Eldorado [2018] – A Potent and Unflinching Look at the Economics of the Refugee Crisis

Swiss film-maker and opera director Markus Imhoof has summarized the inglorious World War II history of ‘neutral’ Switzerland in his Academy-Award nominated ‘The Boat Is Full’ (1981). This powerful drama follows six refugees – five Austrian Jews and one Nazi deserter — crossing into Swiss Border. Switzerland did take limited number of refugees (old people, children, pregnant women, and Nazi deserters), although the strict regulations plus the ‘neutrality’ that preferred to preserve European economic system rejected quite a lot of displaced and hunted population. ‘Boat is Full’ intimately documents one such tense, unforeseeable situation of refugees in WWII Switzerland. Now after more than three decades, Markus returns to similar themes in documentary form and with more intensity (where the boats are literally full).

Many Spanish conquistadors trekked deep into South American forests to discover Eldorado, the mythical lost city of gold. The wishful thinking of discovering this gold-coated paradise gobbled lots of lives. In Markus Imhoof’s hard-hitting documentary Eldorado (2018), we see desperate souls reaching the calm shores of southern Italy to escape from purgatory, a wishful thinking that often doesn’t come true. Eldorado comes across as a fitting companion piece to Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea (2016). Rosi juxtaposed microscopic, personal viewpoint of a boy inhabiting a peaceful coastal town with the macroscopic perspective of emaciated asylum seekers crossing into Italy to start anew (few nautical miles from the boy’s hometown). Similarly, Eldorado flits between micro and macro views, elegantly stitching up the film-maker’s private recollections of WWII memories with the twisted economics of EU refugee crisis.

When Markus Imhoof was eight years old, his family took in 12-year old Giovanna from bombed-out Italy. The girl became a sister to him, and later a pen-pal as Giovanna was forced to return to Italy after the war, where the malnutritioned girl died in her teenage years. Through old letters and children’s drawing, Markus draws a fine portrait of the adopted refugee girl who made a strong impression on him in his formative years. His personal feelings find its echoes on the narrative’s second thread which leads him to Italy to capture the mass of bony black bodies, prodded with gloved hands, before setting foot on Italian shores. No, this isn’t recapped image of transatlantic slave-trade, but a picture of current migrant crisis although the end results are same: disenfranchisement and racial discrimination.


High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

Markus’ heartbreaking account of modern refugees opens at a massive Italian navy vessel, which is deployed in the Mediterranean. He has gained unparalleled access to film ‘Operation Mare Nostrum’ (now terminated). We see inflatables and dingy boats brimming with people getting rescued by the Italian navy. Scrupulous and tireless white-robed people with surgical masks then classify, examine, and record them. One of the rescuers offer some truth to the exasperated group, “We’re not going to promise you paradise, but every day is going to be better.” Of course, these people don’t seem to seek land of milk and honey, but only the reassurance that they haven’t traded one purgatory for another.

After encountering lengthy bureaucratic processes and stormy seas, the refugees reach an overcrowded transit camp in Italy, while waiting (between 8 and 15 months) to legally claim asylum. Those who are rejected and hoping to make overland trip to other parts of Europe becomes ‘non-existing’ migrant workforce, pivotal to the flourish of European farming economy. They are confined to shantytowns, full of makeshift camps and overflowing open drainage, run by mafias. Women are forced into prostitution.  Despite threats, Markus slyly sneaks in a camera into the ghetto to observe the refugees’ grievous predicament. Markus also speaks to different, well-meaning authorities burdened with the task of deciding the uprooted populace’s future.

Eldorado’s power lies in the compassionate shots, capturing the fatigued faces of displaced population, who become cogs in the vicious cycle of global trading. In one devastating moment, Swiss customs officers at a railway station stop a family of refugees from Italy trying to make an illegal crossing. The authorities provide the family with mineral water and protein bar, but suddenly a little girl angrily throws them off. She perfectly knows what follows this random gesture of kindness: a life of confinement, inactivity, and poverty.

Markus Imhoof’s personal stories take some time to smoothly connect with the other, sprawling narrative. But by the time Markus tenderly caresses the portrait of Giovanna on the grave plate in an Italian cemetery, we are as much engaged by the personal testimony as the shocking fate of asylum seekers. Apart from photographing and interviewing, the documentarian ably peels off the calm external layers to look into the mix of chaos and nonchalance that’s rampant in handling the refugees. In spite of getting access to navy ships and detainment camps, Markus does face many severe restrictions, which he rightly acknowledges. At one occasion, he talks of the mutiny that loomed closer on board as bad weather and overcrowding left many refugees to stay above decks in the storm. Markus, however, wasn’t allowed to film that. He also remarks on the long waiting period before given access to the camps. The audacity and curiosity to look beyond the picture provided by officialdom distances the documentary from the veiled observations of global media.

The other intriguing aspect of Eldorado is the way it digs into the economics of low-wage labor and European realpolitik (in matters of migration). Markus looks at simple yet appalling truths behind Europe’s silent demand for floating migrant population. The illegal Africans work in European fields harvesting tomatoes, which thanks to EU subsidies is made cheaper. Those agri products are canned and exported to Africa, which the family of illegal Africans buy using the money earned from toiling in the European fields. Later, Markus uses a simple family photo of a Senegalese cattle farmer to powerfully reflect on how EU milk production obliterates African farming communities. Consequently, the true atrocious face of Western economy and its unending cycle of exploitation, in the name of consumerism, are laid out in immaculate manner. As always, ascension of the European economy is interlinked with the constant movement of these displaced souls or slave labor, contrary to the racist extreme right-wing nutcases’ convictions.

Eldorado (90 minutes) is a multifaceted and deeply humane documentary on the ugly realities and moral bankruptcy at the forefront of the refugee crisis.


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