Framed by the French Alps, the border region between Italy and France has become an unlikely hot spot for countless migrants risking their lives to flee poverty, war, and political persecution. In the Roya and Durance Valleys, local communities have banded together to help the influx of refugees by offering them food, shelter and legal aid. But providing assistance to undocumented migrants is a criminal offense, and the charitable actions of those citizen groups have put them on the wrong side of the law.

Portuguese director Nuno Escudeiro decided to document these acts of civil disobedience in “The Valley,” which had its world premiere this week in Toronto at the Hot Docs Canadian Intl. Film Festival. The film follows a group of volunteers trying to assist asylum seekers who have survived the trek across dangerous mountain routes, only to be ensnared by a system that denies them their basic rights.

“For me, what was really hard was to make this film happen,” said Escudeiro. “I had to fight a lot for it.” The director spoke to Variety about the politics of fear in the age of mass migration, the power of empathy, and his hope that humanity will find itself on the right side of history with its response to Europe’s migrant crisis.

Why did you choose to make this film about inhabitants of the Roya and Durance Valleys specifically?

I’m from Portugal, and I moved away from Portugal around seven years ago. When I was living in Finland, and when I moved to Italy, I was always living close to these border regions. So I dealt with what the internal borders of Europe are turning into. I always met a lot of people that were helping refugees close to borders, but they were always hiding it. Even though it’s not very visible, it’s something that’s happening all over. The first thing that really interested me was the fact that [the citizen group Roya Citoyenne] were doing it publicly. When I heard of this, I went to see why are these people doing it like this, why are they doing it publicly.

The Roya and Durance Valleys have a complicated history. In the film, you describe a series of mass deportations after World War II, and the way the region’s own borders have evolved over the years. Did that strike you as a metaphor for the craziness of this entire system — how arbitrarily people’s lives are defined and shaped by borders that themselves might have been entirely different two or three generations ago?

It’s truly funny, because one of the [French] villages was actually in Italy 50 years ago. That’s the madness of it. The first thing that struck me was that you come from Italy, you enter the valley, you enter France, and then you move on from the valley and you go back to Italy. That place doesn’t make any sense from a political point of view. And it’s really how people feel there. They don’t feel like they’re in Italy or France. They feel very much divided. And I think also, that’s why this place has always had this feel about it. If you are in-between, and if someone wants to cross the border, you don’t have to take a position. If we are in-between, we are a point of passage.

We think that what defines our identity is at the center of the country, but actually, where you can feel what defines a country is right next to the border. Because those are the places that you actually question what is a country or not. If you want to get the feeling of a country, you should go to its borders, because that is where you’re really going to figure it out.

The camera spends a lot of time in the presence of the police — in one scene, you’re actually forced to stop filming. What was your relationship like with law enforcement while you were making “The Valley”? 

In the end, dealing with the authorities somehow became quite easy. If you are next to a person like Cedric [Herrou, of Roya Citoyenne], or these people from the valley, and you see them talking to the authorities, then you really change yourself. This scene in the film, where the policeman tells us to turn off the camera, it was actually a horrible situation. All of a sudden, policemen in plain clothes – not even identifying themselves – were talking to us in a violent way. They even expelled the lawyer from that place.

What truly struck me was that Cedric was super calm. He was really calm, and I was really upset, because I was being talked to in a way that I was never talked to. But Cedric was super calm. And after that, I really learned you need to stand your ground, because you are within your rights. After that, I never had problems filming with the police, because I was always coming from the principle, “I have the right to shoot you.”

The refugee crisis has been in the headlines for several years, and for many people, a sense of familiarity – even fatigue – with the story has set in. How did you approach “The Valley” in order to find a distinctive point-of-view, to try to explore the story in a different way?

It was always hard to explain to people what is actually the point of this film, and why another refugee film. Why is this different, why must we tell a story that adds to the narrative and complicates the way that we see things? From the beginning, I had this feeling that I want to contribute in a way that helps us see this as a historical moment, and that we as a society, we can say something. We can mold our way, and how we’re going to be remembered by history.

We as a society, we are not taking responsibility for this historical moment. This is something that is quite big, it’s really tragic, and we as a society, we are not truly positioning ourselves. And this is normal, because we don’t know how to deal with this situation. The main thing is that when you close the border, what are the consequences of it, and how a political decision can impact the lives of so many people. The majority of the population really is for human values, and for saving people’s lives. This small thing at the border is connected to a much bigger thing that is our historical moment that we live in. And we as citizens, as people, we need to look at ourselves and reflect a bit. We will be remembered for this.

One of the film’s subjects asks the question, “How did we get here?” And his answer is: “It was possible step by step. We got used to it.” Do you fear that across Europe, and around the world, we’ve all begun to accept the refugee crisis as a normal state of affairs?

There is a concept that also Cedric says that is this ruling through fear. When you close the border, you communicate fear. When you close the ports, you communicate fear. Instead of saying, ‘It’s not a big issue. There’s a few people coming. We can save some lives.’ Which is in fact true. In the ‘60s, there were three million Portuguese people who arrived in Paris. Back then, it was a much bigger issue. But we dealt with it in a much better way than we are dealing with it today. Probably back then there was a civil courage that was a bit different on all levels of society. And what we allowed to happen was that politicians, they dealt with it through fear. They didn’t say, ‘We can deal with this.’ But rather they chose to say, ‘We are closing the border because we are connecting this with terrorism.’ And so we propagate this idea that there is a hint of danger of these people coming. You see that in general society. Most people would say it’s not a good thing that [refugees] come. This fear is huge.

Unfortunately, what I see the most, is that more and more people are getting used to it. More and more normalization. On the other hand, we have to have a historical consciousness that this is not normal. And then we can be conscious of the historical times we live in, and we can look at it on the one hand with the most simple human thing that we have, that is our own empathy to another human being, and on the other hand, with the most abstract thing that we have, that is a sense of our own place in history. We can look at this situation not with a lens of fear, but with a lens of fraternity, of love, to understand that it’s just people, just humans. You’re just a normal person, but you can contribute.

Lazy loaded image
Miramonte Films