In a brave and unique investigation of the status of refugees in and around the city of Paris, French-Tunisian journalist Hind Meddeb’s new documentary film Paris-Stalingrad documents their struggles with getting documented and to receiving refugee status in order to settle and live a normal life, after fleeing their home country.
In the Stalingrad neighbourhood, not very far from the Arc de Triomphe, hundreds of refugees camp to sleep in the street, waiting in front of the government building where they need to apply for papers.
The film was the MENA premiere of the film at the Cairo International Film Festival (CIIF).
In a discussion with the director after the screening, she said that she started following the case in 2016 when her friends and circles started to post about the hardships of the refugees, calling upon people who speak Arabic to help in translation. “At the time, I concluded that the only way I can help is to take my camera and start shooting and documenting,” she added.
Meddeb’s camera is smooth in following the refugees. Her intervention is not visible and rarely can be felt, unless when she and her crew get pushed by police or government officials.
However, the film distinguishes itself from other films, documentaries, or features that tackle the question of exile, and how they cope with their misfortunes. Aside from the misery and hardships the refugees are going through, which Meddeb’s camera does a brilliant job in documenting, it gives them agency through reciting poetry, singing, complaining, speaking their mind, showing them verbally confronting the police. In that sense, she shows a more empowered angle of the refugees, which might be sometimes lost in other films where the focus is on victimising the subjects.
One of the characters in Meddeb’s film is Soliman, a young man from Sudan, whose recited poetry is an alternative to a soundtrack, rather serving as a private commentary of someone who left the carnage at their country hoping for a better life. Nevertheless, this commentary can be understood to be an unspoken slogan that other refugees that can be heard saying through their worries, anxiety, and fears. Despite being Sudanese, Soliman speaks Arabic and is from Sudan, his words apply to the refugees from Afghanistan, Ghana, Congo, Syria, or other Sudanese.
The documentary presents a different picture of Paris, one that is not similar to the tourism brochures and the vloggers Youtube videos where the French capital is the home of freedom, diversity, acceptance, rights, and decent living. This is not a new approach that Meddeb took, as she has previously taken her filmmaking skills to shoot in cities and shed light on visuals, people, and opinions, that are not necessarily refused but are more neglected by mainstream media and film.
Her first film De Casa au Paradis (2008), which she co-directed with Gallagher Fenwick, follows the tragedy of the 2006 Casablanca bombings by making the film about the Thomas slum, located on the outskirts of Casablanca, where they learned about the harsh life in this shantytown and thousands of Moroccan youth live, but whose voices and stories are not shown in tourism videos showing the ‘exotic’ side of Casablanca.
Her second film 2013 Electro Chaabi was not just another film about the Egyptian revolution. She discussed the revolution of course, but from the point of view of the young Mahraganat (Elecotr Chaabi music) artists, following the beginning of musicians like Islam Chipsy, Oka, and Ortega.
During the screening’s discussion, she said that French media has yet to write or discuss her film, and so far, the film has not been distributed in France. However, it has been screened in Toronto and the US. Answering one of the questions about why the European government is not intervening to help refugees, Meddeb argued that sometimes a government needs refugees in order to publicise their agenda and to push voters to choose them, saying tha refugees that will take their jobs.
Despite the depressing vibe that can be interpreted from the film, Meddeb opens the door for some optimism. Not all the subjects in the film get a happy ending; some might be even still sleeping in the streets. But Soliman is seen in the film getting an opportunity to fulfil his normal dreams, the same ones that he has back in Sudan. Meddeb said that the situation in Paris has been deteriorating further, as refugees are still in the streets. Now that they are less generalised, some of them are drawn to neighbourhoods where narcotics dealing and sex work are on the rise, Meddeb said. She added that there have been several cases of suicide and are not always covered in the media.