Searching for a more honest means of capturing the refugee experience, docu helmers Moritz Siebert and Estephan Wagner hit upon the clever idea of handing the camera over to a Malian emigrant, Abou Bakar Sidibe, and stepping away. The result, “Those Who Jump,” is one of the most authentic films on this highly charged topic: The attempts by sub-Saharan men to scale the wall separating Morocco from the Spanish enclave of Melilla are filmed as autobiography, bypassing the usual subject/object problems generally ignored by most documentaries. Produced by the team behind Joshua Oppenheimer, “Jump” also becomes a cinematic essay on the awakening of visual senses, further cementing its appeal as a popular fest item.
Though the topic is more globally hot-button than the Indonesian purges explored by Oppenheimer, the pic is unlikely to generate the same attention and theatrical play as “The Act of Killing,” simply because it’s less slick (and considerably less chilling, notwithstanding the emotions involved). For many, though, the roughness will be part of its appeal: When Sidibe first starts filming, he doesn’t know how to set up shots, and he’s not even sure what to film. Yet in relatively short order, he develops an understanding of framing and also begins to see the camera as a means of asserting his individuality. Though an unexpected byproduct of the experiment, this discovery of his own pictorial acumen becomes one of the docu’s key selling points.
Siebert and Wagner met Sidibe in one of the makeshift camps on Mount Gurugu, where thousands of migrants risk life and limb scaling fortified fences that were erected to keep refugees out of Melilla. Faced with razor wire and aggressive security, these men living in a sort of purgatory as they repeatedly attempt to make the jump: They know life in Europe won’t be easy, but it will be infinitely better than the hell at home. When the two directors met Sidibe, he’d been camping on Gurugu for over a year, ever determined to make a successful crossing. He was given money (so he wouldn’t sell the camera for much-needed food and such) and told to shoot.
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It’s a frequently tedious life on the slopes, spent scrounging for food, lining up for water, and preparing for the next attempt to get over the wall. Occasionally, soccer matches lift the spirits — the camps have a certain order, and are divided by nationality — but the Moroccan police become more hostile, regularly burning the improvised shelters in an unsuccessful attempt to discourage the refugees from making the mountain a way-station to Europe. Because it’s all from Sidibe’s p.o.v., as an equal to his fellow refugees, there’s something of a sense of three-dimensionality about these men, seen as more than simply would-be wall jumpers.
Sidibe’s unsuccessful attempts to climb over understandably generate an atmosphere of depression, accompanied by near-constant fear, and he speaks of frequent nightmares in which he’s forced to return to Mali. In the end, he was one of the lucky ones, and after making it into Europe, he recorded a French voiceover that describes the camp and his moods.
But it’s how he discovers an appreciation for what he’s seeing through the camera lens that makes “Those Who Jump” a film to engage multiple emotions. As a rudimentary understanding of framing kicks in, he begins noticing the world around him in a new way: “I feel I exist when I film,” he says, hopefully reminding auds that the anonymous refugees in the news have names, and stories, and dreams as potent as their own.