Evaporating Borders – review

Film | Evaporating Borders | R

Review by Tim Lam

Evaporating Borders opens with an image of the Mediterranean Sea. Tens of thousands of asylum seekers cross the Mediterranean every year to find refuge in Europe. Cyprus is one of the most common entry points into the European Union.

Screening as part of the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival in Melbourne, Evaporating Borders is a poetic visual exploration of the racism underlying anti-immigration attitudes in Cyprus.

Director Iva Radivojevic is a former refugee from Yugoslavia who sought asylum in Cyprus when she was 12. Evaporating Borders is her debut feature-length film and the narrative is presented through five vignettes. Each one charts the experience of asylum seekers in Cyprus and their struggle to adjust to a new life in the face of open hostility. Together, they blend into a larger story of identity, conflict and xenophobia.

The documentary is particularly timely given the humanitarian crisis in the South-East Asian seas, with Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand all turning away boats of Rohingya and Bangladeshi asylum seekers. While governments obsess over the tightening of borders, Evaporating Borders shifts the focus onto the human stories that are often forgotten in the debate.

Radivojevic describes the documentary as a ‘visual essay’ and some viewers may find the editing and narrative pace slow at times. Yet the most powerful moments in the documentary are when the camera simply lingers on the faces of the refugees. The use of cinematography is visually rich and contemplative. It invites the audience to see refugees as human beings with their own hopes, fears and dreams.

Cyprus and Australia may be more than 12,000 kilometres apart, but Evaporating Borders reveals the striking parallels in the refugee discourses of the two countries.

Like Australia, Cyprus is an increasingly multicultural country. It is also an island. It is perhaps this sense of geographical isolation that heightens the paranoia over migrants. The refugees on Cyprus are trapped in a state of limbo with limited social protection and few work rights, much like refugees in Australia on Temporary Protection Visas.

In one of the most confronting scenes, far-right nationalists take to the streets of Cyprus to protest against the presence of immigrants, whom they see as diluting their national identity. The nationalist rhetoric espoused by these far right groups evokes memories of the recent Reclaim Australia rallies.

Refugees are not the only subjects interviewed in the documentary. Far-right politicians, neo-Nazi extremists and anti-Islamic groups are given the opportunity to present their views. Their arguments for why Cyprus should turn away refugees – that they steal welfare from citizens, that they do not assimilate, that they threaten a unified cultural identity – are familiar to Australian audiences.

The extreme views of some of the groups can be challenging for audiences to hear, but it creates a more nuanced and balanced debate. Evaporating Borders is not concerned about finger-pointing. Instead, the documentary asks the audience to reflect on their own values and thoughts on what is a complex and multifaceted issue.

A persistent theme of the documentary is the danger of reducing all refugees into a collective mass stripped of individuality and identity. Evaporating Borders opens a space for voices that are often missing in mainstream conversations about migration: a dad unable to work and facing an uncertain future for his family; a refugee who had his application rejected after just 15 minutes; a teenager worried about his mother back home.

Through the exploration of these individual stories, Radivojevic restores humanity to a debate that frequently descends into generalised stereotypes about ‘the other’.

Evaporating Borders reveals that the most insidious borders are not geographical. It is the borders blocking our hearts from listening to the cries of those lost at sea that need to be broken down.

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