Two years after Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fire at Sea” won the Golden Bear at Berlin, the European migrant crisis remains the most prominent topic in the continent’s non-fiction cinema, yielding some essential films and other sketchier, more opportunistic ones. In the sincerely felt “Eldorado,” veteran Swiss filmmaker Markus Imhoof easily staves off “just another refugee doc” shrugs with the unusual personal scope of his study, as he draws a parallel between the current crisis and his own first-hand recollection of human displacement across unwelcoming European borders in World War II. It’s a fresh perspective that makes its political point with understated anger, though the twin histories of Imhoof’s film aren’t that fluidly integrated: There could be a whole feature in the director’s affecting childhood memoir, and its telling feels a bit cramped beside the film’s more expansive contemporary material.
Structural flaws notwithstanding, “Eldorado’s” honest power and approachable form — if anything, at 91 minutes, it could take more time to unpack its information — should stand it in good stead on the festival circuit following a prominent out-of-competition Berlin premiere. International distribution, particularly via digital platforms, should exceed that of Imhoof’s last, more niche doc, the Oscar-submitted bee-farming study “More Than Honey.”
Imhoof opens on an image that has become emblematic of the struggle faced by African and Middle Eastern refugees risking life and limb to land on European shores: a flimsy, windblown space blanket. Its gleaming foil folds are the only note of brightness on screen as Imhoof solemnly gazes over the exhausted faces and bodies of African migrants on a container ship bound for Italy, via the Italian government’s year-long Operation Mare Nostrum initiative between 2013 and 2014. Without voiceover or other editorialization, Imhoof captures other rituals of the voyage: the scramble for life jackets, the taking of fingerprints, the scanning and searching of new arrivals as they land, hustled through the process like livestock. “Eldorado’s” best stretches are these early, silently observational ones, in which the sometimes dehumanizing methods of human aid are implicitly noted.
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Commentary is introduced with the film’s second strand, as Imhoof reflects directly on a tragic episode from his childhood that continues to haunt him. At the close of WWII, when the director was four years old, his family took in war-ravaged Italian eight-year-old Giovanna as part of a temporary Swiss aid program, nursing her back to health before she was forced to return to Italy. Though Imhoof’s family managed to arrange a second stay, Giovanna once more fell foul of immigration authorities and was sent home, where she died, seemingly of malnourishment, aged just 13.
It takes time for this appallingly sad story (related in voiceover through the director’s own personal testimony and dramatized readings of Giovanna’s letters) to reveal its place in Imhoof’s wider investigation. Introduced without much context, it’s revisited erratically over the course of the film, which principally follows the modern-day migrants as they try to extend their journey from Italy to Switzerland and beyond — the significance of the title is self-explanatory — encountering their own share of national barriers and bureaucratic red tape along the way. Gradually, though, the political convergence of these two narratives becomes clear, as Imhoof decries the insular, inflexible nature, then as now, of European authorities in times of human crisis — or, as he repeatedly phrases it, a system that still prioritizes “I” over “we.”
Supported only by the 76-year-old Imhoof’s memory and the few letters and keepsakes from Giovanna that he has held onto, “Eldorado’s” historical narrative is inevitably less vividly portrayed than its contemporary one, though that in itself is poignant: a reminder of how fragile individual migrants’ stories are to begin with, and how awareness of even their collective struggle can fade with time.
To safeguard against this, Imhoof records tough, indelible flashes of contemporary refugees’ daily struggles: from one Nigerian’s incensed outpouring of rage against camp conditions to a young Syrian girl’s frustrated rejection of the food and water offered by police at the Swiss border from which her family has been turned away. Such scenes render the increasingly vocal, despairing nature of Imhoof’s commentary somewhat moot. “What kind of movie are you making? Give me a script,” says one refugee to camera, eager to be heard — and little realizing that he’s writing it himself right there.