The story of migration and nostalgia for home told by Moughtareb (One Who Has Been Estranged, 2013) will be familiar to many.
I watched the seven-minute documentary with my flatmate, who said the language used by its Egyptian protagonists to describe their lives in Greece reminds her of how family and friends speak of their early years in Australia after emigrating from Lebanon for work decades ago. They speak of estrangement as an emotion or state of being as well as a physical state, she explained.
“From the beginning I wanted a different experience from the one I have here, but it’s not at the level of what I expected,” one of the young men in the film says sadly. “Even if I went back to Egypt, it would not be the same as before.”
“When you leave, you leave high expectations behind, while you very often endure difficulties abroad linked to racism, administrative problems, economic exploitation, loneliness and so on,” say the filmmakers, anthropologist Lucile Gruntz and photographer Stephanos Mangriotis.
It’s also hard to speak of these difficulties if you return, they tell me, recounting the story of a friend who returned to Cairo penniless from Dubai and told them, “It’s painful to come back ‘dressed in failure’.”
“Only people with very international sociabilities may live trans-nationality rather serenely, but they are few,” the filmmakers argue.
Their film is a pertinent reminder of individuals’ stories amid prolific images of mass migration and an increasing push from governments and the media to categorize refugees and migrants and assess their varying levels of need.
“Our aim is to portray migration in a more subtle way and try to go beyond prejudice and categorization,” Gruntz and Mangriotis explain. “Our entry into the subject was Egyptian migrants in Keratsini, but by getting to know them during their daily routines and sharing simple moments, we were pushed to tell a story that was just about people.”
Following some ominous music, Moughtareb starts with Mounir — a fishmonger’s son who is targeted by the Greek far-right Golden Dawn movement — recounting a run-in with a police officer who turned a blind eye to his lack of papers “as long as there is no trouble.” The filmmakers explain to me that the officer was trying to avoid any legal claims by an Egyptian family targeted by Golden Dawn.
To some extent, the lack of political context in the film is refreshing, but I also find it unsettling and confusing. For example, there is no clear mention of the administrative or legal situation of the three young Egyptians the film follows, nor much about the history of the area they live in.
A little research and further explanation from Gruntz and Mangriotis makes everything a bit clearer. The west Athens suburb of Keratsini, where all three protagonists lived at the time of filming, has a large number of migrant communities. Among them is a sizable group of Egyptian fishermen, some of whom came to Greece as part of a bilateral trade agreement.
“In Greece there are numerous instances of police turning a blind eye, supporting and even protecting the fascist group Golden Dawn,” they explain. “In 2012, when the racist attacks reached a climax, the police were even giving the telephone number of Golden Dawn to people who called in to complain about migrants.”
The filmmakers met Mounir and his two friends, Ibrahim and Mohamed, after telling the father of a friend they wanted to start a project on Egyptians in Keratsini. “I can find you as many Egyptians as you want,” he told them, and took them to a courtyard between three low-roofed houses, where they started hanging out daily and meeting people.
It is a powerful film, although heavily editorialized. At times I find this unnecessary. The most interesting moments for me are when the protagonists narrate everyday anecdotes from their lives. For example, one of the young men says he has received lots of attention from Greek women, but doesn’t want a girlfriend because it would jeopardize his situation.
To create a dialogue between the two filmmakers’ disciplines, photography and anthropology, they intersperse still photographs with sections of film and voiceovers, edited down from about nine hours of interviews to create a narrative. “The stills are evocative and have the power to immobilize emotion, whereas the video sections create an ambiance,” they tell me.
I ask about the inclusion of a short clip of prayers in what I presume is a local mosque.
“The mosque is in a rental apartment close to the fish market. It is being rented by older members of the Egyptian network in Keratsini, those who came before, mostly under the bilateral agreement,” they say. They decided to use the clip because “it’s a good example of how exile can reduce political or generational differences between migrants. Everyone goes to the mosque to pray, both old and newcomers, pro-Sisi and pro-Morsi.”
To me, many of the clips and imagery in the short film evoke a sense of poverty, despair and foreboding. I wondered how the young protagonists feel about these choices. Were they involved in conversations about how they would be represented?
“Their daily lives in Greece are quite repetitive, sometimes grim, but there is a lot of solidarity and moments of kidding around,” Mangriotis says. “There is melancholy in the images, but it is up to the viewer how to interpret it. Melancholy can be sad, but it can also be happy. For example, when you think about the past, you can be happy to have lived nice moments, but sad not to be able to live them again.”
When I ask why no one from the native community or Golden Dawn was interviewed, Gruntz and Mangriotis say this was due to a length problem — as the film was made to go online — and because Egyptian perspectives were minimal in local reports on the Golden Dawn attack.
“One of them has unfortunately already been deported,” Gruntz and Mangriotis say when asked if they were worried about putting their subjects at risk by filming them. “All of them were willing to take part in the film, knowing the risk was low. The will to talk about their situations and lives in Greece was stronger than the fear.”
“The arrival of Syriza [a leftist coalition] has considerably lowered police pressure and racial harassment,” they add. “When we saw them this summer, they were afraid the right-wing might win the elections again.”
From my conversation with the filmmakers, it is clear they had spent many hours with their protagonists. It’s a shame that the film only shows snippets of this, although there are some poignant moments.
“The trip was for many reasons,” says Mounir in the film. “For the love affair I wanted to forget, to start a new life, there were no jobs. I wanted to leave Egypt at any cost.”