Travel to the edge of war and immerse yourself into the lives of Syrian refugees
Salam Neighbor is a documentary made by and centered around two white male middle-class Americans who decide to make an excursion to the largest Syrian refugee camp in Jordan: Za’atari. They show up at the camp with their film gear, without having made any effort to study Arabic or learn about the culture beforehand, and are determined to live there ‘as refugees’, dependent on food handouts from UNHCR, and inside one of the agency’s $1000 tents (there is in fact a shortage of resources for refugees in need).
As I sat there, cringing, I was expecting a Cannibal Holocaust kind of twist, in which gullible colonialist ethnographers/tourists unwittingly walk into a violent reality and become the object of derision. The twist was that there was no twist. These guys were actually staying in Za’atari without any clue or post-colonial critique, and now they’re gaining fame and more than a few bucks off of it.
When they first arrive, Chris and Zach set up camp in a completely culturally inappropriate place: the kitchen where women gathered.”You can’t sleep here! There are so many places to put your tent! Why here??”, actual refugees shout at them. The boys are perplexed; after all, they’re here to help the natives, so why are they angry with them? After some behind-the-scenes money exchange, they keep their tent in place, untroubled by the incident, and untroubled by the fact they might have just forced refugee women to move from their safe space. Indeed, throughout the film, women are never shown near the tent; they left to accommodate for the film-makers.
Chris and Zach do not stop there when it comes to forcing refugees to move against their will. When they discover that 11-year-old Raouf was not attending the UNICEF school within the camp, they psychologically torture the kid without trying to learn the reasons behind his actions. Day after day after day, they persist in telling Raouf to go to class: ‘Come’on buddy! It’ll only take 10 minutes to walk there! We can walk with you!’ Zach’s humanitarian goals obstruct him from seeing the terror in Raouf’s eyes and shaking body that are obvious to any humane viewer. When they finally escort Raouf to school, the child suffers an emotional breakdown. It is only then that they speak to his father (they hadn’t consulted his family about taking him to school??) and discover that Raouf used to love school, until one day his school in Syria was bombed. Raouf’s fear of school was due to post-traumatic stress. After we learn this, the film does not focus on Raouf or Syrian children’s pain: the camera zooms into Chris’s puffy red eyes. Two minutes are spent filming the white male middle-class Americans’ shock. Raouf’s father is not present for the remainder of the film.
The tagline of Salam Neighbor is literally an advert for humanitarian tourism: Travel to the edge of war and immerse yourself into the lives of Syrian refugees. Lives of Syrian refugees as they are presented to voluntourists, without any mention of the camp’s sexual trafficking and violence, or the sheer fact of the confinement of over 100,000 people (the film gets the number wrong by 15,000) within 5.2 km2. The problematics of going in and out of a space where inhabitants cannot leave is never addressed. Chris and Zach do not stay in Za’atari overnight ––the authorities told them it is too dangerous. Denial of this reality was reinforced when at the screening in Amman, they affirmed: “there is no danger in Za’atari”. No danger if authorities keep white Americans out of it in order to avoid bad press.
The refugees in the film were displayed as trophies of humanitarianism at the Amman screening, then shuffled back to Za’atari. The directors, due to their unrestrained mobility, were Skyping from an airport.
During the Q&A, there was one pertinent question asked: “How did you address the colonialist overtones and power imbalances in the making of this documentary?” The answer:
“We didn’t need prepare anything. We just showed up there, and everyone was so welcoming!”
In any case, the majority of comments in the Q&A were extremely positive: “Everyone around me was crying!”; “I worked in Za’atari, and it was my dream to make a film like this.”; “It is films like these that will make Americans understand we need to take in Syrian refugees.” This is revealing of the state of general intelligence, of liberal thought, and of the aid industry. After-all, the film has raised hundreds of thousands for refugees. It has the power to persuade. And that is precisely what is frightening about it.
Chris and Zach’s goal in their ‘intervention’ is to persuade by showing their own imaginary Za’atari. They want to show other white middle-class Americans that Syrian refugees are human beings too: look how welcoming they are, look, they play games and crack jokes, see the Syrian women make arts and crafts, Syrians can thrive economically within a refugee camp. This may all be true stories, but they are presented by censorship of other truths. The central problem is: by justifying a truth with a lie, you are undermining the truth. In presenting a distorted saccharine Za’atari by cutting out any image of poverty, starvation, sexual trafficking or violence, in order to persuade Americans to donate, serious ethical dilemmas are at play.
Salam Neighbor was only screened in Amman yesterday, 13th July 2016, after it had been shown in 300 locations throughout America. It was made by white people, for white people, who can only identify and show support for Syrians through the eyes of Americans. At the screening in Amman, one Jordanian stood up: his footage of a sandstorm, used in the film, and for which he had risked his life had not been appropriately credited. Jordanians who enter Za’atari are barred by authorities, threatened with knives, and movements are controlled: they do not have the freedom to make feature-length documentaries, so their footage is sold to Americans. To play their politically correct part, Zach and Chris smiled: “Hey man! We’ve been looking for you!” (though a simple call to the Royal Film Commission would have been all the effort needed). The producer explained away that the footage was properly licensed, and that was that. In film in which non-appealing stories of the violence suffered by refugees are silenced beneath the pleasant experience of American tourists, it is of no surprise that unwanted criticism has no place.
In fact, the film itself had many instances in which local voices were ignored in favor of humanitarian discourse. Raouf’s father tells Chris and Zach they are ‘opening old wounds’, and yet they continue to torment the child. An aid worker tells them that women in Syria were forced to stay home, and that Jordan gave them opportunities to work outside: an interview with a single-mother who was a nurse in Syria, and now works at home in Mafraq, shows this is not the case. By being unaware of its own contradictions, the utterly naïve film is an insight into the minds of humanitarians who see what they want to see, hear what they want to hear. It is not reflexive of Za’atari, of Syrian refugees, or of Jordan: it is, as its own tagline says, a filtered vacation in a refugee camp. What it is reflexive of is of the neoliberal world system in which people have unequal access to mobility and discourse production. Just as in Cannibal Holocaust, but unwittingly so, Salam Neighbor’s one point of interest is that it turns the privileged adventure- and fame-hungry film-makers into objects of scrutiny. It is an ethnography of the mind of the uncritical and self-centered Western humanitarian.