Living in Limbo

INTERVIEW. An Afghan girl, Rokhsar, and her family have been waiting for years to have their fates decided by the Danish asylum authorities. Emil Langballe's documentary "The Wait" looks at people trapped in an alienating system.

"I'm trying to wrap my head around it. You say you applied for asylum six years ago, and you still didn't get an answer?" The woman at the Danish Immigration Service can't believe her ears. But it's true – this coming May, that's how long the Afghan girl on the phone and the other members of her family, all appearing in Emil Langballe's documentary "The Wait," have been waiting.

I want to put the audience right in the thick of it, make them feel what Rokhsar's going through. But I also want to show the contrast between the different worlds she navigates • Emil Langballe

Rokhsar and her family live in a Danish provincial town. The film follows her from age 13 to 16. She quickly picks up Danish, wins an award as Soccer Player of the Year and is clearly well liked by her classmates. Rokhsar, who describes herself and her family as modern Muslims, is bright, charismatic and hungry for a life in Denmark. 

She and her family have repeatedly had their application for asylum denied, however. Sometimes, they're told they only have 15 days to leave the country. They have been unable to convince the authorities that they were personally persecuted by the Taliban in Afghanistan. The family hasn't given up hope and is exploring every avenue to stay in Denmark, but the long wait is clearly taking its toll on them all. 

Constant Fear 

How did you find Rokhsar? 

"I read about her in a newspaper article, which described the fear she lives with every day. I was really impressed by her ability to reflect on her situation, so I went to visit her and saw how dramatically different her role in the family is from that of most 14-year-olds. Plus, she seemed like a really amazing protagonist – strong and assertive but also very fragile – and I slowly started filming her." 

How would you describe the life her family lives? 

"The family is in limbo and lives in constant fear of being deported back to Afghanistan. Even now that their case is being reconsidered, they could receive a negative ruling anytime and would then have 15 days to leave the country on their own volition unless they want to be forcibly deported. They're under enormous pressure, especially Rokhsar, who has lived a third of her life in Denmark and has taken on the responsibility for the fate of her family." 

What is Rokhsar's role in the family? 

"Rokhsar is probably the one in her family who has the most to lose. She was among the first in her family to come to Denmark, and the first to be sent to a Danish school, so she's the only one in the family who commands the language. As a result, she has gradually, and involuntarily, become the one who communicates with the authorities and lawyers, and who interprets for her mother at the doctor's and elsewhere. The system has forced her to grow up in record time and become a parent to her own parents, which has had grave consequences for her psyche and well-being."  

THE WAIT. Director Emil Langballe captures the pressure felt by Rokhsar, who is the only one in the family who speaks Danish properly. Photo: Emil Langballe

Observational Method 

We get the sense that Rokhsar's parents have suffered a loss of status. 

"Yes, very much so. Back in Afghanistan, her mother was a teacher. She loved her job. And now her daughter is teaching her Danish. That certainly goes for her father, too, who feels utterly disempowered. He used to be the patriarch of the family, but now has a hard time navigating the system and has had to cede responsibility for their case to his young daughter. Neither of her parents is allowed to work in Denmark, and they slowly grow despondent and apathetic." 

It must have been hard not to get involved emotionally along the way? 

"Yes, it was really hard to witness Rokhsar's gradual erosion, I must say. The mood in the family changes significantly over time, and the laughs and good times are fewer and farther between. Also, she has suffered several breakdowns requiring hospitalisation. It was extremely hard to stay on the sidelines and not be able to help. After all, the only thing that will help her is a residence permit." 

How do you, as a storyteller, approach Rokhsar's story? 

"I primarily use the observational method, or cinéma verité, and have tried to tell as much of Rokhsar's story as I can in scenes, as close to the events as possible. I want to put the audience right in the thick of it, make them feel what she's going through, watch her expression change as her spark slowly goes out. But I also want to show the contrast between the different worlds she navigates, as a teenager with her friends and as a little grownup at home. 

"It has been a challenge, because their case is so complex, and I think you have to comprehend it to some extent to understand the pressure she's under. So, we worked a lot with her voiceover, which is both sensitive and explanatory."

A Much-Needed Voice 

What's the system like that her family encounters in Denmark? 

"It's a system that communicates extremely sparingly, sends letters in Danish to Dari-speaking families, conveys harrowing news by phone to minors and whose case-processing leaves families hanging for years, forcing them to live in constant uncertainty, which is incredibly corrosive. Meanwhile, as asylum seekers, they're basically left to their own devices, having to navigate regulation that's incredibly complicated."  

Did the debate about refugees change over the years you made the film? 

"Yes, I think it did. The discourse has changed dramatically. It's almost like refugees have become second-class people who don't deserve the same treatment or the same rights as everybody else. I saw a general coarsening of the refugee debate even before I started the film, which was probably one reason why I contacted this family in the first place." 

What are you hoping to accomplish with this film? 

"To give a voice to a group of people who all too often are demonised and all too rarely get a chance to speak" •

More about the film

"The Wait" is directed by Emil Langballe and produced by Helle Faber for Made in Copenhagen, who also manages international sales. The film has received funding from the Danish Film Institute. Find more about the film and filmmaker in factsheets right.

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