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Screening Strangers: Migration and Diaspora in Contemporary European Cinema by Yosefa Loshitzky

by Emiliano Perra
31 May 2011 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [7] | Review

Review of: Yosefa Loshitzky (2010) Screening Strangers: Migration and Diaspora in Contemporary European Cinema. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, pb, x+215 pages

Right from the outset, Screening Strangers lets the reader know what it is about. With a clever pun, the title refers to the act of screening (as in putting on screen, representing in cinema) migrants that are also screened (as in filtering the desired and the undesired) by a whole array of institutions within Fortress Europe. As the author argues, ‘this instrumental approach to human lives explains the prominence of the screening metaphor in elite political discourse on migration, as well as in media and public responses to it’ (2); the screening metaphor reflects the rise of surveillance society in the New Europe obsessed with controlling its borders, a recurrent theme in many of the films discussed in the book (4).

This is a burning issue, as testified by a series of recent publications on similar subjects, dealing either with the ways in which European national cinematographies are coming to terms with this theme, or with specific topics such as the artistic integration of African migrants into European culture including cinema, as is the case in Grace Russo Bullaro, ed. From Terrone to Extracomunitario: New Manifestations of Racism in Contemporary Italian Cinema (Leicester: Troubadour, 2010) and Elisabeth Bekers, Sissy Helff and Daniela Merolla, eds. Transcultural Modernities: Narrating Africa in Europe (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009).

However, the book’s ideal companion is Daniela Berghahn and Claudia Sternberg, eds. European Cinema in Motion: Migrant and Diasporic Film in Contemporary Europe (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). The two books not only have in common the discussion of a relatively similar corpus of films, but more importantly they are both programmatically transnational in their approach. As Loshitzky points out, the new transnational European films that deal with migration and diaspora are part of a cinema that cuts across and undermines previously defined boundaries (15).

What is specific about Screening Strangers is that each chapter highlights a theme in the public discourse on the European immigration debate. Many of these issues are concealed and covert because taboo in post-Holocaust Europe. Thus, topics of race and racial mixing are disguised as part of a discourse on integration, shared values and social cohesion, while topics of terror, crime and faith-religion are relegated to the discourse on security (11).

Another characteristic of Screening Strangers is its cohesiveness. The book reproduces the theme of the journey in its very structure, following an ideational migratory route to Europe (and back). In other words, Loshitzky identifies three macro genres referring to three stages: “Journey of Hope” (Chapter 1), “In the Promised Land” (Chapters 2, 3 and 4), and “New Europe” (Chapters 4 and 5) (15). Chapter 1 engages with the liminal zones of Fortress Europe, dealing with cross-border and journey films such as Journey of Hope (Reise der Hoffnung, Xavier Koller, 1990), Spare Parts (Damjan Kozole, 2003), and Last Resort (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2000). By portraying the hardships endured by migrants and refugees on their way to the host country in Europe, this genre subverts mainstream public discourse on migrants, which dehumanizes and criminalises them (11).

Chapters 2 and 3 deal with the arrival in the city. Chapter 2 explores the use of the city, especially the capital city as the stage for the drama of exodus to Europe. It is the case of Vienna in Nordrand (Northern Skirts, Barbara Albert, 1999), and London in Beautiful People (Jasmin Dizdar, 1999), and Dirty Pretty Things (Stephen Frears, 2002). A feature highlighted by the author of many films about migrants is that the capital cities have been deprived of their landmarks, as their landscape is transformed (especially in the suburbs) by their migrant inhabitants. The London of Dirty Pretty Things is the London of the Other, the non-tourist London, the underground London that keeps the engine of the global city running and that even Londoners (let alone tourists) do not want to see. Chapter 3 focuses on Rome as portrayed in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Besieged (1998). Here the old mansion inhabited by Kinsky is in the city centre, but it is old, dusty, and filled with refined clutter, just like the Europe embodied by its owner. The film argues that Europe needs to share the wealth inherited for its colonial past and open its doors to the Other, for its own good. However, as Loshitzky notes, this message is delivered with more than a pinch of ambiguity, as the sequence of the duet between the white master with the piano and the black muse with the vacuum cleaner starkly exemplifies (83).

