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The journey from Cameroon: Jakob Preuss

INTERVIEW! Jakob Preuss followed a Cameroonian man on his odyssey to Europe for the moving documentary "When Paul Came Over the Sea", in cinemas on August 31.

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Jakob Preuss followed a Cameroonian man on his odyssey to Europe for the moving documentary When Paul Came Over the Sea, in cinemas on August 31.

A Berlin director embarks on a research journey to explore Europe’s borders, from Frontex sea patrols to land police. In the Spanish enclave of Melilla on the North African coast, where a six-metre high fence separates Europe from Africa, he meets Paul, and that’s where the journey truly starts. When Paul Came Over the Sea (check out the trailer) tells the expected tale of displacement and asylum woes, but it is also a film about an unlikely and long-lasting friendship that challenges the convention of documentary as the director slowly gets drawn into his protagonist’s narrative with unexpected consequences – and, surely, convincing cinematic results.

What was your original inspiration for this film?

Originally, I was interested in looking at life on the borders of “borderless Europe” from the inside. Growing up with the Berlin Wall at my doorstep, I was always fascinated by borders. I’d previously been to other border zones, between Greece and Turkey, or between Poland and Ukraine – there, the main topic is illegal petty trade, rather than migration. But after getting to Melilla, I realised that nothing could compare to what I saw there: people who risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean…

Why Melilla?

In Melilla, there is this microcosm which you don’t find in any other places, with this autonomous Spanish city inside Africa – bordered by Morocco and the sea – and these camps in the forest on the Moroccan side of the fence. It’s the only land border between Europe and Africa. African migrants live in makeshift camps waiting for their luck to make it to the other side. Then there was the language: I don’t speak Arabic or Greek, but I do speak French and Spanish, which made it easier for me with both the Spanish border police and the people in the Cameroonian camp. While filming, I like to get close to people, and language is important for me.

The people in the Cameroonian camp seemed pretty open to you. Was that a surprise?

Surprises were many. The mood in the improvised camp, for example, where all those people sung, all that strength and joy, that sense of humour. Not something you would expect from those who are about to risk their lives. And, of course, the turn our shooting took when I met Paul.

At what point did you understand that Paul would be your story?

It was that emotionally charged moment when, after hearing the news that Paul’s boat had been in trouble, I found video clips of his rescue on the internet. Then I discovered that, after arriving in Spain, he’d been sent to a detention centre. I found it incredible that someone who has just spent 50 hours at sea, starved and thirsty, someone who saw people fighting and dying, would then just be brought to a prison. Usually, you don’t know anything about a migrant before he crosses a border. Who knows who those people who make it over the Mediterranean were before they come here… In this case, I realised I had a chance to tell the whole story.

How do you feel about your role in Paul’s story?

It was a permanent negotiation of our roles. Am I acting as a friend, am I acting as a filmmaker who owes something to his protagonist? I’m not the kind of filmmaker who’d cross the sea on a rubber boat like some journalists do; I feel I would use my privilege to make sure the boat arrives safely. But in the end I did get involved in Paul’s story and never regretted it. He never asked me for much, anyway, except for that final car ride to Berlin.

The ambiguity of your relationship is best exposed in that memorable scene when Paul is supposed to get on a bus to reach the refugee camp in Eisenhüttenstadt – but doesn’t have the money for the fare. He’s expecting you to drop the camera for a second and help, but you don’t; you keep filming…

Yes, we had a deal on that day and I stuck to it. Sometimes after screenings, some people get mad at me, “Why didn’t you help?” But we should get mad at the passengers who are there and can’t give him a euro, and at the bus driver who sticks to the rules so much. You see people like Paul at bus stations – and I always say, you can’t help everyone, but if you help one or two along the way, even just with a bus fare, that’s already quite a bit.

In another scene, Paul says that although those who make it here should be helped, Europe should keep its borders under control. Did that shock you?

Even in the forest camp, many were like, “We would do the same, you can’t let people invade your country.” Their community is divided – there are the “activists”, who stand up for migrants’ rights, and the conservatives, like Paul, who just want to be on the right side of the border. I was a little bit mad at him when I realised that – if the conservatives in Germany knew how much potential in the electorate they had with the migrant community, they might change their attitude towards them!

As a so-called “economic” refugee from sub-Saharan Africa, Paul has little hope of receiving asylum, right?

Well, Paul has a 0.001 percent chance of getting asylum. But then, very few of the hundreds of thousands who are denied asylum in Germany are sent back to their home country. Anyway, yes, it is unlikely that Paul ever gets the refugee status Syrians who fled the war have, no matter how much he does to integrate – he’s already worked in a nursery home and has been learning German. There is this debate on economic migrants blocking the space for “real refugees” – and what a “real refugee” is – and I hope my film can contribute to it.

What do you think the future holds for people like Paul?

Things sometimes change quicker than many would think. Some hundred years ago we had child labour, no voting rights for women; before that, slavery, witch hunting and feudalism. So in 100-150 years, people might look at the way we manage immigration now – how a Cameroonian would have to cross the desert, risk his life at sea and continue on a quest through Europe without any rights – and think, oh, those were the barbaric ancient times.

When Paul came over the Sea | Directed by Jakob Preuss (DE, 2017), documentary. Starts August 31

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