Do We Really Need More Fences like Melilla?

INTERVIEW. In "Those Who Jump," directors Moritz Siebert and Estephan Wagner address the complex theme of migration through one simple narrative concept: young men wanting to jump a fence.

The theme of migration has been part of Moritz Siebert and Estephan Wagner's work for a very long time. Both have worked on several documentary projects that involved the issue. Their first collaboration together, "Those Who Jump," which was awarded the Ecumenical Award at the Berlinale, takes up the subject once more, offering an insider's view on the current migrant crisis in Europe.

It is a very human story, a film about hope and despair. But of course it also asks questions. Is a fence where people die something we want? • Estephan Wagner

Abou Bakar Sidibé from Mali is one of the more than a thousand hopeful African migrants living on a mountain above the Spanish enclave of Melilla in northern Marocco.

Here, he and his fellow migrants watch the land border, a fence system separating Morocco and Spain. For over a year, Abou has persisted in attempting to jump the fence, where he and the others must overcome razor wire, automatic pepper spraying and brutal authorities. After every failed attempt, they return to Mount Gurugú, trying to build up their confidence once again.

With Abou both in front of and behind the camera, the film follows him over 16 months in his struggle to reach dignity and freedom on the other side.

German filmmaker Moritz Siebert and Chilean-German Estephan Wagner talk about their film and about getting Abou on board:

THOSE WHO JUMP. Abou Bakar Sidibé is both behind and in front of the camera, documenting his and countless other African migrants' search for a safe haven. Photo: Final Cut for Real

How did you come up with the idea for the story?

Moritz Siebert: "When in 2014 news reports about the massive attempts to overcome the triple-fences in Melilla started to spread, we were deeply impressed by the strong determination of the mostly young men from sub-Saharan countries.  No matter how badly they got injured, no matter what modifications where applied on the fence, they would not deter from what they perceived as their fundamental right: to enter Europe and reach for a better future. In an attempt to translate this strong energy into a film the idea came up to pass on the camera – and thus the cinematic choices – to a participant and thus make him part of this filmic experiment."

Estephan Wagner: "This was around a year before the theme of migration toward Europe became so extremely present in the media. But already then we felt that often the perspective of the migrants themselves was missing in the general discussion. It is all too easy to judge from our warm living room how the world looks like. The first-person narrative includes elements of empowerment and democratisation, which is unashamedly lacking in the mainstream discourse."

Why hand over the camera to Abou?

EW: "The idea developed quite early on. We wanted to build a film with a solid conceptual skeleton – although we did not know what the final concept would become. The perspective was the most central aspect of this framework. We were interested in creating a visual style that went beyond the beautiful, fiction-like aesthetics so often used in documentaries nowadays. But the film not only consists of Abou's material. We chose to include the perspective of the fence itself, as a concrete juxtaposition to Abou's very intimate footage symbolising the common view of the migrants as 'faceless hordes' – black dots on CCTV screens."

MS: "During the planning for the film we tried to develop an aesthetical concept for the film which ideally would add a new or different quality to the existing works on the theme. When we received the first rushes from Abou we immediately had the impression that there was something in his images we would never have been able to achieve ourselves. It was almost a physical experience: through these images we got the impression we could 'smell' the place of filming. To us they conveyed a kind of immediacy that would have been impossible for us to achieve."

THOSE WHO JUMP. The directors felt early on that often the perspective of the migrants themselves was missing in the general discussion. Photo: Final Cut for Real

How did you find Abou?

MS: "We were introduced to Abou and some of his friends through a photographer from Melilla who had been working for ten years on the subject. In the beginning we handed out two cameras, one to Abou and another to a friend of his. Although in the beginning Abou was mainly attracted by the money we offered him for filming, it soon became clear that he developed a great joy in the production of images. Also, Abou is a very open person and it was important for him that his and his friends' story shouldn't be forgotten in the future. Therefore it was an easy choice to have Abou become a partner in this project."

EW: "His sensitivity, his focus and inventiveness absolutely surprised us. And since he had been on the mountain for over a year at that point, everybody knew and trusted him. So he could film very freely. As the process developed we began to work on the voiceover as an equal team. Abou had written his story in a sort of diary, and based on that and on several interviews we had done with him, the writing process came about. So the project became more and more of a collaboration as it went along. Abou's role developed from 'only' being protagonist and cameraman to becoming a co-director of the film as well."

THOSE WHO JUMP. Photo: Final Cut for Real 

Did you give Abou any particular instructions?

EW: "We did not have a concrete idea of how the story would be built. We partially knew the reality on Gurugú, but we didn’t know what would be possible to film, and how. We did make some basic camera training with Abou, to make him aware of how you construct a scene, how different angles and perspectives help in the editing. Also things like moving with the camera instead of using the zoom, avoiding to much shaking, making shots long enough … But many elements in the film were his own inventions, like playing music from his mobile phone while filming, or keeping the camera on while escaping from the police. We were overwhelmed when we first saw that footage!"

MS: "When editing the film Abou was less involved in the process. He lived in Spain in the beginning and then, after coming to Germany, he was sent to five different asylum centres. This made a common workflow difficult at this stage. Our most intensive collaboration at this point was on the voice-over. After Abou had come to Germany, he began writing his story. Together with the audio interviews we conducted during and after the shooting, we developed ideas for the voice-over. We put together passages from the original material and sent these texts to Abou, who in turn made changes and additions. Then, in October 2015, we recorded the preliminary voice-over with a video camera over one day in Berlin."


What message do you want to send with your film?


EW: "Although 'Those Who Jump' has a clear stand, it is certainly not an activist film. It is a very human story, a film about hope and despair, about the merging of dreams and reality, and about doing whatever it takes to build a better future. But of course it also asks questions. Is a fence where people die something we want? And seeing an increased build-up of fences between EU countries, we are confronted with the question if we want the European border – that each of us pays for with our taxes – to be like the one in Melilla?

MS: "First of all with this film we want to show great respect to the bravery and determination of the people on Mount Gurugú. On a formal level we try out a different aesthetical concept, which others have to decide if it adds something to the existing works on the theme. Of course the film comes out in a time where migration is one of the main topics in the news. When journalists as well as politician discuss the necessity to 'secure the borders' we think this film can give a good insight into what this technical and 'clean' term means when shifted into practice" •

THOSE WHO JUMP. Photo: Final Cut for Real

Revised version of an article originally published in February 2016

More about the film

"Those Who Jump," with the original title "Les sauteurs" is directed by Moritz Siebert and Estephan Wagner, with Abou Bakar Sidibé as co-director. Producers are Signe Byrge Sørensen and Heidi Elise Christensen for Final Cut for Real, the company behind Joshua Oppenheimer's 2016 Oscar nominee "The Look of Silence." The film has received a grant through the Danish Film Institute's Film Workshop. Wide House is handling international sales.

The film made its world premiere at the Berlinale, where it took home the Ecumenical Award. Since then it has been honoured at a string of festivals, including the Amnesty International Award at Docs Against Gravity in Warsaw.

Find more about the film and filmmakers in factsheets right.

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