Chapters 4 and 5 engage with the reverse ideological journeys of the second generation (12). Chapter 4 takes the lead from Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine (1995) to explore the construction of the Jew, Europe’s historical internal other, in a post-Holocaust and postcolonial context, thus offering a new perspective on the relationship between Europe’s old and new others. Chapter 5 draws upon Giorgio Agamben’s use of the camp as the biopolitical paradigm of the West to discuss three films by Michael Winterbottom: In this World (2002), Code 46 (2003), and The Road to Guantanamo (2006).

As this brief summary shows, Screening Strangers ‘discusses how the issues of migration and diaspora are challenging the conflicting, and sometimes conflating, ideas of post-Europe, Fortress Europe, post-Holocaust Europe, New Europe, post-nation Europe, and transnational Europe. It asks how the films dealing with migration and diaspora challenge European identity.’ (8) In her investigation, Loshitzky privileges depth to breath. The author decides to focus on a relatively limited number of films. This is a winning choice, as it allows her room to present some highly sophisticated and adroit analysis of films. There is no room in this review to do justice to the author’s subtle and in-depth scrutiny of, in particular, Last Resort, Beautiful People, Besieged, and her fresh approach to La Haine. I can only highlight some of the key themes that readers will find in this book.

The most recurring one is the role of global capitalism and the state apparatus in perpetuating colonial and postcolonial exploitation, achieved by enforcing spurious hierarchies of immigrants based on divisions between “legitimate” and “bogus” asylum seekers, and ruthlessly exploiting the weaker among them, even to the point of depriving them of their ‘most precious resources, their lives, their professional expertise, their organs’ (76), as shown in Spare Parts and Dirty Little Things. State rules and unregulated market push outsider strangers to resort to crime (Last Resort, Dirty Pretty Things), and create a brutal system whereby even traffickers are losers of the globalisation race (Spare Parts) (24).

A related theme is the obsession of Western culture with forbidden love and miscegenation, and the fear they provoke in the metropolis. This topic emerges in Nordrand and Beautiful People, but is most evident in Besieged. Here, sexuality is an allegory of the encounter with the “Africa within”, an encounter that is at the same time cause for celebration but also source of anxiety (83). According to the author, Besieged is a social document about the ambivalence towards immigrants that ‘can be read as a film about a current stage of identity crisis experienced […] by Western Europe perceiving itself as being threatened by an “invasion” of […] others’ (79).

A third theme is the frequent reference made in these films to the war in the former Yugoslavia. Nordrand, Beautiful People, and La Haine give visual shape to the fear of dissemination in Paris, London, and Vienna of the “Bosnia within”, the vicious circle of ethnic and religious hatred, violence and deportation that destroyed that country and marked the failure of post-1989 multiethnic Europe (57).

Finally, some of the films discussed establish intertextual dialogue with Holocaust tropes. Such is the case of Journey of Hope, in which the barking dogs and flashlights of the Swiss border police, combined with the suitcases carried and dropped by the Muslim migrants, create powerful visual links between the Jewish refugees during the Second World War and today’s Muslims (19). This latter theme is expanded in La Haine. In constructing an image of post-Holocaust Jew that largely counters established stereotypes inherited from the past, the film suggests that Jews, the historical “Other within” now replaced by new and external underprivileged ethnic minorities, should side with them. La Haine is among other things a utopia about a coalition of the oppressed that establishes the necessary links between past and present oppression (116).

At the end of her journey, Loshitzky spends a few words to talk about her own experience as a migrant (albeit admittedly a privileged one) in London, or Babelondon as she renames it. Here the academic gives way to the concerned citizen who celebrates diversity but also sees worrying signs of intolerance around her. In the last page of her book, the author takes as her own the bitter and somewhat alarming message presented in Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005): ‘The West refuses to take responsibility for past and present crimes committed against colonial and postcolonial subjects. The two parents in Caché, anguished for their kidnapped son, fail to recognize that there might be some connection between their family being “terrorized” and the crimes committed by the West against its imagined and imaginary “others” and “strangers”’ (152). This book is precisely an antidote to this lack of awareness and, notwithstanding minor paratextual flaws such as lack of a filmography, scholars working in this field will want to keep it well in mind in their future research.

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Emiliano Perra is Visiting Fellow in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Bristol. His book Conflicts of Memory is published by Peter Lang.
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