In 1992, a wave of refugees from the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina reached Denmark. Among them, there was a 12-year-old boy named Vladimir Tomic, who fled Sarajevo together with his mother and older brother. He spent two years in a giant ship floating on the canals of Copenhagen, waiting for the decisions on their asylum applications. Now Tomic has finished an experimental documentary, using VHS tapes he and other refugees registered inside the aptly named ship Flotel Europa.
The refugee crisis has reached the stars. U2 frontman Bono Vox engaged in campaigns and said it is a “fallacy to consider the crisis temporary. (…) Some families have spent two generations – and some young people their entire lives – as refugees”. Actress, director and UN Goodwill Embassafor Angelina Jolie wrote the book ‘Notes from my Travels’ detailing her experiences in troubled regions. It is therefore natural Flotel Europe received plenty of attention in film festivals across Europe. In the last Berlinale, it received a Jury Special Mention; it won best documentary in Docufest, Prizren, Kosova; and best Balkan documentary award in Sarajevo Film Festival. After all, it is a register from a refugee, and not a mere journalistic piece.
The story is told by the oppressed people, which is an achievement per se. Although living in a ship in Denmark can be considered a luxury comparing to other refugee camps, the reality is that those 1,000 refugees were in a legal and social limbo. They had escaped genocide but they weren’t integrated of Danish society in the first two years. They were kept in the outskirts of the city, just like the brothels in old Pompey. Danish Red Cross organised activities in the ship, such as games, folkloric dance classes, Bosnian language classes to children, but still they couldn’t contribute to Danish society. Not until their papers were validated.
As time passed, Flotel Europa became a site of tension and division. Refugees realised that, in reality, little had evolved since they arrived. The boat was a hub for rats and insects, spreading disease. There was no attempt to integrate them with the society on land.
They watched the news on TV and found out that the war was still going on and their relatives were been killed or disappeared. Some of the refugees threw the TV into the sea, which generated a meeting with Red Cross staff. The organisation decided to throw a party and invite the Danish for a tour of the boat. The result is a horrifying — yet sobering — clash, very similar to the tours to the Brazilian favelas for rich tourists who come to Rio. Poverty and depravity turn into a merchandise, and there were no improvements.
Besides from being a powerful register, the film is monotonous. It doesn’t explain who those refugees were and if audience has no knowledge about that war, they will remain oblivious to the subject throughout and after the film.
Tomic never mixes the past registers in VHS with more current images, and so many questions remain unanswered. What is the current situation of those refugees since? Did they stay in Denmark? Did they get back to their homes after the war finished? What is the legacy to the Danish society of receiving refugees? Flotel Europa is like a Polaroid picture in the form of a documentary: accurate, but with little depth. History still has to be treated, revealed, just like processing a film in old photo cameras.
This is not the first film made by refugees that DMovies has come across: find out more about a powerful initiative involving children in refugee camps in Iraq here.
Flotel Europa will be shown at Sheffield Doc/Fest on June 11th, followed by a Q&A. Click here for more details about the event and watch the film trailer below: