Worth a Bag of Couscous

Kamal greets us at the door of his house, a 10x10ft shack in what is known as ‘The Jungle’ – a temporary settlement for refugees and migrants in Calais, France. He apologizes for the graffiti on his front door, which reads ‘Kamal Smile More’.

“I don’t know who did this, I don’t get it… I always smile!”

We came to Calais to shoot a short documentary, so we visited many different people around the camp in the hope of, having gotten their permission, coming back the next day for interviews.

As we drink some orange juice inside the house, he tells us the camp is mostly divided by nationalities; Kamal and most of his neighbors are from Pakistan. There has been some tension between some of the camps, especially since one of the groups started selling alcohol in the Jungle, making nighttime particularly dangerous.

One of the men who lived in the same house sat at the corner staring at our plastic cups, every time one of us finished our juice he would come over with a friendly smile and fill it up to the brim. Four men lived in this house and they were all welcoming and generous with what they had.

Throughout the day we kept having this same experience of being welcomed with an all-giving hospitality I have only experienced in some of the shantytowns in São Paulo. Friendliness and a self-deprecating sense of humor seemed to be a common feature. One of the residents bragged as he showed us the areal antennae on the roof of his shack, only to burst out laughing when he said that all he needs now is a plasma TV and some electricity.

Though it would be easy to tell a lighthearted narrative of things going on in the camp, they would dwarf in comparison to the depth and scale of the humanitarian crisis. One of the things we noticed is the constant fear that seems to follow the women in the camp. As we shadowed a charity giving out supplies for part of the day, one of the workers was called into a shack, in there she found a young woman who could not leave the house as she felt under constant threat of the people living around her. She asked the charity worker if she could just stay in there with her for a little while, because she misses the company.

Many of the women and children have been moved to a Government facility up the road, but there are still a number of them who do not want to be separated from their husbands or brothers. As the charity went into the camp with sanitary products, they made sure to meet a couple of women behind tents, out of sight from everyone else, before they distributed the rest – these women spoke quickly and quietly, before rushing away with as much as they could carry.

The Jungle was a pretty big camp at the start, but it has gotten even bigger with the recent closure of two other camps in Calais. There is no way to know the exact number of residents but the figure is just over one thousand according to most estimations. This overcrowding means that supplies are running low and the portable toilets in the camp are rare and unsafe to use. According to some of the charity workers this has made for a fertile ground of viruses and diseases.

In the midst of all of that, of course, are people trying to escape from difficulty, violence and war in their own countries. A man from Darfur explained that his country ‘almost isn’t there anymore’, as it was torn apart by war and conflict. He is now in Calais, hoping to move to England as he already speaks English. In the meantime, however, he is learning French and applying to settlement in France – in fact, next week he has a meeting in Paris for an interview so his status can be decided.

This seemed like a much more complex picture than the one we saw portrayed in the news, where these people are often described as opportunistic and uncivilized law-breakers. It is no wonder that mainstream media offers such two-dimensional observations of the situation, as we were having a conversation with the man from Darfur, a journalist walks into the camp with one of his arms above his head waving a bag of couscous. As some of the residents approached him, he suggested they let him take photos in exchange for that bag of food. The deal was, of course, accepted. Within ten minutes the journalist was in and out – most likely with a story ready.

There was a genuine sense of fatigue when it came to reporters and cameras, the general feeling is that they come in and tell the story the want to tell, with little consideration for the complexities of what is actually happening. The man from Darfur is not trying to get across to England by any means; he is following the legal process (even if that offers him very little hope of getting in the country), and trying to adapt to staying in France as a Plan B. At the same time, he could never come back to his home where he would be surrounded by death and violence, so perhaps turning to unsafe ways to getting in the UK is not completely out of the picture, if push comes to shove. This is a complex story, one with many sides and considerations, a story that couldn’t be found with a bag of couscous.

The legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles once said that documentaries must always strive to: ‘humanise, humanise, humanise’. We realised that being at the camp for a weekend, with a camera around our necks, wouldn’t let us understand the people for who they are so we chose to not shoot that documentary and just get to know them instead. Most likely we would come up with a short film that ignored all the complexities of these stories for the sake of existing. There is a good film to be made about the real and tragic stories at Calais, but that film should be made by people with a more constant presence in the area and are not there for a weekend, who earn their trust and don’t take full ownership of the stories.

A film that finds the real people in the big story, and not the big story in the people.