Issue 9 :: Summer 2007 
Avatar Review

Garth Buckner

The Orgins of Solitude

They are Cretans, Cypriots and Turks. They are steerage, people coming above deck in the New York light of a blue-grey morning and seeing her for the first time. Seeing both the statue and the impossible modern spires of the city, of Manhattan. The Statue of Liberty. Ellis Island. They are a little girl with shoulder-length black hair and a pretty, tooth-crooked smile and the wrinkled and skinny and bright man who lifts her. They are old women in black headscarves who are crying. They are the migrants.

This is a film, a documentary, one we have grown up with and one we remember. It forms a greater part of our collective consciousness. The frames are very old, spoiled, with burn marks and lines and shudders. The music that accompanies the silent images is Greek rembetika music, played on the mandolin-like bruzouki. The music stays but the film image changes, becomes modern, colourful, the image of the Greek isles and summer and endless tourist crowds emerging from a ferry in search of an ideal in blue and white.

“People are moving. There are great movements of people, outpourings, invasions, crossings over of borders. The philosophy of the age is the philosophy of Nomadoligy.” - This is the narration. Strong words, masculine tone, as the film projects a crowded Greek ferry come to berth at an Aegean port. “We sleep on ferry decks, on trains, and even in the bivouacs, in the refugee camps, even in Heathrow and in Dullas, and at the docksides; the point is movement to come.”

The narrator and the Director are the same person. The Director is internationally known, perhaps the best his generation has to offer. He has been given a grant by public television to make a documentary on human migrations and the growing problem of illegal people smuggling. The grant will cover the cost of his travels while he brings the horrors of his subject to the screen. The Director is under no illusions as to the true direction of his work. It must entertain.

His documentary is a work in progress. He presses rewind to go over it again, he has covered this ground so many times. He presses play and the narration comes out strong and true, “The point is movement to come.” The documentary shows the Greek ferry deck, top heavy with passengers. At the ports of Piraeus, at Ios and at Santorini the crowds take to the gangplanks as soon as they are secure, in either direction; embarkation, disembarkation. The lens captures the event. The focus is in among the unsuspecting faces that emerge into the Aegean light.

“A great migration,” The Director thinks, “Hutus beyond number cross the border between Rwanda and Zaire, bivouac, and then cross from Zaire to Rwanda.” He scribbles these thoughts down on a note pad. He will rework them into narration. He scripts: “In Tanzania, in Benaco Camp, the Hutu militia drove the refugees from their new huts, the collection of which had come to resemble a town, with well-ordered streets, with lines of matching houses of mud-brick and, surprisingly, a library.” He has shots taken on the empty African streets in the sun, of the empty library interior, of the books in their shelves. “The entire population was herded up and into the forested hills. Told they were going to Kenya.”

At the port they are massing out of the ferry now, moving across the screen. “Great movements of people,” he thinks. The lens trains in upon those who cross the plank from the Greek ferry to the dock; it tries to keep the focus on the pace of the pressing throng of Travellers, a gypsy horde, a caravan. Everything about them speaks of the nomad; the large backpacks, the straps well adjusted, the weight evenly distributed, the large leather boots. They move from the shudder of the deck to the shudder of the dock.

“Rooms! Rooms!” goes up the cry at the ferry, at the bus stop. “Very nice room for you! Hot water! Bathroom for you!” A stampede of old women, elbowing each other out of their collective way, carrying laminated cards with photos of their rooms. Australian accents cut through the softer Greek, shouting; “Camp! Camp! You lot! Camp!” Hands of old women, of Australians, grab at the Travellers. Some push past, preferring the maps, the guidebooks, things written in English. Others fill up the waiting vans, backpacks strapped expertly to roof racks, to Santorini Camp, to Ios Camp.

In the town, the Kastro, away now from the harbour, the Travellers become lost. The Director has filmed them, their wonderings, their searchings. They are lost where the maps with the place names in the English characters are entirely different from the place names in the Greek characters. Lost where the streets run twisted and dimly lit or unlit. Where the streets pass under dwellings or over whitewashed roof tops. They plunge into the maze deliberately. He thinks, “They cannot get to the next corner fast enough, the next alley, they cannot get lost enough.” The alleys and the turns are populated with the torrents of fast-rushing humanity, of Travellers.

A jostling movement of heads and of bundles held above heads move endlessly across the screen. The film is silent now and the room is filled with the sound of the reels passing through the projector. There are no pictures of faces. Only heads. The shots are from slightly above, from where he had mounted his tripod on top of a Landrover. They show a great delta of people spreading out through a valley. The picture cuts to feet. Shots of bare feet march along the wall, always from right to left and slightly toward the viewer, at a diagonal. The direction creates the feeling of forward motion in the viewer. Black feet with beaded ankle bracelets, yellow feet, white feet and the crippled. Feet in sandals and bandages or swollen or bent.

The image cuts away from the Kastros, the jungles, to the ocean, to spliced-in film of crowded Cuban rafts, of Chinese bodies pulled bloated from a night sea. To the images of the hulk of a freighter grounded off New York harbour, a freighter smuggling Chinese. It cuts to the picture of the sloop of a man whose trade is in humans, the trader who is the subject of the Director’s documentary. The camera holds steady on the Trader who is at the centre of untold frames, uncounted yards of film, who is his star. The screen is filled with the image of the man and his sloop and the moving bodies of his cargo, of his trade in humans.

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