top of page

Calais: Welcome to the Jungle

Image: Film still from ‘Calais: Welcome to the Jungle’ (2016) dir: Teun Voeten and Maaike Engels

Film Review: 'Calais: Welcome to the Jungle' (2016)

In ‘Calais: Welcome to the Jungle’, the Dutch anthropologist and war photographer Teun Voeten and the cinematographer Maaike Engels present a compelling, and at times provocative, visual ethnography of the "Jungle," a refugee camp in Calais, France. Until recently it was occupied by Middle Eastern and African migrants seeking to travel to, and establish residence in the UK. Filmed over the course of more than a year, Teun and Maaike repeatedly visit the "Jungle" to document the physical and social conditions, conduct interviews with the inhabitants, and investigate how the camp represents a "microcosm" of the global refugee crisis. The resulting documentary provides viewers with a thought-provoking look at the wider crisis via a micro-examination of one of its most sensationalised hot-spots. The film also offers an important counter-narrative to the often extreme, and historically decontextualized, visual imagery of the "Jungle" that regularly appears in daily newspapers, and especially in the tabloid press.

The narrative begins in September 2015, with a few pleasant and stereotypical shots of the harbor town and transit hub of Calais - think: the harbor, pretty sailboats, a town square with a musical band, a pommes fritterie, a boulangerie and so on. The focus quickly shifts to the "other Calais” though, namely the "Jungle" located on the periphery of town. In conversations with the filmmakers, Calais residents unreservedly express their disgust, fear, and hatred for the migrants, sentiments that are echoed by the accompanying musical soundtrack, Guns-N-Roses' 1987 song, "Welcome to the Jungle", from which the film takes its title:

"Welcome to the jungle it gets worse here everyday

You learn to live like an animal in the jungle where we play

If you got a hunger for what you see you'll take it eventually

You can have everything you want but you better not take it from me!"

In this detailed documentary, Teun and Maaike are not only concerned with making visible the camp's physical and social architecture, makeshift as it is, they also turn their lens toward the issue of state and institutional non-response to the migrants' needs. In their interviews with representatives of charity organizations such as L'Auberge des Migrants, the filmmakers discover that the refusal of the British and French governments to take positive action, or to provide centrally-organized aid, has created "jungle-like conditions" in the camp, which have nothing to do with the origin of the migrants residing there. Instead, despite the governmental non-response, the migrants and volunteer aid societies admirably succeed in making the camp "work", however unevenly and provisionally. The film documents these positive aspects of the camp, as well as the more troubling ones such as the violence, poverty, and sanitary challenges, in equally nuanced and revealing ways.

One highlight of the film is a scene that takes place on New Year's Eve outside a local pub, where two Calais drinking buddies discuss, in front of the camera, the question of whether immigration is beneficial for, or detrimental to, (French) society. While this issue surfaces at various earlier points in the film (in discussions with French officials, an English journalist, a Dutch academic, and other parties knowledgeable about the global refugee crisis), perhaps the most eloquent answer to this question is provided by these two Frenchmen, one of whom is of Moroccan ethnic origin. They agree that immigration yields a "melange des cultures" that renews and improves society, thus unwittingly echoing Argentinian anthropologist Néstor García Canclini's (2005) positive theories of cultural hybridity and transformation. It is a light-hearted exchange, full of bonhomie, and it stands in positive contrast with much of the negativity expressed by other people in the film. To sum up, the film provides a complex picture of a complex situation that, even with the camp's recent forced closure, has not been resolved. While the film ‘Calais: Welcome to the Jungle’ does come to an end, the political and social problems associated into the "Jungle" have, in reality, only just begun.

To date, ‘Calais: Welcome to the Jungle’ has been shown at film festivals in Amsterdam, Mexico City and Budapest, and universities in New York (Columbia), Texas (UTEP), Holland (Leiden), and most recently at University of Cambridge (England). We look forward to viewing the film at upcoming film festivals in the UK.

Recent Posts
bottom of page