It was with some apprehension that I received a last-minute invitation from Fabien Riggall, the producer of Secret Cinema, to help document a unique film screening last Saturday, on the Worldwide Day of Action for Refugees, writes Dougal Wilson.
The venue, Fabien explained, wouldn’t be in London. He intended to build a makeshift cinema in the Calais migrant camp, dubbed ‘The Jungle’.
Like everybody else, I’d seen the garbage strewn, shanty-town-like images of the Jungle in the media, often accompanied by headlines like, “At night it’s like something from a horror film”. The UNHCR’s more official position was that, “the conditions are totally unacceptable and are not consistent with the kind of values that a democratic society should have. This is a shameful situation to witness in the heart of the European Union.”
So, given that the Jungle’s inhabitants immediate concerns were probably food, clothing, shelter and medical attention (not to mention asylum in the UK), why would they want a cinema? Was this an inappropriately hip and sanctimonious media-related response to a genuine humanitarian crisis?
My politically correct conscience wrestled with Fabian’s proposition, until my girlfriend pointed out that it was very easy to be cynical and overthink this. For displaced people with nothing at all, an escape from the drudgery of rain and food queues could simply be a nice thing to be involved in. “We’re not a humanitarian organisation,” Fabian had explained to The Guardian that week, “but we feel passionate that art can tell the truth and that having an escape from their predicament through access to culture will offer a break from this constant reality of living in tents.”
All photos courtesy Ursula Chandler and Dougal Wilson
Secret Cinema’s plan was to simultaneously screen a film in the Jungle camp in Calais, and meanwhile, hold a ticketed event in central London, with proceeds going to the Refugee Council. Further international screenings would be held in Germany, Italy, Austria, Japan, Kenya, Tunisia – in fact any other country where someone wanted to host one, which they could do by downloading a pack from the Secret Protest website. The long-term ambition was that all this would lead to a more permanent cinema being set up in the Jungle, with perhaps even more cinemas being established in camps worldwide.
Suffice to say, my girlfriend and I packed two Canon 5Ds and a change of clothes, and, the next morning at 7am, somewhat nervously boarded the Eurostar to Calais.
On board, we met up with a small group of friendly Secret Cinema staff and volunteers, including production crew, general helpers, and a documentary team, for whom we’d be filming additional handheld material. Meanwhile, vans transporting the actual projection equipment and generators were currently on a ferry to meet us in Calais.
As the train sped into the quiet darkness of channel tunnel, and the reality of our trip set in, I ruminated again on my slight misgivings. Some reassurance was provided by Bob, a creative producer and Amy, a junior producer for Secret Cinema, who, along with Fabien, had already visited the camp earlier in the week. “It’s important we all remember that the environment we are working in this weekend is extremely different to one in which any of us have worked before. We got a good feeling for the camp and our activity, but we will have to be sensitive to our surroundings and to the people who live there.”
So how do you actually get into the Jungle? Well, you basically just walk there from the train station. Passing Calais’ grand neo-Flemish town hall and Rodin’s sombre sculpture The Burghers of Calais, the streets quickly settle into quiet, nondescript suburbia. The occasional African or Afghan passed us on a bicycle, often loaded with large bundles. Small, detached houses gave way to scruffy industrial sprawl and tangled woodland. Everything was very quiet.
Then, up ahead, we heard distant chanting. As it got louder, the words became more distinct. “NO JUNGLE, NO JUNGLE….” Suddenly, a column of people appeared round a corner, marching back towards Calais from the direction of the camp. This was the refugee protest, organised by occupants of the Jungle, and planned to coincide with the rally held in London, to bring attention back to the refugees already here in Calais while the UK decides to accept more from overseas. While the rest of our group proceeded to the camp to prepare the screening, we had been assigned to film and photograph the protest.
It was a somewhat dramatic first-hand introduction to the migrant crisis. Suddenly we found ourselves part of the march, surrounded by over 300 Syrians, Afghans, Sudanese and Kuwaitis, shouting, chanting, banging drums and waving banners. Police cars crawled along close by. The mood, however, while boisterous, was good-natured and never threatening. It was strange to think, with all these nationalities around us, that we could walk away from this situation whenever we liked, but for the protesters this would not be so simple. As the town hall came back into view, the march slowed. We took the opportunity to hand out flyers, in Arabic and Pashto, informing people about tonight’s screening.
While tonight’s movie in London would be Turtles Can Fly, the acclaimed drama about the lives of Kurdish refugees in Iraq, The Jungle’s film this evening would be something slightly lighter – the Bollywood classic Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. Secret Cinema had done their research about what would hopefully go down best with the camp’s demographic. “Bollywood is big in Afghanistan and across the Middle East, as well as in Pakistan,” Fabien had said. “They’re really feel-good films, everyone loves them.”
Whilst our flyers were being received with a mixture of intrigue and puzzled bewilderment, the march had ground to a standstill. A line of French riot police in outfits resembling Robocop were blocking the way, clearly with no intention of letting anybody through to the town centre. The protesters kept reasonably calm, the most agitated attendee being an over-excited western cameraman insistent on getting the perfect tracking shot along the line of bemused policemans’ faces, yelling at his assistant to swap his “sticks” for an elaborate 5D steadicam rig “NOW”.
Having given out our flyers and trying our best to explain to as many people as possible about the concept of tonight’s free film show, we left the protest and finally headed back towards the camp.
