HIFF Review: The Migrant Experience From the Inside

The view of Melilla, Spain, from Mount Gurugu in Morocco

From the millions of Syrians displaced by five years of war to Donald Trump’s call for a Mexican wall, the plight of migrants and the political ramifications of immigration have dominated the news in recent years. While the vast majority of that coverage is from the outside looking in, “Les Sauteurs (Those Who Jump),” one of the Hamptons International Film Festival’s five Competition documentaries, reverses that viewpoint by the simple act of putting the camera in a migrant’s hands, and by so doing comes as close as possible to transporting the viewer into his world.

Mount Gurugu overlooks the border between Morocco and Melilla, a Spanish city on the North African coast. Moritz Siebert and Estephan Wagner, the filmmakers, met Abou Bakar Sidibé, a refugee from Mali, at the camp on the mountain where more than 1,000 refugees live while awaiting an opportunity to scale the fortified fences that separate them from Europe. To call their world a camp glamorizes it. It is simply a place where these men—and they seem to be men only—come from throughout sub-Saharan Africa with a few possessions and live in makeshift conditions. The film could be called “Those Who Wait,” for the mountain is a kind of purgatory.

The film takes cinema verité to a new level by putting the camera in Abou’s hands. While at first he is learning to use it, before long he is adept and even says, “I feel I exist when I film.” We are with him inside the camp, where the men cook, play checkers, talk about their fantasies of life in Spain, play soccer, and periodically venture, sometimes in large groups, to the fence on the border of the city the mountain overlooks. Moroccan police periodically invade the camp when the men leave to check conditions at the border and burn their meager possessions, including their food.

Yet despite the conditions in which they live and wait, there is relatively little despair. In fact, knowing the difficulties not only of scaling the wall but also the obstacles they will face on the other side, they are nevertheless sustained by their belief and their hope, without which they would have nothing.

In the end, Abou and many others finally make it over the wall, and their exultation seems to make everything that went before worth it, even though it is only the beginning of a journey whose outcome is unknown.

“Les Sauteurs” will be shown again Saturday at 6:45 p.m. at East Hampton UA 5.

Co-director Moritz Siebert discussed "Les Sauteurs" after Friday's screening.Mark Segal