Feature Documentary Reviews

We Are Not Together (2019) – 3.5 stars

Director: Alexander Nezam

Writers: Alexander Nezam, Anthony Burgesen

Running time: 1hr 8mins

Documentary filmmaking is no different from any other art-form, in so far as it is entirely subjective. We tend to forget this when dealing with documentary, because on the face of it these films deal with factual content. However, in the convoluted words of genre veteran Werner Herzog, “Facts do not constitute the truth. There is a deeper stratum.”

When making a documentary, then, there is always a temptation to adhere to some objective truth; some grand, inalienable reality which your footage should simply echo in order to show the audience the way things are. Unfortunately, that is not how films or human beings work. While meddling with footage to ‘construct a narrative’ in your documentary can feel like a violation of some sacrosanct tenet of filmmaking, failing to do so can totally negate the point of making a documentary in the first place: encouraging people to engage meaningfully with a new topic.

Without the clarifying intervention of the filmmaker, the audience may well fail to follow the action. While this is less of a problem when addressing aspects of life many people are already familiar with – sport for example – when taking your viewers to parts unknown to expose a previously overlooked injustice to inspire action on their part, this is essential. Dropping your viewers into the midst of a war zone without sign-posting the location, sides or causes of conflict between them can alienate and frustrate viewers, with the ultimate cost being their disengagement from your film, and whatever point you hoped to make.

This is the primary problem with Alexander Nezam’s rumination on the refugee crisis We Are Not Together. The film follows several people who have fled various parts of the world in search of refuge, eventually finding themselves in the Moria camp on the island of Lesbos, or in the squats of Exarcheia, an Anarchist neighbourhood of central Athens. Unfortunately, Exarcheia’s radical past is a theme that is rarely touched on in the majority of the film. It feels almost bolted on to the broader piece, cropping up briefly in photograph montages at the start and mid-point, before flaring up in the final act – and without building this up appropriately, much of the punch of a gripping street-battle between Anarchists, migrant activists, and the police is lost.

Similarly, the film brushes over the introduction of its key players at such a pace that it is hard to identify with many of them. As we are introduced quickly to a multitude of different refugees, volunteers and Greeks in the early stages, their relation to the two locations of the film is in many cases rather vague, making it hard to identify which specific hardships each one of them may be facing. Meanwhile, a refusal to pursue a traditional introduction structure means that in at least one case (that of 17 year old Syrian Mohammad Damashqi), we don’t even learn names until the final minutes of the film.

This might seem like a minor teething problem, but if an audience is to quickly bond with an on-screen persona before the conclusion of the film, humanising factors like names – which identify these characters as actual, living, breathing people, like us – are essential. In this case, it is even more so, because We Are Not Together comes billed by its Director as allowing audiences to “see the real people beyond the news headlines”, and avoiding treating refugees as mere numbers, the mistreatment of which we can more easily abide.

This is a point another refugee, Junaid, lays bare, when he objects to the term altogether. He explains, “Refugee. I don’t like this word. We are together, what you think? I’m a refugee, you’re from the USA. He’s from the USA. Tony’s from the USA. So what is the difference between us?”

This is an excellent point in principle. Junaid is making a good argument that the only difference between four people who have travelled the world is a systemic construct, which privileges three of them to do so safely and legally, while he has become a demonised statistic. Unfortunately, the moment is less poignant than it might be, because we do not know Junaid’s name or backstory. We do not know him as a ‘real person beyond the headlines.’

In an hour-long documentary, this makes Nezam’s steadfast determination not to spell things out easily for the viewer equal parts admirable and infuriating. Certainly, I don’t think audiences should be babied through content to reach a convenient conclusion, and declining to do so does give the film an air of ‘organic’ authenticity. But at the same time, in an environment many viewers will find strange, it is the duty of a storyteller to somewhat hold their hand through the early stages – especially when trying to foster empathy among them for the subjects of the film.

Beyond this, the film’s laissez-faire approach to forging a narrative means it falls slightly short in what is probably its most important function: serving as a call to action. While not every film could, or should, end with a Ken Loach-style tub-thumping speech about ending a broken system – which can just as easily turn an audience off action as onto it – We Are Not Together is conspicuous in its silence when it comes to asking anything of its audience. Even after we learn amid the credits that Arash – an activist who was living in Moria – is being tried for civil disobedience after protesting the camp’s conditions, the film simply concludes with a dedication “to the nameless and most vulnerable in Greece.”

The Director’s statement suggests he was determined not to make a “propagandistic film,” or to “suggest easy solutions,” and that is hard to fault on the face of it. If there were an easy answer to Europe’s self-inflicted refugee crisis, it would have been put into practice by now. The problem is that after featuring the very lowest points of humanity – including a segment on refugees so utterly devastated by feelings of being stranded and useless that they self-immolate – a film dedication does not cut the mustard.

Other human-beings are suffering, and they deserve more than just being given the chance to suffer on-screen. They deserve a filmmaker and audience willing to fight for them, and in the absence of ‘easy solutions’ they have the right to look for and demand difficult ones! So while the raw footage is shocking and moving in equal measures, and the technical aspects of the film have been executed to near-perfection, the reluctance to craft a more straight-forward story with information on what people can do to change things makes We Are Not Together deliver an experience which feels less than the sum of its parts.

The filmmaker’s heart was broadly in the right place for this film. I don’t mean that in a patronising way – in a field of filmmaking where it literally is the thought that counts, that places Alexander Nezam on a higher level than a host of documentarians ever get. Looking to future productions, though, he and his team need to work on forming stronger narratives from their material, and stop shying away from asking more challenging questions of the systemic failures they capture on camera – alongside and on behalf of those caught up in the mess.

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