Slovak director and artist Tomáš Rafa, whose documentary “Refugees Are Welcome Here” has its world premiere in Ji.hlava Film Festival’s Between the Seas section, will also bring his new project “Polish Rainbow” to the festival’s East Silver Market.
“Polish Rainbow,” which is focused on Poland’s conservative stance on reproductive and sexual rights, couldn’t be more timely as only a few days ago the Polish constitutional court ruled that the legislation allowing for the abortion of malformed fetuses was “unconstitutional.” Poland now has one of the most restrictive laws on abortion in Europe, prompting protests across the country, and people clashing with police outside of the home of Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński.
“Poland has become the epicenter of all these controversial issues,” says Rafa, who is no stranger to the country, having studied at the Academy of Arts in Bánská Bystrica, and in Warsaw, as well as capturing its infamous far-right marches on Independence Day, with some of the material making its way into Andrzej Jakimowski’s 2017 film “Once Upon a Time in November.”
“In 2015 it was all about refugees, then LGBTQ+ took over and now it’s about women’s rights. Warsaw is like Paris, except that they tend to approach the same topics in a completely different way,” he says, regrettably unable to cover the ongoing protests due to growing COVID-19 restrictions.
But it was actually thanks to the pandemic that he managed to finish “Refugees Are Welcome Here,” for which he has been gathering material for the past 10 years. This is because for the first time in years he wasn’t able to shoot or to travel. With his activity as an artist previously confined to short, 10-minute episodes he would post on his YouTube channel, gathering more than 17 million views to date, he decided to try his hand at a longer format. Invited by the festival, he finished editing in two months.
Moving from Slovakia, where its “anti-Roma” walls made him interested in the problem in the first place, he started to travel with a camera to, as he says, “look at the new wave of nationalism in the public sphere.” He went to Heidenau in Germany, for example, where violent protests took place outside of a shelter for asylum seekers. “I went there because they announced that there would be more attacks. I was recording these situations all day,” he says. In “Refugees Are Welcome Here,” he shows what he witnessed during these travels, documenting various protests, dramas and attacks, in Berlin, Idomeni refugee camp and Lesbos, to name but a few.
“I think that ultimately, all these experiences made sense,” he says. “Also, the viewer feels more emotions when the camera comes that close. I want him or her to feel as much as I did.” Although restraining himself from including interviews or “talking heads,” he did decide to feature some comments, like the one from a visibly shocked volunteer, comparing the situation in a camp to the “scenes from a post-apocalyptic movie.”
“I don’t do interviews, but when I met him, I asked if he wanted to say something. I didn’t ask him any questions, so what came out was a stream of consciousness of what has happened to him during those last 24 hours,” he says, admitting that he can’t really distance himself from what he sees. Not just him – one of the volunteers he met during his travels ended up in a psychiatric ward, something Rafa discovered years later.
“It’s draining, both physically and mentally. But I can’t just say that ‘it’s my job,’ I want to understand the emotions of my characters and to sympathize with them. Once, I was recording all night and it was just getting worse. The temperature has dropped significantly, there was mud everywhere. It’s difficult to convey to the viewer that it was so cold, that they were sleeping right there, in this mud. If after seeing the film anyone says it’s a terrible situation, I assure you – it was even worse.”
Despite his experience, Rafa is still hesitant to make statements about the situation. “It’s hard to express it in any language, really, whether it’s Slovak or English or Polish” he says. “Therefore, at the beginning of 2010, I decided to explore such terms as nationalism and patriotism while using visual language only. Leaving enough space for the viewers to determine what it all means, based on what they saw. My private opinion that football hooligans are a tool of the right-wing movements is probably unnecessary, although I have witnessed such situations too. Someone will say: ‘No, these guys are just sports fans,’ and five minutes later they are throwing stones at a Muslim family. And when you throw stones, you probably assume you can kill someone.”