Chinese or Mongolian?

The French documentary film The Arrivals was screened at the Jihlava IDFF 2010. At the end of the festival, it was selected as the best film of the travelling Doc Alliance Selection, winning the prestigious Doc Alliance Award. After its successful festival tour, the film opens the doors to a place where the clash of civilizations is a daily routine to online spectators as well.

Are you Mongolian or Chinese? An immigration officer demands an answer to an apparently simple question. However, his effort is in vain. His face is slowly turning red. His colleague has already “flared up”, trying to calm down in the yard with a cigarette in her hand. A young Ethiopian puts his head in his hands helplessly, looking like he is going to jump out of the window. Words, shouting, pleas and tears; the atmosphere is full of unrest, stress and emotions. In other words, this is a regular day in a family immigration centre (CAFDA) in Paris.
Dozens of people arrive here every day from all parts of the world. After their strenuous journey, they are exhausted, hungry, and bleary-eyed; they have no money, have no home, and mostly speak but a few French words. No wonder that the office looks like an endless pandemonium at first glance. It is only after a long and careful observation that a firm set of rules emerges out of the chaos.
The filmmaking couple, Claudine Bories and Patrice Chagnard, have spent more than six months shooting The Arrivals in the CAFDA offices. In the course of that period, many faces and life stories have appeared in front of the camera, with some of them becoming the protagonists of the observational documentary. The camera carefully retains the “fly on the wall” approach; though it is present in the events, it tries not to influence any of them. The observational style of the documentary is reminiscent of the famous films by American documentary film classic Frederic Wiseman who has always concentrated primarily on detailed probes of the functioning of various social institutions (such as hospitals, insurance companies, mental homes or police forces). The great contribution of The Arrivals consists in the fact that it restores the individuality of those who are often perceived merely as a nameless mass or a line of numbers. That goes not only for the asylum seekers but also the office workers; they, too, have their unique lives and stories. These empathetic micro-portraits of the participants from both sides of the fence clearly show that there is nothing mechanical about the office; what is more important than correctly filled-in forms is good behaviour, mutual sympathies and antipathies, good will, patience, willingness to communicate and primarily trust. Since the film does not avoid moments of emotions taking control of the situations (which does not only go for moments of anger or aggression), the bureaucratic process becomes human; thus becoming not only bearable and understandable but even; why not say so; entertaining.

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