Artistic webzine on migration, borders, human rights
Marc Isaac’s 2003 documentary Calais: The Last Border continues to hit home ten years after its release. Reviewed by Alex Vella Gera.
Calais: The Last Border (Marc Isaacs, 2003, 58 mins)
Back in the mid-nineties I once passed through Calais on my way to London from Prague, travelling on a coach full of Czech girls aiming to enter England, some to work as au pairs, others as nannies, and I wonder what else. At the border in Calais a couple of hours before dawn, the atmosphere was tense, the police were thorough and the suspicion in their eyes scanning each and every passport was palpable. Finally they were satisfied that all was in order and they waved us through, into the Channel Tunnel and on our way to Great Britain.
Marc Isaacs’ quietly devastating one hour documentary offers another view of Calais, one I could not observe through the windows of my coach at 4 a.m., but which with hindsight I know was oozing through the cracks of our 45 minute wait there.
Like all border towns, Calais threads a precarious fine line between respectability and seediness. However, this dichotomy is not what Isaacs focuses on in his highly personal hands-on approach to the documentary form. Instead, he strikes up a friendship with an Afghan refugee, Ijaz, whose dream it is to request asylum in England after losing all his family in the civil war in Afghanistan. Ijaz first comes across as an upbeat individual, but his sad eyes soon betray the soul crushing tedium and slow burning despair of life as a refugee, sleeping rough, haunted by ghosts of the life left behind and waiting for Godot.
“We want to help the British people and we hope the British will help us,” he says, just before attempting for the nth time, unsuccessfully, to cross the border illegally.
Seemingly to draw a response to Ijaz’s plea, Isaacs then speaks to some English tourists having a cuppa at a fast food stand. The sadly predictable comments come thick and fast with little prodding from the voice behind the camera.
“They’re taking over the whole country,” says one woman, visibly happy with herself that there, she’s said it and she’s not ashamed.
“Nobody thinks there should be another Holocaust or anything like that, but there has to be a cut off point,” says another.
“I’d shoot the fucking lot of them,” says a man as he walks away, bag of chips in hand.
So far so obvious, you’d say. But then Isaacs turns the camera on two other English people who actually live in Calais. Steve, the owner of the only English bar in town, and Tulia, a startlingly near perfect dead ringer for opera diva Monsterrat Caballe, whose flamboyant outward appearance we soon discover hides a fascinating and wounded individual. She reminisces about when as a girl in WW2 she was a refugee in Spain. Having lost her mother, she attempted to escape the camp but was caught. The superimposition of this woman’s tragic story from six decades ago with scenes of immigrants dressing up as warm as they could in preparation for another attempt to make a mad dash into the heavily guarded Channel Tunnel, not only adds resonance to the film but also emphasises the most basic truth of all, that regardless of the distances between them, these people are more alike than they give themselves credit.
It soon transpires that Steve’s bar is not doing well at all, he is bankrupt, and with a wife and two young children, he decides to make a run for it. Returning home to England is not an option, he is heavily in debt there, so he packs his family into a camper van, hoping to try his luck in Spain. Also refugees, also in search of a better life. Only, in their case, there are no border police waiting at the other end to stop them from at least trying to find that better life.
“This is the refugee’s life,” Ijaz tells Isaacs as they embrace and bid farewell to each other. “I don’t have anyone, I’m alone.”
The last we see of him he is standing among other refugees. The camera pans away as the sky over Calais grows dark. Soon it will be night time in this no man’s wasteland that harbours so much sorrow. I have rarely seen hopelessness portrayed so poignantly on film.
Alex Vella Gera is the author of four Maltese novels, the most recent of which, The Snakes Have Again Become Venomous, was awarded the Maltese national book prize in November 2013. He is a musician with group Hunters Palace, and a maker of short films.