Can Images Shape the Future? A Conversation with Director Abou Bakar Sidibé
By Angela Rabing
Abou Bakar Sidibé is a co-director of the films Les Sauteurs – Those Who Jump (2016) and My New European Life (2019). In both, he documents his life as migrant who tries to find a way to Europe and build a life there. Sidibé was born in Mali and now lives in Germany. He entered the EU from Morocco, where he jumped the border fences that surround Melilla, a Spanish exclave, and a part Europe, on the African continent. For the MECAM TRAFO blog series, “Aesthetic Practices and Mediated Temporalities”, I met with Sidibé to look back on his time on Mount Gourougou in eastern Morocco, his passage from there, and the films he made about his experiences. We discussed the politics, power, and powerlessness of images, imagining futures, and dealing with the harsh realities of migration.
Sidibé spent 15 months in a forest on Mount Gourougou, living in the improvised refugee camp by the European border close to Melilla, when the documentary directors Moritz Siebert and Estephan Wagner approached him and asked him to film his life in the camp. They had heard about the men who live in camps in the forest and try to jump the fences that secure EU borders. Siebert and Wagner were among several journalists that came to Melilla, however, giving a camera to and asking a person actually under these circumstances to film their own life brought forward one of the most interesting documentary films on recent migration movements towards Europe: Les Sauteurs – Those Who Jump.
Sidibé had met with journalists from time to time already, talked about his situation, and would get some money to buy food for himself and the other men who lived on Mount Gourougou in return. He describes himself as “the guy who helped the men on the mountain”. At first, when meeting the two directors, he would take the camera, document his situation, and get paid for it. But he soon understood that the camera could change his life.
Along with the camera, Siebert and Wagner gave him instructions on how to film. Sidibé, however, wanted to film in his own way, “even if it wouldn’t be good enough for the final film”, he says during our interview. As shown in the film, he goes around the camp, talks to the men he meets, and documents their everyday life under the most difficult circumstances: looking for food in the trash, walking long distances to get water, taking a shower out of buckets, or treating injuries after a jump. He finds joy when his camera follows donkeys and dogs, also in the camp, or when, only for a moment, the film becomes a sports documentary of a football match between refugees from Mali and the Ivory Coast. Sidibé also films running from the Moroccan police who burn down the camp. When asked if there was anything he couldn’t film, he replies that there was nothing – he even filmed himself naked, what else would there be? Watching the film, you can see how he starts to experiment and enjoy the process. At one point in the film’s voice-over, Sidibé talks about how he began to express himself through images. Eventually, the European directors gave him free rein.
Thus, Sidibé became a co-director. In our conversation he tells us that Siebert and Wagner were still there to support him, but he is clear about his status as a director. Other men in the camp may have handled the camera or asked him to film something, but it was always he who made the decisions. If he wanted to be in a scene, he’d ask someone else to take the camera and give direction on how to film along. The fact that he handled the camera made it easier for everyone to accept the project: “one of us is recording”, says Sidibé. Even before he received the camera, he was already writing down his story. But, with the film, he started to focus on recording with the camera, he says in our conversation:
Because the camera has the image and that will be important in the future. Because maybe some people will see me, maybe my family, maybe other people around the world will see what we were doing and how we survived on this mountain. And I started to focus on the camera. I took the camera with me everywhere I [went]. Everything I was doing, I recorded it. The camera became my best friend and something like a part of my body. I thought it would be interesting to record everything I do.
He filmed as much as he could – and kept filming even after he made it to Europe – with a feeling that he “had to show his life” on Mount Gourougou as well as after. He even finished a second film on his migration experience: My New European Life is another collaboration with Siebert. Here, Sidibé documents his life between a German refugee shelter and the film festivals that would show and award prizes to their first film.
Les Sauteurs premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2016, where it received the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury. Afterwards, it was shown at several international film festivals, among them the Hong Kong International Film Festival, the Melbourne International Film Festival, and Docs Against Gravity in Poland, where it was awarded the Amnesty International Award. My New European Life won Best German Short Film at the Oberhausen International Short Film Festival. Even though both his films are well received, it doesn’t change Sidibé’s personal situation. He is an award-winning filmmaker now; but he is also an asylum seeker whose request for asylum in Germany was rejected. He makes visible the injustices of migration and the EU’s migratory system. Exposing them in his films, however, has no effect on his own status. His films travel all over the world, but the filmmaker himself is not allowed to do the same. My New European Life talks about these lived inequalities, about the futures he imagined, and the very different present he lives in now.
What Sidibé knew about Europe was shaped by images. He was influenced by stories from others who made it to Europe before him. And he was affected by televised depictions and films that made Europe seem like paradise. He repeats in the interview what he also says in the film’s voice-over: even though he knew this wasn’t true, he had to think of Europe as paradise to make himself jump and try again and again. As Sidibé has a mediated vision of a future in Europe, Europe creates its own images of African migrants. These depict them as swarms or floods, as intruders that should be kept out. European images play an important role in illegalising migration and reinforcing the EU’s policy of closure. These portrayals of migrants and migration are part of Les Sauteurs, too. Whenever the men jump the fences, we don’t see it through Sidibés personal camera, but through the official CCTV footage from border security. Thus, by using Europe’s imagery and contrasting it with a personal perspective, the film challenges and modifies its meaning. No longer showing an alleged danger to EU security, the abstracted black-and-white footage exposes the EU’s cold view on migration. But with his films, Sidibé also creates his own, alternative image portrayals and shares them with the world. There are three kinds of images in Les Sauteurs: imagined visions of a heavenly Europe, the EU’s visual politics of migration, and a migrant’s gaze, which documents his journey and challenge both.
What kind of future would he have had, had he stayed in Mali? “Today, I would not come. I would do something there”, says Sidibé. His idea of a European future was impacted by images. Now, Abou Sidibé creates his own counter-images and hopes to start a conversation that might change the future of migration.
Angela Rabing is a research assistant in the Department of Film Studies and Media Aesthetics at the IKFK at the University of Bremen. Her current doctoral project investigates digital aesthetics of filmic realism. Previously, she completed her master’s degree in media studies at the Ruhr-University Bochum.
Further articles in the #Aesthetics&CulturalPractice thread of the #MECAM series on TRAFO:
Call for Contributions: Aesthetic Practices and Mediated Temporalities of the Maghreb and the Mashriq, 20 January 2022
Citation: Angela Rabing, Can Images Shape the Future? A Conversation with Director Abou Bakar Sidibé, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.02.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/32373