There’s no checkpoint or gates at the entrance to the Calais Jungle. You just walk past a chemical works, beneath a motorway flyover, and suddenly you’re inside. Immediately startling is the contrast to the familiar urban landscape of asphalt, bricks and concrete you were just in. You now find yourself on a dirty, sandy track lined with a chaotic jumble of tents, canvas huts, and structures improvised from plastic sheeting and timber. The place, however, does have some sense of order. A map clearly shows where the Afghan, Sudanese and Eritrean campsites are. There’s street lighting on tall wooden poles. There are shops to buy drinks and snacks run by friendly, enterprising Afghans. There’s a lot of litter, except I also didn’t see any bins provided to put it in. People walking past greeted us, although photography wasn’t always entirely welcome. There’s a concern amongst some camp inhabitants that if authorities get hold of your image it could jeopardise your chances of a passage to the UK. We asked wherever possible before taking photos.
We proceeded towards the Sudanese area, where the Secret Cinema screen was being erected. Some of the dwellings we passed had a touching sense of permanence – a miniature house with plant pots outside, a church complete with spire. A lot of football was being played. While we were wary that we were visitors to a place that might be resentful of inappropriate attention, the atmosphere was calm and welcoming rather that intimidating.
We arrived at the sandy clearing where Secret Cinema’s vans had already arrived. A deflated, bouncy castle-like object lay on the ground. Small groups of intrigued camp inhabitants watched as the projection team began to pump air into the structure, and it mysteriously rose and started taking shape. We chatted to the very friendly Sudanese men, including Abdullah, who invited us into his small tent, where we met his friends and his brother. They were softly spoken and humble, explaining that they had been in the Jungle three months. They received one meal a day but little medical care. They were increasingly reluctant to attempt to cross to England via a freight train or ferry as some of their friends had been injured or even killed attempting this. We had been increasingly aware of the unsettling number of people we’d seen limping on crutches in the camp. Broken limbs, apparently, were a common injury from people trying to leap onto trains or trucks. We told Abdullah and his friends about the concert and film screening which was happening shortly – almost outside their tent.
Meanwhile, Matthew, Secret Cinema’s Head of Music, had set up a large soundsystem on the sand, and was playing a Bob Marley track. To suddenly hear music in this environment was quite uplifting. Matthew was with Olushola Ajose, better known by his stage name, Afrikan Boy, a hip hop/afrobeat MC originally from Nigeria, who now lives in London. As the sun began to set, Afrikan Boy took the mike and introduced himself to the swelling crowd. Using the sandy ground as his stage, he began his set to the delight of the audience, who gathered around him in a circle. Afrikan Boy’s music fuses the grime style of south-east London with the classic Fela Kuti afrobeat sound of the Nigeria of his parents. The lyrics reflect his life experience, and seemed to resonate strongly with residents of Jungle camp, who danced and swayed their arms in the air, chanting, “Made in Africa, born in the UK.”
This was all happening in front of the slowly inflating projection screen, which, it was becoming apparent, was enormous. Darkness was falling on the camp as Afrika Boy finished his comically British encore, One Day I went to Lidl, exiting through a sea of handshakes. Fully inflated, the screen towered over the crowd, which now must have numbered around 1,000. The Secret Cinema projectionists busily calibrated their equipment from their projection booth (a van with its back doors open), and there were sudden cheers as a huge test card lit up the screen, illuminating wide-eyed faces.
With the help of interpreters, Fabien came forward and made a speech explaining that Secret Cinema had come to the camp because they believed cinema was a good thing, and to show that many British people empathised with the plight of refugees and migrants. Rising to the pronunciation challenge, he introduced Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, politely caveating that the film was over three hours long and that everybody might want to sit down.
‘DDLJ’, as it is often called, is one of the world’s favourite films. Written and directed by Aditya Chopra, it was one of only three Hindi films in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before Your Die, and is the longest running film in Indian history, reaching over 1,000 consecutive weeks in a single cinema.
Much of it is set in London, and revolves around two young Indians, played by ‘King of Bollywood’ Shah Rukh Khan and megastar Kajol Devgan, who fall in love during a European vacation. Raj tries to win over Simran’s family so the couple can marry, but her father has long since promised her hand to his friend’s son. The movie has the furious-paced goofball charm of a Western rom-com like When Harry Met Sally, combined with the melodramatic star-crossed cinematic romance of Brief Encounter. It is both seductive and innocent, with laughs, heartache, the obligatory Bollywood musical numbers and a brilliant final punch-up that resembles a sequence from a shonky Kung-Fu B-movie.
Despite its 187 minute running time in the chilly Calais night air, the assembled Sudanese, Afghans, Kuwaitis, Syrians and Eritreans hardly took their eyes off the screen. There were laughs at the goofy jokes, cheers at the triumphs, boos at the baddies, and some audience members even stood up to dance during the songs. I was suddenly aware that I could be in the classic scene in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, where, while incarcerated in a labour camp, Sullivan attends a showing of a Disney Pluto cartoon. Looking at the pure joy in the audience’s faces, Sullivan realises that comedy can do more good for the poor than his proposed social drama, O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Whatever dangers these people had fled from, and whatever their hopes for the future, under the stars in this dirty wasteland outside a small French port, we were all reminded that these were just people, enjoying the innocent pleasures of the cinema like anybody else.
As the film’s happy ending gave way to the credits, the audience reluctantly but politely dispersed, many shaking our hands and thanking us for the evening. Any doubts I’d had about our gesture had been completely allayed, and I think we all departed back to Calais with many thoughts about the individuals we’d seen and met, who so often are depicted on in the media as abstractions or statistics.
Fabien and Secret Cinema hope the project doesn’t end here. Their hope is to launch a more permanent cinema in Calais and other camps.
Perhaps the strongest feeling I took away from the event was that it’s important to be reminded that people are just people, whatever their circumstances. And, while food, shelter, clothing and medicine obviously must take priority, sometimes a small escape from reality can remind you that you’re still human yourself.
To donate time to the project contact firstname.lastname@example.org and for information go to secretprotest.org.