Screen borders, From Calais to cinéma-monde

Posted by Bethan Hirst - Tuesday, 18 Apr 2023


By Michael Gott

Working on a topic such as contemporary borders presents a challenge because the parameters are constantly shifting. To start with, new films and series are being made and released. Then there are the tragic consequences of border policies and policing – in the Mediterranean in particular – that are ongoing and never far from the front page. And between the time that I finished the first manuscript and my final revisions, literal and figurative battles over eastern boundaries of ‘Europe’ raged once again. In short, borders are never far from the surface of the news, or of often fraught collective public-political debates in Europe. As French geographer and diplomat Michel Foucher puts it, contemporary Europe is obsessed with borders. While this state of affairs gives me some anxiety as a scholar – is my corpus up to date? are my readings of some border situations out of date? – my ultimate takeaway is that films and series are never out of date because they continue provide nuanced perspectives on borders and border-crossing and reveal insights both about borders and how we collectively see them.

A great example of the cyclical relevance of screen borders is the series Okkupert, or Occuppied (Norway/France/Germany, 2015-2020),whose conception predates the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbass, but which offers a still pertinent, eerie foretelling of Russian aggression and still relevant insight into the geopolitical stakes and energy market implications of a confrontation between the EU and Russia. Occupied tells the story of an EU-endorsed Russian invasion of Norway as a response to that nation’s decision to halt fossil fuel production. With recurring images of pipelines leading to the EU and Russians infiltrating the national space via the remote northern border, Occupied underscores the infrastructure and networks that contribute to connections across borders. Occupied is also fundamentally about the impossibility of being isolated and territorially sovereign and solid. As the French culture magazine Les Inrocks put it, Occupied is a show that inspires viewers to love geopolitics. The series is insightful because it frames geopolitics and boundaries in within a historical framework that underlines the complex political, social, and scientific origins of contemporary borders.

Films articulate ideas and visions of borders and the people who cross and inhabit them at a moment in time. Series, which Screen Borders covers to different extents in two chapters, can respond to these changing dynamics across a period of time. This is notably the case with Occupied and French-British collaboration The Tunnel/Le Tunnel (2013-2018), which exemplify how recurring series are positioned to reflect and respond to complex and shifting social realities. This in part because they have the time to follow multiple threads and, over the course of multiple seasons, react to events. Series recount the evolving story of Europe and how it conceives of and draws its boundaries. When looked at collectively, as part of a production and distribution ecosystem, due to their popularity, series can tell us what (as a community of viewers and citizens) we think about borders.

Publishing May 2023

Screen Borders offers examples in each of its five chapters of how TV and cinema as art forms and industries help to define the highly contested idea of what Europe signifies in a post-1989 landscape. Chapter 1 examines borders from the vantage point of the Gare du Nord in Paris as seen in concurrently made fiction and documentary films by director Claire Simon. I begin my itinerary of screen borders in a train station in central Paris, a place far removed from geographical border lines, because at their best, films and series about borders offer nuanced representations of borders not as lines but as zones that are ever-changing and inhabited. Guided by this idea, chapter 2 follows an itinerary seen on screen in one of Simon’s films towards Calais and considers four borderland films set in French ports both on the English Channel and the Mediterranean.  The third chapter follows a different line from the iconic train station, this time to airports. Films set at least partly in airports and narrating the experience of air travel or of being waylaid or detained by the scarcely visible border infrastructure that subtends the air travel networks. Although generally limited to privileged travelers, air travel dramatically rearranges existing maps of Europe and how places and people fit together. Chapter 4 turns to the sea and argues that fiction films about migrant crossings offer particularly nuanced depictions of the experience. Several of these crossing films are officially French co-productions but hold no evident connection to France in their narratives or no or only a tenuous link to the French language in their dialogues. Yet as I argue, the ethical implications of these borders are capital for France and all of Europe, making them a logical topic for films funded by the French apparatus. Chapter 5 proposes that the ‘border series’ discussed above, including Occupied, Capitani from Luxembourg, and the Franco-German Eden, function as tools of mental mapping for European viewers. Indeed, we might imagine TV series as the contemporary equivalent of the mass-produced maps that were popular in the 19th century.

Examined together, these chapters contribute to my key arguments about borders and screen borders. Screen Borders starts with three premises: borders are eminently iconic; borders are narrative constructions; and the apparatus and infrastructure that produce and promote screen media form a key context for the elaboration of narrative screen borders. European borders are also constantly shifting. So are our collective perceptions of them.

Screen borders
From Calais to cinéma-monde

By Michael Gott

Hardback | 978-1-5261-6423-0 | £85.00 | May 2023

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