'Those Who Jump' ('Les Sauteurs'): Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Life on the borderline.

Three directors (one of them an African migrant) made this frontier-set documentary, which premiered in Berlin’s Forum sidebar.

A riveting form of home movie where home itself is entirely off limits, Those Who Jump (Les Sauteurs) offers viewers a raw glimpse into the lives of African migrants hoping to make it into Europe by scaling a barrier between Morocco and the outlying Spanish city of Melilla.

Rather than shooting a typical documentary, directors Moritz Sibert and Estephan Wagner decided to hand off a camera to Abou Bakar Sidibe, a Malian who spent more than a year trying to cross over to the other side. The resulting footage exposes the everyday plight of exiles seeking a better life abroad, and doing so with cunning, humor and a sense of their predicament that’s at once fatalistic and remarkably sanguine. Along with Berlinale competition title Fire at Sea, this Forum sidebar premiere offers further proof of the continent’s ongoing immigration crisis, lending a voice to those who don’t normally get one.

Credited as co-director, Sidibe is camped out with fellow migrants on the top of Mount Gurugu, which overlooks the tiny North African coastal enclave of Melilla, and beyond, the Mediterranean Sea. It’s a rather picturesque location from which you can film planes landing every so often in the city’s airport, while panning further down reveals a wall composed of three metal fences, some of them topped with barbed wire, others with CCTV cameras.

After receiving his gear from the other directors (as well as some money so that he doesn’t sell off the equipment), Sidibe reveals himself to be an extremely adept cameraman, capturing details of life on the frontier with vivid clarity and a certain playfulness, though never shying away from the harsh realities that surround him.

When the men (they are all men between their late teens and thirties) are not waiting around or playing soccer — one of the film’s more upbeat scenes is an intense if friendly match between Malians and Ivorians that takes place on a dusty hillside — they have to scrounge for food and shelter while prepping their next attempt to crash the fences, where Spanish forces try to prevent them from making the jump.

Like a war movie seen from behind the lines, we watch Sidibe and his comrades plan out their skirmishes, with a strategy that consists of rushing the barriers in large numbers so that a handful can make it over before the cops push them back. During such scenes, the film cuts away to images taken from official police cameras (some of them switched to infrared), revealing dozens of bodies hurling themselves toward freedom, and, more often than not, failing to get there.

It’s a terrifying thing to watch, especially when we’ve seen so many of these men in more intimate situations, trying to eke out a peaceful existence on a plot of land that is constantly under attack by Moroccan officials, who set fire to the exiles' tents and provisions as a means to dissuade them. But the men always come back.

“I exist because I film,” says Sidibe at one point, taking solemn pleasure in capturing the transitory lifestyle that he and the other migrants lead while striving for something better. By doing so, he delivers us a testament to their courage and to the rest of the world’s neglect — a sort of found footage movie that, true to the genre, is not without its own kind of horror: one that is real and happening just outside our door.

Production company: Final Cut for Real
Directors: Moritz Siebert, Estephan Wagner, Abou Bakar Sidibe
Producers: Signe Burge Sorensen, Heidi Elise Christensen
Director of photography: Abou Bakar Sidibe
Editor: Estephan Wagner
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)
Sales: WIDE House

In French, Bambara
79 minutes