Nahrain Al-Mousawi

The Undocumented: Survival on the Threshold

(view article at Portal 9)

The Undocumented - Survival

Atop a mountain overlooking the Mediterranean, a clandestine migrant encampment lies hidden in Morocco’s Gourougou Forest, the setting of David Fedele’s 2014 documentary, The Land Between. The film features undocumented transit migrants from Mali, Ivory Coast, and other parts of West Africa living in tents, gathering food, cooking, washing, tending to children, hauling water from the base of the mountain – their day consumed by the need to fulfill the most basic of tasks just to survive. Even though a few hundred migrants have been living in the encampment for years, Morocco has never been their destination but a transit space (“the land between”) where they wait for the opportunity to jump the heavily guarded razor- wire fence into Spanish Melilla. The forest is the threshold of Europe and Africa, outside of the state but subject to its control, in the space of hidden yet known social worlds.

Fedele produces, directs, and edits his own films, which usually focus on social justice and the world’s most vulnerable. In E-wasteland, he documents slum dwellers charged with disposal of digital waste in Accra, Ghana’s capital. Likewise, in Bikpela Bagarap (Big Damage), he captures the exploitative nature of logging in Papua New Guinea from the perspective of the villagers whose land is confiscated by corporations.

In The Land Between, the themes of vulnerability and social justice prevail, and it is the first film to document the migrant encampment in the forest. Most films about Morocco’s undocumented migrants, documentary and otherwise, focus on the city as the limbo where migrants wait out a trek to Europe with no documents, opportunity, or desire to return home. Located in the port town of Nador, Gourougou Forest overlooks the Mediterranean and covers a mountain a few kilometers from Melilla. It has been sheltering migrants for years as they wait to climb the fence into the Spanish enclave.

Security efforts to drive out the migrants, usually to the border with Algeria, have been stepped up in recent years. It is these efforts to secure the border with Spain that the film documents repeatedly. The tremendous effort simply to eat, drink, and keep warm in the forest is the centerpiece of the film, but these moments are interrupted only by accounts of the violations migrants endure at the hands of the Moroccan military in their effort to secure the border. The struggle against the elements in the forest as well as against Morocco’s military reinforces the social injustice that Morocco’s transit migrants face.

While The Land Between foregrounds the unforgiving daily grind and the fight for survival, the film is by no means hopeless. Despite their vulnerability, the migrants affirm that they will arrive in Europe and find success, punctuating an otherwise ruthless reality with moments of hope.

While forests have been theorized as spaces intensely regulated by the state, they have also been seen as spaces “outside the state” (foris, Latin, “outside”) that “fend it off” to provide “shelter for outlaws and misfits,” according to Gilles Deleuze. On one hand, the forest is perceived as segmented, enclosed, regulated, “striated.” On the other hand, it serves as the “domain of guerilla groups” more than any other social entity – a “holey space,” as Deleuze contends, of subterranean habitation and underground hideouts to evade the overcoding and striations of the state.

In the documentary, Gourougou Forest functions as both a trap of and a refuge from the state: migrants use it as a hideout until the Moroccan military discovers the camp, burns their tents, and abuses them; they re-navigate the forest, find shelter, and take cover within, vigilant against further infiltration. At one point, the camera captures a migrant training others in the midst of the forest in tactics for engaging with the military – avoid retreating and running away and effect a united front in order to evade capture – recognizing that the state is, in fact, at war with them.

Guerilla tactics, both to evade capture and to resist the military through a cohesive front, are not merely functions of the clandestine migrant community; rather, these tactics create and constitute community. Escaping detection and performing the most basic and laborious daily tasks, as depicted in the film, both require communal cooperation, even as the group de-territorializes and re-territorializes the forest. Arguing against the chaos and disorder associated with clandestine migration, philosopher Achille Mbembe evokes the daily survival strategies and cooperation on which a community of belonging hinges: “The cosmopolitanism of migrants,” Mbembe argues, “has entailed the proliferation of illegal or clandestine spaces. This can be seen in the existence of genuine unofficial towns constituted by so-called illegal immigrants.” Thus “in these spheres of illegality, marginality might favor the reconstruction of complex forms of community life.”

Because of the deep knowledge required to navigate the forest, the film reinforces that this community, however transient, belongs more to the forest than the forest belongs to the state and its military. To highlight this primary relationship between community (albeit nomadic) and forest, the filmmaker absents himself from his own text: there is no music, no narrative voice-over, no personal appearance. As his authorial authority recedes in the background, Fedele privileges the relationship between community and forest; he eschews reflexivity in favor of a traditional style of straight-to-camera reporting of people caught in a problem, a directness in documenting appalling conditions and the attempts to resolve the problem, a realism of entering a semiprivate or protected space and reproducing a “reality.”

Although such a lean approach curtails stylistic excesses like those of noted documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, The Land Between does allow for what seems like “accidental reflexivity” – for example, when migrants on camera refer to the filmmakers’ presence as exploitative, of potentially making money off their misery. But this reflexivity is actually a broader, intentional part of the film designed to convey its subjects’ voices. Inasmuch as Fedele closes in on community and forest with the aesthetic leanness of a sociological task, he also opens up the filmic space so migrants are not only referring to and addressing the filmmakers but also the audience, implicating them in the narrative as accomplices and allies. At one point, a Malian migrant shifts from discussing his community’s problems in the forest to addressing an imaginary “clandestine migrant community” worldwide, reaching beyond the film to advise “all clandestines” to be patient and not lose hope in the process.

At another point, after a scene with a group of migrants praying and reciting a sura (Quranic verse) in unison, the film shifts to a video shot on a cell phone: A migrant lies dead, surrounded by his countrymen, his clandestine community. A man lies next to him, wailing and hugging his dead body. The migrants explain that the military killed their friend. This death is the culmination of other violations they recount earlier in the film by thieves who beat and rob migrants in the forest, by soldiers who abuse them and burn their camp. The mobile video shot reinforces the reflexivity of the film; that is, it makes us aware of the documentary as a constructed truth, rendering its process transparent and highlighting the moment of encounter with its subjects. It does this by indicating that this film is a multimedia and layered performative exchange between subjects, film- makers, and spectators.

A migrant carrying the corpse screams, “Are we not Muslim? Are you not African?” The scream demands recognition of complicity – from those watching who are African, Muslim, or Moroccan. The scream also jolts us beyond the forest hideout to the larger setting: Morocco, Africa. Moreover, as it jolts us back to the film’s and migrants’ broader context of Morocco and Africa, the scream suggests that, although the forest belongs to this community, the de-territorialization and re-territorialization of the forest are not absolute. The forest and therefore its inhabitants are always in conflict with Moroccan state power to overcode, enclose, and burn it if they get too “threatening.” The film’s focus on the forest and community to the exclusion of all other scenes and voices outside reinforces the significance of having this story told from inside the forest by the community navigating it, a narrative from within rather than about them. Lastly, the scream serves to contextualize the relationship to the land by evoking a history of free movement across Africa, spanning centuries and, only in relatively recent history, disrupted by borders.

In December 2013, before the film’s release, a young Cameroonian was chased onto the roof of a building and fell to his death in Tangier during a police raid. Months earlier, a Senegalese man fell from his fourth-floor flat during another police raid. In the news, their stories end there, with no known investigation into police conduct. In The Land Between, the migrants are chroniclers of personal histories not documented in more “official” versions of undocumented migration. Without “proper” documents, their narratives are their documents, their testimonies, otherwise elided from the media’s coverage of clandestine migration.

– See more at:


This entry was posted on September 27, 2014 by in .