The Border Makes the Stranger: Hospitality and Mobility Justice in Paul Meschuh’s Boat People (2016)
By Silvia Schultermandl and David Hucek
Paul Meschuh’s short film about a shipwrecked Somali man and his preliminary rescue by an affluent European couple raises many currently relevant and perhaps most pressing issues of our time. It raises the unfathomable question of who has the ultimate say in deciding the constraints that are put on human mobility. From the specific, namely the thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean, to the more general questions of mobility justice, Boat People places conflict over commonalities. This makes for a (deliberately) disconcerting impression on the film’s audiences leaving, them with more questions than answers in many respects. In consequence, it successfully addresses the current state of the (European) Union. The independent production has not had a wide theatrical release, but is available via an online screener and through the production company Art Media.
On his journey from Somalia to Europe, shipwrecked Moussa (Eugen Boateng) is picked up by a couple on their luxury boat. While Hannes’s (Thomas Clemens) first impulse is to provide help and ask questions later, Gerlinde (Jule Ronstedt) is immediately suspicious when Moussa, using the last of his strength, declares that he doesn’t want FRONTEX involved under any circumstances. Over dinner Moussa explains that he cannot spend an unpredictably long time in a refugee camp because he needs work immediately to support his family, urging Hannes and Gerlinde to drop him off near the coast without informing the authorities about it. The next day, after a heated debate in which the couple tells Moussa that they cannot get any closer to the coast without the border patrol noticing, Hannes pulls a flare gun on Moussa, effectively forcing him to leave the boat 22kms from the European coast.
Boat People is a complex tale about morality, responsibility and constraints, about the visible and invisible borders that govern our daily lives. Meschuh’s short film is dense; many of its themes surely would have benefitted from a feature length installment because complicated matters deserve complex answers. However, the film does not shy away from discussing what seems to be so central to public discourse in recent years – migration, borders, walls, and the corresponding questions of morality, responsibility, humanity. All of these themes are embedded into a commentary on mobility in globalized societies. As mobility studies scholar Mimi Sheller contends, 2016—the year Boat People debuted at the Max Ophüls Preis film festival—was a year marked by a number of inhospitable turns in international politics: “more than five thousand people died crossing the Mediterranean, the United Kingdom voted for ‘Brexit’ based on anti-immigrant arguments, right-wing xenophobic political parties made gains in many European countries, and Donald Trump won the US presidential election on a nationalist platform of building a US-Mexico border wall and deporting undocumented migrants” (7). Following Sheller’s thoughts on mobility justice, these occurrences of immobility are inherently linked to the mobility of upper-class elites, to globally mobile capital, and to discourses concerning mobility as an ontological category of modern lives. Sheller therefore proposes the concept of (im)mobility as a way to “signal that mobility and immobility are always connected, relational, and co-dependent, such that we should always think of them together, not as binary opposites but as dynamic constellations of multiple scales, simultaneous practices, and relational meanings” (1).
Meschuh’s film depicts this co-dependency of (im)mobility through the serendipitous encounter between Hannes and Gerlinde with Moussa. For Hannes and Gerlinde, the boat symbolizes their social capital and access to leisure; their mobility in the Mediterranean Sea is made possible by the global flow of capital which determines their wealth and creates access to the tourism industry. The same boat, however, serves as a symbol of immobility which ultimately denies Moussa the opportunity to cross the Mediterranean Sea and exposes him to precarity not dissimilar from his living conditions in Somalia. The boat is therefore not only a vehicle of transportation but a space of social interaction where global power asymmetries materialize in complex ways. Hannes’s and Gerlinde’s hypermobility brings them in contact with Moussa and confronts them with his immobility. This meeting symbolically enacts the power dynamics between the Global North and the Global South. In the field of Border Studies, Gloria Anzaldúa’s graphic description of the border as an open wound—“una herida abierta” (Borderlands/La Frontera 25) — comes to mind here.
The violence of this encounter—Anzaldúa describes it in anthropomorphized metaphors through a process where “the Third World grates against the first and bleeds” (25) also becomes tangible through the film’s politics of representation. Boat People is an at times uncomfortable film to watch, because its subject matter is uncomfortable to many of the viewers at whom it is perhaps aimed. This is certainly no coincidence. For example, the extensive use of telephoto lenses and close-up shots in an already confined space like a boat makes the experience of watching almost claustrophobic in nature. This technique visually exaggerates what’s at the core of the film, namely both the clash and co-dependence of two seemingly irreconcilable positions. This is also reflected in the promotional blurb on the filmmaker’s website: “A political drama of two separated worlds colliding within one global community.”
The spatial logic of the boat takes on a particularly important role in this context. The setting on the boat is a plot-driving element within the film: it throws into relief the effects of physical, ontological, and conceptual borders which impact a person’s (im)mobility. The boat therefore functions as a heterotope for the film’s staging of the collision of what the film blurb terms two separate worlds. In Michel Foucault’s spatial theory, heterotopias are relational sites which “have the curious property of being in relation with all other sites, but in such a way as to suspect, neutralize, or invent the set of relations that they happen to designate, mirror, or reflect” (24). Meschuh’s depiction of the boat resonates with this definition, in particular in the context of the racial, gender, national, and class contexts that intersect on the boat and in the meeting of its passengers. It is an example of what Foucault terms “crisis heterotopias” (24) in the sense that it exemplifies the current refugee crisis as well as the long-term repercussions of early modern colonialism and the slave economy on black lives. In this sense, Hannes’s decision to force Moussa overboard reenacts the violence of the Middle Passage and the expulsion of millions of black lives within the colonial slave economy.
