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Film and Multimedia

Refugee Blues
14th June 2018
Refugee Blues

Stephan Bookas and Tristan Daws introduce the multi-award winning documentary poem “Refugee Blues” free online for Refugee Week 2018


Set to the verses of W.H. Auden’s 1939 poem, ‘Refugee Blues’ charts a day in ‘the jungle’, the refugee camp outside Calais. More intimate and unlike much of what has been seen in the mass media, this documentary poem counterpoints the camp’s harsh reality of frequent clashes with the French riot police with its inhabitants’ longing for a better future.

Refugee Blues – A Documentary Poem from Stephan Bookas on Vimeo.

A glut of reports in the media, especially in the UK and France, had been portraying the situation of the refugees in the “jungle” camp in Calais in the summer of 2015 in various ways. Some of them were largely unbiased and fair, others clearly driven by questionable agendas. But among the wealth of information and disinformation coming from Calais, there were rarely any human elements to be found.

And so, as two filmmakers based in London and a short distance from the “jungle”, we decided to see for ourselves. We didn’t set out to make a film at first – that idea came later – we just packed a car full of blankets, clothes, food and other items and went, not fully knowing what to expect. But of course, being filmmakers, we also brought along our cameras – to see if we might have the opportunity to document, to capture, to find the human story in all the chaos that was so ubiquitous in the media at the time.

Soon after our arrival, we found the people living at the refugee camp to be very warm and welcoming, as long as we assured them we weren’t news-gathering journalists.

We didn’t film anything to begin with and just walked around, introduced ourselves as documentary filmmakers and listened to people and their stories. Every single one of them was unique and heartbreaking.

Following these discussions, we asked if it would be alright to take out our cameras and start filming. For the most part the answer was a resounding yes.

We spent the following days exploring the camp and talking to people, discussing the situation and the political climate and spending time with them, being invited for coffee and food and allowed to film elements of their daily lives. This turned out to be the calm before the storm, as things culminated in a clash between the camp’s inhabitants and the French riot police on the road leading to the ferry terminal, symbolic for the plight of the refugees and their struggle against institutional powers they are unable to defend themselves against.

The result of this journey is the multi-award winning “Refugee Blues”, a ‘documentary poem’, beautifully scored by Christoph Zirngibl, set to the verses of W. H. Auden’s eponymous 1939 text and read by Noah, a refugee and former child soldier from Uganda.

Of course, our film can’t possibly even begin to try and unravel all the lives and personal fates entangled within this crisis. But in some small way, and for us especially, it has given this tragedy a face that’s less abstract, more relatable, more human.