federal government’s refugee policies were partially responsible for the poor election results.
Nonetheless, seeing her fellow citizens volunteering to help refugees provides a measure of satisfaction for Machtans, and she is proud of Langkammer, her former student.
Documentaries like Facing East help slow down history. Machtans says, “Engaging with individuals on a one-on-one basis [for her film] gives insights that the mainstream media can’t give us.”
Borer acknowledges that films like Langkammer’s can have an impact. Despite donor fatigue and compassion fatigue, “it’s true that drawing attention to an issue can help,” she says.
At Conn, the aggregate coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis prompted action.
Borer wrote Conn’s Refugee Task Force Report that included a series of recommended ways Conn can use its assets to combat the crisis: Facilitate the creation of a student-led organization whose focus is assisting refugees; become a college affiliate of Paper Airplanes, an online tutoring site through which U.S. college students (faculty and staff can join, too) tutor Syrian college-aged students via Skype in English; admit Syrian students to Conn; and host visiting refugee scholars. Also recommended was for the college to assist refugees who have resettled in the New London area.
While some of these recommendations are concrete and fairly easy to carry out, other ideas require more intellectual capital and creativity on the part of Conn, such as helping refugees in their region of origin.
Borer understands it’s difficult to assist these displaced persons, but feels there is an opportunity to raise funds for local NGOs working with refugees in camps, and believes Conn can explore ways to offer, online, higher education courses to refugees in camps, or those internally displaced, by working through partner NGOs.
“We have a student club working to help refugees that we didn’t have before. There is a commitment by the college to do something about the families who have arrived here.” However, she warns, “bringing attention to an issue is important but not sufficient. People becoming aware doesn’t mean the issue is solved.”
Short of peace, as Borer insists, nothing will solve the refugee problem. The steps Conn has taken to assist refugees is a good start. Borer, though, wants to see Conn do more.
“I would like us to be known as a college that takes seriously one of the worst humanitarian crises of all time. People should know that we don’t just talk the talk on global and local engagement. We take it to heart,” Borer says.
As Conn’s refugee task force—Borer and Machtans are participants—continues to find ways to mitigate the suffering of refugees, Langkammer will continue to ride with her camera. Ride and film to draw attention to humanity at its worst in order for humanity to slouch toward making amends.
She will return to Europe in November to continue the second phase of her project, documenting the refugees who are stuck. She plans, with former classmate Amanda Jordan ’15, to film at camps across three different countries: Germany, Macedonia and Greece.
On her initial trip, she witnessed thousands of persons held up at Ellinikon, an abandoned airport in Athens, as well as Macedonian border camps located in the southern town of Gevgelija and Tadanovce in the north. She spent time with the displaced who, with no place to go, loitered while they waited; waited for European governments to untangle bureaucratic indifference, waited to find a home—still wait for the war to end.
Camp life forced Langkammer to see the crisis through a different lens, from a different angle. She set out to document refugees tracking through foreign countries, searching for sanctuary. Protection. Safety. It started off as a story about migration, the movement of human beings. Now, she’ll zoom in on stagnation, life lived in camps, refugees running in place.
“Despite all the footage and the interviews and all we saw I realized that most of the refugees are stuck. In Germany they are stuck trying to get jobs, trying to study or get work permits,” Langkammer says.
“Others are stuck at borders, camps, parks. The crisis has moved from blankets, to aid, to now trying to survive boredom while waiting for stuff to happen.”
By the time she finishes her documentary, photographers will have taken more images of children clinging to the arms of rescue workers; thousands more Syrians will have fled to countries refusing them entry; thousands more will have perished.
Facing East won’t stop any of these future atrocities. However, Langkammer will produce the film because images, no matter how fatigued they make us, provide a permanent record of events that we must not forget.
They create a connection that resonates long after the politicians and pundits stop their political barking about the dangers of providing sanctuary to refugees.
Langkammer will ride this November because “every once in a while an image gets through and actual change can happen,” she believes.
And even though we will eventually look away, we will still see that little boy perched on an orange ambulance seat.
Cover photo: The border fence at the Greek-Macedonian border, near the Greek village of Idomeni where thousands of refugees and migrants are stranded by the Balkan border blockade.