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2023 | 24.5 mins | Colour

A film by Mieke Bal and Lena Verhoeff

With the non-existing word “refugee-dom” Lena Verhoeff and I wanted to express the state, emotional and physical, of the life of the refugee on the road. On everyday television, we see images of people walking with luggage and small children and exhausted faces. But our theme was a bit different. The phrase “lonely but not alone” came from an autobiography of former Dutch queen Wilhelmina, published in 1959, to describe her life as always surrounded by a dense crowd of people at court but still, always feeling lonely. The two qualifiers, lonely and alone, which seem to be synonymous, are here, through the conjunction “but”, rather presented as an opposition; an opposition qualifying a non-existing noun.

The awkward language helps, for, contradiction is key to the life of refugees. Also, the aesthetic verging towards abstraction for which we opted is steeped in contradiction: on the one hand, the viewer is compelled to keep looking for the refugee, on the other hand, the man constantly seems to vanish, blur, or fade into indirection. This tension between visibility and invisibility became the central mode of “imaging”, invoked to suggest a practice of looking where things stay in tension while coming together.

That loneliness is so strongly felt, emotionally and sensuously, because the contrast between the lonely person recently arrived, unable to speak the local language, and the busy multitude around him is so intense and imposing. That contrast is our aesthetic visibilization in a variety of forms: reflections in shop and restaurant windows, blurry takes of people walking fast in the streets; the tiny reflection of the man in a reflecting globe in a shop display; the temporal contrast between the movements of the crowd and the stagnation of the man standing still in the street, alone; at some point his hesitation to steal a piece of fruit in a shop display outside, then the decision to not fall into that stereotype of the foreigner as thieve, and more. The confused lines of the beginning image of an etching by Rembrandt filmed in both slow movement and blown-up details, so that it becomes abstract, generate a sense of alienation.

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