Miriam Fassbender talks about ‘Foreign’

Here is another article from my time at Alpbach Media Academy. This was written with Florian Peschl.

Miriam Fassbender
Photo by Luiza Puiu

German film-maker Miriam Fassbender spent six years making the documentary, Foreign.

It tells the story of a young Malian called Mohammed on his attempted migration from Africa to Spain in the hope of finding a ‘better life’ so he can provide for his family.

In the so-called no-man’s-land between Morocco and Algeria he meets the Cameroonian musician Jerry. Together they want to overcome the last and biggest hurdle — the final leg from the Algerian-Moroccan border to Europe. With the experience of already having tried a few times before, they realise that their attempt will be highly dangerous. The film uncovers the true struggle of seeking a life free from poverty and challenges our perception of immigrants in Europe.

Fassbender decided to make the film after she met some migrants from Maghnia in Algeria when she was working on another project in Casablanca. “I met them on their way back to their home country after they had realised that Europe wasn’t really welcoming of them at all – they were shocked,” she says. After speaking to them, she quickly realised “how absurd it is to block the borders like this – to construct walls and to block all these people who have quite similar expectations of life as we do”.

The concept

She met them again in Algeria and screened a rough cut of footage shot in Mali in 2005. They liked what they saw and they felt Fassbender understood their situation so they agreed to take part in the film.

Fassbender found a producer, Max Milhahn, and spent one year researching the migrant situation after securing some funding for the project. “We started shooting in 2006. When I arrived in Mali, I realised all this research didn’t help at all – only to know where lots of migrants passed,” she says.

Just as the research was abandoned, the original plan changed as well. In the beginning, Fassbender intended to only “shoot in sub-Saharan Africa in one place where lots of…’economical refugees’ come from. But then the concept changed after I met one of my protagonists, Mohamed. He was a much stronger character, story-wise, than the others had been”. In the film, Mohamed – the eldest of seven children – doesn’t want to leave Mali, but his family want him to travel to Europe, ‘a paradise’, so he can provide them with more money. Turning back was never an option because his parents had to sell their cows to finance his journey and he wouldn’t have been able to live with the guilt.

“I was never sure if this film would ever be made”

Film maker Miriam Fassbender
Miriam Fassbender talks to Florian Peschl. Photo by Luiza Puiu

There were many moments when Fassbender thought about turning back on the film. It took over six years to complete, and even in the editing process, she almost gave up twice. “I was never sure if this film would even be made,” she says. But just like in Mohamed’s case, turning back was not on the table: “You’ve got a responsibility towards your purpose and your protagonists,” she says. “These guys are individuals and you have to tell their stories individually so that all this post-colonial ignorance [in Europe] stops. If you see them suffering because of our political influence in Africa, I really feel ashamed. You can see that economical interests in Europe are really destroying sub-Saharan Africa – especially in Mali.”

The struggle to complete the film is almost a paradox to Mohamed and Jerry’s arduous struggle to get from Africa through Algeria and Morocco to Europe: “If someone had told me that it would take six years [to finish the film], I probably would not have done it because I wouldn’t have thought that I would have the energy to stick with the subject and this theme all that time,” she says. “And it’s the same with the migrants. If someone told them it would take 10 years to reach Europe, then maybe they would stay in their own countries and try to establish themselves there.”

Participatory video

In order to capture footage of the migrants on their journey without jeopardising everything, Fassbender provided them with digital cameras. “I asked them to film…and I told them if they ran out of money and couldn’t buy food, they should sell the camera but keep the tapes,” she says. “In the end that happened – all the cameras were sold. But I got some tapes back when I was in Morocco two years later.”

Getting permission to shoot footage was not a huge problem. In fact, it was hardly even considered because Fassbender was filming people who were officially illegal. So to keep the film on track, the team was kept to a minimum. “I can’t take responsibility of decisions of someone else, if someone doesn’t want to do something that is illegal, you cannot blame someone for not wanting to do it,” she says. “So I thought I am going there alone because I know I can trust myself. I know what I can do and what I can’t do, but I can’t take the risk of someone else.”

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