A more immanent crisis the film stages is the moral dilemma Hannes and Gerlinde face. Here, the film offers a brief glimpse of hope through the initial act of hospitality on the part of Hannes and Gerlinde when they let Moussa onto their boat. Although Gerlinde is suspicious and concerned, Hannes recognizes the need to help first and ask questions later. It soon becomes clear, however, that their fear of Moussa will preclude any and all sustained acts of hospitality. The reasons to fear the stranger are often times said to be rooted in “natural” instincts, but as Tabish Khair convincingly argues, even though this side of the argument prevails in liberal bourgeois discourses, one could without a doubt take the position that every society has been founded on human cooperation and understanding rather than fortification against an outside group. Khair concludes, “What is sometimes presented as ‘evidence’ of a natural fear of strangers is dubiously constructed bio-determinism, not that different from now defunct bio-determinist theories regarding the shape of the skull or the moral and intellectual propensities of skin color in the nineteenth century” (2016, 16). And indeed, even though Gerlinde is skeptical, her main concern arises from what to do with the stranger after the successful rescue. They both recognize their obligation to help, only one thinks slightly further ahead than the other. Only a little later in the film, it also dawns on Hannes that now that they have a bona fide refugee on board, they also have created a real problem for themselves.
In the first instance, we have to examine what “makes the stranger,” to adopt Khair’s words. In the case of Boat People, the divide can be easily located in the paradigm of the European border. Khair notes with regard to the power artificial borders have to breed xenophobia, “[e]vidently, in such cases, we have the traces of a stranger being constructed before our very eyes out of a familiar person; a certain understanding of self and other turns a person not just into a stranger, but a hostile or detestable one […]” (2016, 14). The border forces an antagonism between the characters and thereby creates the stranger. The principal willingness to give aid and acknowledge similarity is negated by the restrictions of the border. At sea, where the national law is suspended initial suspicions play a role, but only when they approach the mainland does the real conflict arise. It is important in this context to not think of the border only as geographical constraints, i.e., the border is more than just a landmark. As Thomas Nail points out, “[t]he border is not the result of a spatial ordering, but precisely the other way around – the spatial ordering of society is what is produced by a series of divisions and circulations of motion made by the border” (2016, 9).
Several techniques are employed in the film to visually underline this theme of impending conflict. Firstly, the change of scenery from day to night concentrates the focus even more on the secluded space of the boat. The pitch black world around them vanishes completely and closes in on the boat. Secondly the aforementioned use of telephoto and/or close-up shots further works with the transformation of space in order to create dramatic effects. Telephoto lenses “compress” space, they make objects appear closer to each other than they are, and this exact technique is used when the couple confronts Moussa about their plans to call the coast guard. It is even more apparent the second time Hannes tries to convince Moussa to cross the border “the legal way” in the cabin below deck. The closing in on Hannes’s face (to a degree that it appears distorted) is drastically different from earlier instances in the movie in terms of representation, when the cabin as well as the actors are filmed from a greater distance. Although the viewer has been given visual proof that Moussa is neither a smuggler nor has motives besides taking care of his family, through these techniques a feeling of threat and imminent danger is created. It almost feels as if, as Derrida aptly pointed out, “The one inviting becomes almost the hostage of the one invited, of the guest [hôte], the hostage of the one he receives, the one who keeps him at home” (2000, 9).
The great feat of the movie is the way in which it represents the most basic of all human needs in a way that feels threatening to Gerlinde and Hannes. It accurately shows how the stranger is perceived as a danger when all they want is to take part in the same prosperous life. In this sense the film strongly favors the couples’ point of view and thereby, by default, neglects Moussa’s to a certain extend. There is a line of argument which suggests that this fact in itself recreates a power dynamic which favors the colonist’s perspective on the subject. However, in Boat People, this technique very much feels like an intended part of the puzzle rather than a mishap. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson argue that, “At any moment in a film, we can ask, ‘How deeply do I know the characters’ perceptions, feelings, and thoughts?’ The answer will point directly to how the narration is presenting or withholding story information in order to achieve a formal function or a specific effect on the viewer” (2008, 91). Thus, the perceived threat that emanates from Moussa is created through deliberate misrepresentation (in this case suspension of information). This instance marks yet another testimony to the intended audience and why the film might be particularly effective in terms of eliciting an emotional response from a European middle-class audience. The unfounded fears on the basis of misinformation are cinematically recreated and laid bare; the film reenacts how the stranger is created in real life – by the stranger’s lack of visibility and the resulting lack of knowledge by the host.
