This paper examines how the figure of the migrant and the “symbolic geography” of Eastern Europe are co-constituted in data visualizations of migrant flows, news media reports, and documentary practices along the Balkan Route. The Balkan Route, which traverses Eastern Europe, is one of the primary land routes for unauthorized migrants traveling westward. Drawing upon theories of (counter)visuality and spatiality, I show how data models and maps of the “migrant crisis” produced by dominant state, institutional, and news media reveal the always-already shifting borders of “Europe” and the tenuous place of Eastern Europe within the imagined community of European civilization. Eastern Europe plays an integral role in the European Union’s bordering project, yet not all Eastern European nations have been admitted to the EU as member-states. Importantly, as migrants and refugees began successfully subverting the exterior border controls of the EU in large numbers, the geographical constitution of “Europe,” where and how its borders were mapped, performed, and surveilled, was variously reshaped in response. These shifting frontlines, which undermined the purported freedom of movement within the Schengen Zone, also served to undermine the perception of a stable inside and outside to the geographic and symbolic imaginary of the continent.
In addition to state sponsored mapping and data visualization projects, I consider documentary films like Human Flow (Ai Wei Wei, 2017) and Another News Story (Orban Wallace, 2017) as case studies to demonstrate how artists, activists, and migrants produce knowledge about the Balkan Route not simply in reaction to, but rather in relation to, dominant visual discourses. Centering the Balkan Route as a site of mediation for Europe’s migrant crisis is necessary in order to elucidate the parallels and tensions between postsocialist and postcolonial subjects, who have historically been marked as ideologically threatening and unassimilable to “western civilization.”
Eszter Zimanyi is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Southern California. Her work is published or forthcoming in Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, Transnational Cinemas, Visual Anthropology, Feminist Media Studies, Media Fields Journal, Intermedialities, and Docalogue, among others. She is a former co-programmer of USC’s Middle East Film Screening Series and served as a consultant for The Wende Museum’s 2019 exhibit, Watching Socialism: The Television Revolution in Eastern Europe. Her research interests include migration, diaspora, and refugee studies, global and transnational media, postcolonial and postsocialist studies, documentary and digital media.
In light of the saturation of migration crisis representations in current European mediascape, Philip Scheffner’s essay film Havarie (2016) attempts to restore the political capacity of the image by working with a mobile’s video of a refugee boat taken by a tourist on a cruise ship. As the three minutes’ worth of footage stretched over ninety-three-minute film, the videograms of the tiny boat in the vast sea scroll at the rate of one frame per second. By slowing down the low-quality moving image, the digital materiality—normally invisible to the human’s eye—flashes out as an in-between space while, at the same time, further deteriorates the legibility of the migrants.
This paper offers an understanding of Scheffner’s intervention in the YouTube footage—which in itself testifies to the helpless gaze of its creator—as a study into moral spectatorship that is not based on empathy nor on identification. Rather, by creating an experience of radical passivity, the film opens up ways for thinking about moral spectatorship in terms of an extra-subjective encounter. This relational encounter is specifically endowed with an ominous atmosphere of what Maurice Blanchot terms as “disastrous providence”—a careless power which destroys-without-destroying the life of its subjects.
While others read Havarie as a reflexive critique of the current flow of “distant suffering” representations, I will focus on the potentialities of suspense in the context of the documentary’s humanitarian commitment. If immediacy, urgency, and liveliness are considered key tropes of the humanitarian documentary, this paper adds suspension, obscurity, and helplessness to that arsenal of terms. How do Havarie’s sensorial and affective strategies reorient the viewer towards the category of Human? What do these strategies have to offer for the conversation about documentary ethics? And how could they be utilized for reimagining modes of being and belonging?
Anat Dan is a doctoral student at the program in Comparative Literature and the program in Cinema and Media Studies at Penn University. She works at the intersection of Film and Media studies, Human Rights studies, and Environmental Humanities. Anat holds an MFA degree and an MA degree from The Steve Tisch School of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University.
Border Live was a reality TV series that aired on the Discovery Channel in December 2018. Its premise was to “document the work of law enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border as well as the real lives, real moments and real stories of those that live and work along its remote stretches.” By embedding videographers with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents carrying out patrolling missions around the border, the show promised to be the spiritual successor to other border-themed reality TV shows like Border Wars, but with two notable differences: the footage would be shown live to audiences and host Bill Weir would moderate a panel of “border security experts,” such as former CBP agents and border town sheriffs, to comment on the live feed. This ambitious reformatting of the border policing reality series was cancelled after three episodes due to unsatisfactory ratings.
In this presentation, I demonstrate how Border Live’s unceremonious failure reveals the technical, formal, and narrative strategies that mediate border security in non-fiction television genres. In the studio, the three (male) experts who would provide running commentary on the footage broadcast from the field failed to offer any significant insight into these activities. Indeed, having the footage and the commentary run live prevented the production team from relying on post-production to compose more compelling narratives. The show’s live footage cast the daily work of border agents as perfunctory cogs in the border security machine. The rote mundanity of such work illustrated the performative nature of border policing precisely by showing the moments when this performativity falls short. By unsuccessfully foregrounding liveness in the context of border-themed content, Border Live provides the limit case where the tropes of “border crisis” emerge most starkly and fail most explicitly.
Juan Llamas-Rodriguez is assistant professor of critical media studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. His research areas include digital media, border studies, infrastructure studies, and Latin American film and television. His writing has appeared in Feminist Media Histories, Television and New Media, and the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, among others. His forthcoming book Border Tunnels argues for underground tunnels as media figures that reimagine the stakes in border-making processes.
Jaap Verheul is a Senior Teaching Fellow in Film Studies at the University of Southampton. His research focuses on transnational flows of film and television in European media industries, and how these affect the representation of identity on the screen. Among other subjects, he has written on the dual monolingualism of contemporary Flemish cinema, the co-production of a European heritage brand for British television, the failed formation of film stardom, and audience’s restricted access to cinema cultures on streaming platforms during the Covid-19 pandemic. Jaap recently edited a collection on The Cultural Life of James Bond: Specters of 007 (Amsterdam University Press, 2020), and is currently completing his monograph on the regulation of European screen cultures after 1989.