Urban autonomies


Julie Høj Thomsen and Jan-Holger Hennies' documentaries show us the daily life of an undocumented refugee in Denmark and three unhoused people in Berlin.

Where did you get the idea for your documentary?

Julie Høj Thomsen:

‘Underground’ is my dissertation film for the MA in Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester. It doesn’t show in the film, but the main character ‘Ali’ is actually my partner. His situation is of course something that affects me a lot personally. So already when I started the MA I knew that I wanted to make a film about the issues of migration, asylum seekers and migration politics. However, it was rather late in the research process I came up with the idea of making a film about and with ‘Ali’. But when I got the idea, I talked to ‘Ali’ about it and we agreed that it would be an interesting and challenging project to do together.

I think my indignation about how Europe, and in this case Denmark, treats migrants and refugees was my main motivation. Knowing ‘Ali’ personally has given me an insight into the many challenges you meet as an undocumented migrant, and I wanted more people to have this knowledge. Undocumented migrants are a group rarely spoken about or with in Danish media, and for that reason I found it important to tell a story from the perspective of an undocumented migrant.

Jan-Holger Hennies:

Initially I became interested in issues around homelessness by perceiving the on-going processes of excluding unhoused people from public spaces in cities worldwide. Manchester, where I studied at that time, gave some infamous examples. Reading more about homelessness and unhoused people I became slightly dissatisfied of how their actions and tactics for survival – food, money, bodily needs – were the most emphasised, often framing them as mere surviving bodies and thus furthering the dehumanisation of “the homeless”. The actual film “Urban Minds” then became the project for my MA thesis in Visual Anthropology. In Berlin, where I had lived for several years, I wanted to portray the “homeless city” from a standpoint that looked at the everyday, the emotive and affective planes of unhoused living. At that point, I had no idea with whom I would end up working or how the actual style of the film would evolve.

Jan-Holger Hennies, was it hard to find the people starring in your film?

Yes and no. To get in touch with possible protagonists I started volunteering at a night shelter and a day café for unhoused people in Berlin. For about a month or so I was just getting to know different people and tried to figure out where my film could be going. It was this time that really helped me to question my own stereotypes about the topic. Within this period I also got to know the film’s later protagonists, whom were all living in totally distinct conditions and hence collaboration ensued in quite different ways. Most notably Andrea – which is not her real name – wanted to stay anonymous but was interested in narrating a few episodes of her experiences. To me, including her was really important as the experience of being unhoused is drastically influenced by one’s gender. She thus wrote down some of her stories, we recorded them with her voice and I then proceeded to film around the places she described in order to find an audio-visual language for her narrations. This among other things brought me to cross half of Berlin in the night, walking with a camera.

Likewise, due to their social milieus, their everyday routines, sleeping situations, substance use, shooting with the other two protagonists came with heavy restrictions of where, what and when to film. The actual style of the film – combining quite different approaches to filmmaking into one – was born out of these stark differences between the encountered situations.

Julie Høj Thomsen, how can autonomy be seen in your documentary?

‘Ali’ has acted autonomously firstly by leaving his ‘home country’ Iran and crossing several borders. After this he acted autonomously when he decided to stay in Denmark, even though his asylum case was rejected. As an undocumented migrant, he lives in the geographical area of Denmark, but has no connection to or support from the state. Instead he is reliant on his own initiative and his social relations in order to sustain his own life.

Jan-Holger Hennies, what would you hope your audience learned from your documentary? 

When we think of homeless people we tend to think of the stereotype poor person begging in the streets, merely surviving, stripped of all individuality. It is therefore necessary to rethink one’s perception of homelessness – the term includes a vast diversity of unhoused people in distinct conditions and situations, living social lives, having their problems, managing their everyday, even creating notions of home in different spaces. Only if we can look past the economic needs – which of course are important – we are able to really grasp the individual humans that are dealing with their situations in their individual manners. And not everything a homeless person does or thinks is centred around his or her living conditions. To me it was extremely important to step away from any sort of moralism and pity within my film and treat the people I made it with and about simply as human beings. In times where “the homeless” is mostly perceived as a threat to the public sphere, this fact often seems to be forgotten.

Julie Høj Thomsen, what was the most challenging part in the process of making the document? What was the most rewarding moment?

The most challenging part was to figure out how to make a film about someone you cannot show. How to make it visually interesting and how to show ‘Ali’s personality without showing his face. Another challenging part was to make a film with and about my own partner, but I think we actually managed that challenge well.

I guess the most rewarding aspect of the film is that ‘Ali’ liked it and that he has actually started to make films himself after this project. Besides from that it has been rewarding to show the film and see people’s reactions. Generally, people have been very touched by Ali’s situation.

 Jan-Holger Hennies, how has the reception been back in Germany? Has the view on homeless people changed?

That would be great. However, as I haven’t been to Germany a lot lately the film has not been screened there often and will have its actual German premiere at a festival later in October. I’m really looking forward to engaging with the audience at this occasion. Still, the few personal screenings with the protagonists or other friends always led to interesting conversations about our general (mis)perception of “the homeless”. But to really change the overall view on unhoused people it will sadly need a lot more.

Julie Høj Thomsen, how do you view the future for people like Ali? Is there a chance that people won't have to live “underground”?

That’s a very hard question! Well my hope is of course that there will be a time, where freedom of movement is not only for money, goods and services, but also for human beings. The current political situation in Denmark, and Europe, doesn’t leave much hope for that though. However, I see people resist as well, ‘Ali’ being one example, but also more popular movements resisting current migration- and asylum-politics. Of course, my hope is that these popular movements will manage to affect policies on the area. But at the moment rejected asylum seekers, like ‘Ali’, are met with more surveillance and criminalization.

Jan-Holger Hennies, have you been keeping contact with the people starring in your film? How are they doing now?

Currently I do not live in Berlin anymore but I keep in touch with Micha, one of the protagonists, over Facebook and will sure visit when I happen to be there. He also is in contact with other people starring in the film. They are all doing well as far as one can know through such channels. However, with one person I have lost contact over the distance and will need to trace back the steps to day cafés and night shelters to visit again. I really hope I can get in touch.

Can you tell us what is the most important thing you learned while making your film?

Julie Høj Thomsen:

 I think the most important thing I learned or got out of the project, was a better understanding of what it is to be in ‘Ali’s situation. As mentioned before I knew ‘Ali’ very well before making the film, but making the film gave me the opportunity to ask question, I might not have asked otherwise. Viewing your partner not only through the camera lens, but also through an academic lens is a very strange and sometimes objectifying process, but I actually think it gave me some important insight, that helps me to understand him.Since it is only my second independent film, I of course also learned a whole lot about filmmaking.

Jan-Holger Hennies:

Apart from the issues raised above, for me this film was my first solo-project and facing that many restrictions and difficult situations in which the filmmaking took place was quite a challenge. At times I had no idea how everything could possibly combine into one film. A major help was watching Michael Glawogger’s film “Megacities” which consists of vignettes into several people’s everyday life on the margins of big cities worldwide (highly recommended!). The individual episodes thereby drastically differ in style in order to do what best fits the specific occasion. Once I had seen this and freed myself of thinking in more traditional filmmaking conventions, the project really came to life. For my current work on a web-documentary about Mexican clandestine gravesites and the role of Human Rights forensics – again facing many restrictions – this keeps helping me.

Julie Høj Thomsen: Underground, Friday 27th, Joensuu Science Park

Jan-Holger Hennies: Stadtgeister, Friday 27th, Joensuu Science Park