ART | A look back at the Immigration//Représentation festival

Immigration makes the headlines on a daily basis. It has become part of the national vocabulary in a such a way that we don’t often stop and question how it is represented. Politicians and newsrooms demand facts, tussle over figures and gleefully seize on a timely scandal. But are we as readers, listeners and viewers passive in this to-ing and fro-ing? Where does our perception of the debate fit in, or even the perception of the immigrants: themselves so fetishised in the general brouhaha that their voices are often lost. For this reason, the Immigration//Représentation Festival wished to step back from the chaotic national discourses, and create a space to reflect. We started with cinema, a valuable context to consider how a society responds to the cultural shifts and encounters migration brings. You may have seen our video installation in the Union foyer at the beginning of March where we showcased some brilliant short films by up and coming directors from the prestigious Parisian film school La Femis. These powerful shorts showed how creativity and artistic innovation can intervene in some of the most pressing contemporary social issues.

As students with backgrounds in French cultural studies, we decided to start by showcasing how French cinema, often upheld as beacon of the country’s cultural heritage, dealt with migration. That an industry so central to France’s projection of its own self image was dealing with a perceived threat to its national unity might sound strange. So where better to start than with a screening of a film by a Finnish director? We screened Aki Kaurismäki’s Le Havre on 5th March to a good crowd who posed the same question. As our speaker, Dr Claire Launchbury from Leeds University French department explained, the film is a wonderful pastiche of French cinematic clichés and aesthetics. So can an outsider play around with national cultures better than natives? These are the kind of questions we are putting to our audiences and participants across the screenings and workshops.

‘Le Havre’, a comedy following a young refugee Idrissa’s arrival in Le Havre, the French port across the channel from the UK, fits neatly in our first theme – ‘Arrivals’. On entering the room for the screening, each person was given a question: ‘Can you think of a time that you arrived in a new place for the first time? What was it like? How did you feel? can you draw it or describe it in words?’. In this way we were hoping to highlight how migration is in fact, part of the universal human condition, and not a ‘thing’ to be scared of nor to shy away from.

The next screening was Les Arrivants, a documentary about families seeking asylum in France. Lorna Gledhill from Regional Asylum Activism, who campaigns for asylum rights locally and nationally, commented on the representation of the French system, whilst making comparisons with the British context. Case workers from local NGOs working with asylum seekers also gave their impressions of the French system, offering insight into how they deal with similar encounters. The film fitted neatly into our second theme – ‘Adaptation’, as we see both the families and the French services struggle to adapt to the needs and demands of the people they encounter. Our final film was shown last week: for the theme of ‘Return’ we screened La Vierge, Les Coptes et Moi. It follows a French-Egyptian film-maker on his journey to reconnect with his family in rural Egypt. Both the films sparked great discussed around the nature of film-making, authenticity and representing national cultures.

As part of the program Beatrice Ivey, festival coordinator and postgraduate research student in French facilitated an interdisciplinary postgraduate workshop around representations of migration. We heard from Rachel Loftus from Leeds City Council Harmonious Communities about the migration patterns and working with diverse communities in Leeds, as well as from four postgraduate research students whose work deals with migration. The immediacy and importance of keeping debate, interest and concern around representation of immigration is clear from the engagement of participants across all our events.

Our finale is an afternoon at Templeworks on Sunday 30th. To (re)consider way to represent yourself and others, we have a program bursting at the seams with music, dance, photography workshops, talks and more. £2 suggested donation on the door. All proceeds go to Zozo Band Drummers. See our Facebook page or drop us an email for more information.

Elizabeth Lowenstein

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