North German Radio (NDR – a subsidiary of ARD) has started a new long-form narrative storytelling series they are promoting with the hashtag #EinMomentDerBleibt (A Moment Which Remains). In twenty to thirty minute videos, refugees to Germany – all shot standing or sitting next to a wooden chair against a white photostudio paper background – tell their stories about how they came to Germany.
Here is the story of Aeda and Bassam, from Syria. They tell their story in Arabic, and are dubbed in German in a way where viewers can still hear their own voices. They are from Damascus, and Bassam came along the sea route to Germany, where he watched another boat perish before his eyes. He himself developed heart problems from the journey. His wife often defers to him, and walks out of the frame at the beginning of the video as the story becomes too painful. The family patriarch standing on the sterile, white background looks lonely. The mood, in this story as well as some of the other videos available, bears a testament to the strengths of the traumatized. His wife walks off the stage, but he remains standing. She rejoins him and finds her voice. Bassam was the first to make it to Greece. After a long time, Aeda decided to take the children and join him, without his knowing, and with the help of a trafficker. There’s a steeliness to both of them. Aeda and the children were imprisoned twice, once on the Turkish coast and once in Greece. They travelled as a family from Greece to Macedonia by train, where they witnessed the death of a forty-year old man on the train. The man’s 15 year old son, who has some kind of mental disability, was taken along by his father on the trip, and was left alone after his death.
The family travelled by foot through Serbia and Hungary. Bassam reports that the Hungarian police were by far the most brutal, and had no empathy for the differences between children and adults making the journey, especially very small children.
According to the NDR schedule from last week, these short narrative films are airing late at night – after 11pm. There are ten portraits listed on the NDR website with refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea, and other countries.
Given the escalating violence against homes for asylum seekers, refugee children in schools, and even the violence incurred by the policing of left-wing demonstrations to occupy buildings with the hopes of finding refugees housing, this kind of storytelling is imminently political and a laudable intervention to allow refugees to speak for themselves over a long period of time (rather than in soundbytes) or to merely be spoken about by politicians and journalists. I don’t know if these videos always air at night, but rather than filling airtime after most people have gone to bed, this series should be playing at prime time. Air them in the late afternoon, cut out a rereun of the odious Two and a Half Men, and then show another one after parents and adults get home from work. Cut the piano music that introduces the trailer and story; make the entry into the storytelling as steely as the narrative that follows. Find a way to market not to the volunteers who are already sympathetic, but to the tough brutes who think that the AfD and Pegida offer viable alternatives.
The lines between agitprop, propaganda and publicity are so porous. And in this age of populist Hetze – whether it’s Donald Trump, Horst Seehofer or Marine LePen – the only thing we might have going for the rest of us is spin. So spin this. Spin people’s stories and give them as much agency as possible (at least 30 minutes worth) for them to wind up and come back down.