By Rowena Kosher, co-editor of RightsViews

Recently, ISHR hosted a virtual film screening of Paris Stalingrad, followed by a discussion with the film’s director, Hind Meddeb. Human Rights professor Lara Nettlefield moderated the conversation. Hind Meddeb is a French filmmaker whose work interrogates human rights issues of our time, and this film is no exception.

Co-directed by filmmaker Thim Naccache, Paris Stalingrad is an intimate documentary portrait of the life of refugees living on the streets of the Stalingrad district of Paris. Many of these refugees come to France from Sudan, Ethiopia, Erythrea, Somalia, and Afghanistan to escape persecution and violence in their home countries. Yet, with everything from police violence to immigration bureaucracy to racism alike, Paris turns these refugees away, forcing them onto the streets. Meddeb approaches her documentary from the lens of community, depicting the everyday life of a refugee living on the Paris streets. In particular, the film follows a young man, Souleymane Mohammed, as he navigates the crisis through thought and poetry.

Throughout the summer of 2016, Meddeb and her camera capture what many Parisians tend to ignore—and what a significant portion of the world does not even know about. Not only is Paris Stalingrad shedding light on a vital issue of human concern, but it does so with a balanced approach of cinematic intimacy—close shots carefully framed with a focus on the holistic human experience—with an agential participatory documentary mode. Far from removed, Meddeb’s approach to filmmaking is rooted in and dictated by the community itself.

Speaking on her approach to making this film, Meddeb acknowledged the complicated ethical questions of a documentary of struggling communities. Often, she said, many feel that when cameras are present, they are only filmed in bad situations without any dignity. And thus, “the only way I could do this film was to spend a lot of time with people,” she said. Before ever bringing her camera to the refugee camps, Meddeb built relationships. She helped with translation, paperwork, food provision, and would open up her home for a safe place for rest and a shower. She believes that one has to create dialogue by giving time and energy. This work is a constant exchange between filmmaker and community, one rooted in mutual respect.

When it came time to introduce the camera, Meddeb would speak to refugees about how their situation is hidden, but the camera can reveal what is happening to a global audience. No one knows, she said, about how one of the most famous, most wealthy cities in the world is also home to refugees relegated to the streets. This story was particularly important to tell because, according to Meddeb, the Mayor of Paris was trying to construct an image that Paris was welcoming to refugees, although in practice this is not the case. Some other French mayors will acknowledge the situation, said Meddeb, however, the Parisian Mayor is opportunist and only focuses on those who can vote for her.

 Parisian civil society, likewise, tends to turn a “willful blind eye” to the refugee situation. One particularly striking scene in the film depicts refugees sleeping on the edges of a squash court as a primly dressed white Parisian woman practices her swing, seemingly oblivious to the human bodies her ball rolls against. Meddeb explained that some people were angry because the refugee camps and police blockades would restrict access to businesses on the street, causing them to lose money. Some complain that the camps are dirty and ruining the daily life of Parisian citizens. This general negative attitude is reinforced by the constant barrage of police violence inflicted upon refugees and their homemade shelters. Just when the group has set up camp on one street, the police raid, destroy, and push them out, only to repeat again.

General Parisian denial was reflected in the reception of the film. Paris Stalingrad was internationally successful and showed at many film festivals worldwide. It has also been picked up for distribution in some countries, including the US. However, France will not distribute it. “The French audience is not ready to see this film,” said Meddeb.

Yet, Meddeb also highlighted that a “small minority” of Parisians were actively supportive and came together to assist the refugees as much as they could. One woman in the film often shows up at police raids to help refugees assert their rights. There are moments of shared community foodsharing. Notably, the people who would step up to help were also people who themselves had suffered hardship in their past and were generally low/middle class, said Meddeb. To this, Meddeb reflected that going through and witnessing hardship “gives you new priorities. You learn a lot about the world.”

Meddeb wanted to “give a voice to the people, not to talk for them.” When she met Souleymane, she found a muse whose poetry was a way to “show the powerful vision these people have.” Meddeb noted that whereas the world sees refugees as just a statistic, poetry’s individuality brings back reflection.

Meddeb met Souleymane at one of the street refugee camps in Stalingrad. She had been helping refugees with translation of asylum forms which are only offered in French. Their friendship began when Meddeb took a photo of Souleymane in the subway station for job and asylum applications and gave him her number. Over time, as Meddeb would visit the camps, she would converse with Souleymane, growing the relationship. Meddeb discovered he was writing poetry, and he was so sincere with his story that he ended up as the main character of the film.

Today, Meddeb said with a smile, Souleymane is doing well. He has a job building roads in the East of France. He took a French course and is actively saving to be able to attend University and study. Through friends, he was able to find his mother’s phone number and talk to her for the first time in many years. Now, he is also saving money to send back to support her. Souleymane dreams of real peace in Sudan, said Meddeb, so that he can return to his home.

 As for the refugee camps in Paris, Meddeb reports that they have been pushed out of the city and now take residence in the suburbs, still in terrible conditions. Just recently, she said, police violently entered the camps and beat people, destroying everything—again. “It’s a cycle. It’s also a waste of time,” claims Meddeb. When you give people a chance, they totally integrate, get jobs, and engage in civil society. The more that refugees are forced to stay on the street, the more dangerous it becomes. France must stop holding the image of the foreigner as a problem, she says. This perspective only continues racism.

As the refugee crisis continues in Paris, films like Paris Stalingrad provide important insight into a human rights issue largely hidden in the international conversation. More importantly, this film recenters the “human” in human rights. With dignity, agency, and poetry, refugees tell their stories on their own terms.

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