Ursurla Biemann, a prominent Swiss video essayist, has been welcomed to Brown by the Middle East Studies Department as part of their year-long series of seminars, workshops and cultural activities surrounding the theme of “Displacement and the Making of the Modern World.”
“Displacement is a global phenomenon, and the majority of people displaced over the last few years have been from Syria and Middle Eastern countries,” said Beshara Doumani, professor of modern Middle East history and director of Middle East studies. “It is reshaping the entire Middle East, and it is reshaping the relationship of the Middle East with the rest of the world.”
Biemann was invited to the University to speak about three of her films. “Black Sea Files,” a work of art that deals with the Caspian oil geography, was screened in the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs Monday, while her long-term video research project, “The Sahara Chronicles,” was presented Tuesday. As the series continues Wednesday, she will speak about “The Cosmopolitical Forest.”
Tuesday’s presentation, “The Sahara Chronicles,” is an anthology of short video essays that looks at the North African desert as a transit space. Migrants from southern Africa are forced to cross the desert in an effort to find work in Europe. The Sahara Desert thus becomes fertile ground for movement as thousands of people make the trek north to Maghreb.
Through film, Biemann aims to provide a more sensible and quiet outlook on the migrant’s journey. According to Biemann, Western media focuses on the people who do not get to their destination, painting a catastrophic picture of migrant life. “Images of refugee boats have become the symbol that encapsulates the entire drama, and it suggests urgency and emergency,” Biemann said.
Biemann, on the other hand, is more interested in the less dramatic aspects of life as a migrant. She studies the slow, everyday life of the migrant’s journey to Europe. In her work, she focuses on the long journey migrants must make within Africa — and more specifically the Sahara — before even reaching the European continent.
Each of her video essays focuses on a facet of migrant life in the Sahara. One of her videos studies a migrant hub in Agadez, Niger, exploring the innerworkings of the Sahara Ténéré Transportation Company, which offers migrants from anywhere in Africa safe transportation across the desert for a fee.
“This video documents the time before the departure,” Biemann said. “This is a time of great hope and potentiality.” The pace of the video is slow and filled with the monotone chatter of every-day life, resulting in an “unexcited form of representation,” Biemann added.
One video deals with the Tuareg community, a people native to the Sahara Desert that were split up in five different countries during the decolonization and partition of the African continent. This film showcased an interview with a former Tuareg rebel leader who was in charge of a Tuareg-operated migrant transportation network. “The Tuareg existence is by definition transnational,” Biemann said. It therefore only makes sense that the Tuareg community be an important actor in the Saharan market of migrant desert transportation.
A third video delves into the theme of hindered movement, examining a prison used to detain illegal transit migrants in Morocco to be repatriated to their countries of origin. The video exhibits the anger of those who worked and saved money for this trip to Europe only to be stopped before leaving the continent.
Finally, Biemann interviewed a young woman in Senegal who traveled as the only woman on a fishing boat transporting 43 migrants to the Canary Islands of Spain. At the age of 16, she left Senegal alone in the hope of finding a better job to support her family. After 19 days at sea, she spent one day in Spain before her boat was found by the military and she was sent back to Senegal. Though her story seems dramatic, her tone and demeanor remain calm as she recounts her story. She smiles as she admits that her life was unchanged by the incident and that she is better off in Senegal anyway.
These videos are slow and set to the rhythm of normal, every day life. They humanize and de-dramatize what has been described as a crisis of boatloads of bodies hurtling themselves onto European shores.
Biemann studies migrant life and circumstances in a “beautiful, theoretically sophisticated way that is able to get us to think about the issue of these people — from the micro-experiences of individuals who are crossing the desert to the big geopolitical questions of the day,” Doumani said.
Correction: A previous version of this article listed the "“The Cosmopolitical Forest" as "The Cosmopolitan Forest." The Herald regrets the error.