Because surely, from a humanitarian or utilitarian perspective the verdict couldn’t be clearer. A human life counts more than a few years in prison but nevertheless—it has to be acknowledged that the couple could also find themselves in a (potentially) life-devastating situation: so-called third party rescuers have been charged with prison sentences and astronomical fines in the past (cf. Basaran 2014). Several recent attempts from various political actors to frame NGOs and private rescuers as smugglers epitomize the criminalization of the host/rescuer. Cap Anamur, Sea Watch, Aquarius – the list is long. However, even more striking is that the conflict only exists because of the border; abandon it and there is no reason for Gerlinde and Hannes not to take Moussa with them to the main land anymore. Thus, the border criminalizes not only Moussa for trying to cross it in search of a better life; it also criminalizes the couple’s wish to give aid. And it is this border which forces them to decide how much Moussa’s life is worth to them.
The film here connects to a concern for the value of black lives in the aftermath of Westerncentric definitions of human life that were invented to justify the systemic violence against black bodies. Sylvia Wynter’s typology of Man 1 and Man 2 derived from the European Enlightenment seeks to expose the racist ideology at the basis of Western ideas of humanness. As Katherine McKittrick explains, Man 1 and Man 2 are “inflected by powerful knowledge systems and origin stories that explain who/what we are” (2015, 10). The Enlightenment logic of placing the (European) Man and their preferred mode of making sense of the world (i.e., biocentric and consumption/accumulation based) at the center of the universe therefore allows for a narrative which is consciously and subconsciously responsible for the downgrading of other forms of “humanness.”
In the end, and here we might return to Jacques Derrida, it boils down to the question of power relations once again. The host (Hannes and Gerlinde) is not an exclusively welcoming figure. This seeming contradiction is conditioned by the fact that, as Derrida states, “hospitality is certainly, necessarily, a right, a duty, an obligation, the greeting of the foreign other [l’autre étranger] as a friend but on the condition that the host* Wirt, the one who receives, lodges or gives asylum remains the patron, the master of the household, on the condition that he maintains his own authority in his own home” (2000, 4). In consequence, the host is also in a privileged position to exert their rights. Thus, it is certainly no coincidence that the conflict is in the end settled by force. In this sense, Boat People highlights several shades of a bigger problem; it acknowledges that the border plays a powerful role in the creation of strangers and the conflicts that arise from that, but it also does not lose sight of the fact that in the end, the two parties are not equal by any means. It is this insight that lets Khair argue that the border does not only create the stranger, but that furthermore, “[t]he functioning national welfare systems of the First World, constructed on old colonial exploitation and classical dominance, are not the exception, but a part of the unequal system of global capitalism”(2016, 48).
Furthermore, Boat People invites viewers to think about the myriad historical and geographical connections at the basis of Moussa’s (im)mobility. The reference to the Middle Passage evokes a long history of violence against black bodies, both in the form of their systematic killings in the trans-Atlantic slave economy and the “social death” diasporic black communities inherited from chattel slavery (Patterson 38). At the same time, the film’s title picks up on the refugee crisis during the Vietnam War and therefore draws a connection between the exodus of what is commonly referred as the Vietnamese boat people and the humanitarian catastrophe in the Mediterranean Sea first prompted by the economic turmoil of various African nations and most recently by the war in Syria. These instances of (im)mobility are interrelated, as Sheller astutely argues with reference to what she terms the current mobility regime: “We witness the death of thousands of migrants at sea or in deserts, the xenophobic treatment of foreign born populations, the rejection of refugees and asylum seekers, the building of walls and detention centers, and the persistence of racist violence and the resurgence of ethnocentric political parties in Europe, North America, and elsewhere” (1). Thus, Boat People functions as a reminder (to Europeans especially), that what is deemed a “European” problem is in fact a global one. The perspective it has to offer is that of a heterotopic space that might lead us to reconsider our role in the current situation. As Foucault has stated, “From the standpoint of the mirror I discover my absence from the place where I am since I see myself over there. Starting from this gaze that is, as it were, directed toward me, from the ground of this virtual space that is on the other side of the glass, I come back toward myself” (24). This distanced view opens the possibility to critically examine the key concepts which are constitutive in separating people from one another. It exposes the conditionality of hospitality and illuminates the role borders play as an embodiment of mobility injustice. It urges us to realize that in order to change our understanding of strangers, we have to step back and dissect the mechanisms which create them in the first place.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1999. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. 2nd edition. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Press.
Basaran, Tugba. 2014. “Saving Lives at Sea: Security, Law and Adverse Effects.” European Journal of Migration and Law Vol.16, No.3: 365-387.
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Foucault, Michel. 1967. “Of Other Spaces.” Trans. Jay Miskowiec. Diacritics (1986): 22 – 27.
Gilroy, Paul. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. London: Verso.
Khair, Tabish. 2016. The New Xenophobia. New Dehli: Oxford University Press.
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Meschuh, Paul, Director. 2016. Boat People [film]. Art Media.
Nail, Thomas. 2016. Theory of the Border. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Patterson, Orlando. 1985. Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Sheller, Mimi. 2018. Mobility Justice: The Politics of Movement in an Age of Extremes. London: Verso.