Exotic fish in a steel aquarium

During the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, a floating refugee hotel was moored in Copenhagen. Using VHS footage filmed by the refugees, the documentary 'Flotel Europa' explores the anxieties of people displaced by conflict, floating without an anchor

In 1992, 12-year-old Vladimir Tomić fled the Yugoslav Wars with his mother and brother for Denmark. Instead of being registered as refugees, the government classified them as ‘guest workers’ and lodged them in a floating hotel in Copenhagen harbour, right by the current site of the world famous Noma restaurant.

Around 1,000 Bosnian refugees ended up in the floating hotel. They weren’t allowed to work or go to school while their cases were being processed. Their life was in limbo and they were uncertain of how and when their fate would be determined. The huge ship, intended as a temporary solution, ended up as a permanent home to many.

“We were people of many different ethnicities, basically at war with one another, stuck on a metal block somewhere in the harbour,” says Tomić, now 34, with a smile.

This year Tomić premiered his documentary Flotel Europa, which provides an insight into life on the ship. It’s an intimate portrayal of exile, and one which has resonated with audiences across Europe. It has been widely recognised on the international film festival circuit – Tomić won the Jury Special Mention award and the Tagesspiegel Reader’s Prize at the Berlinale film festival in February, as well as the Special Mention at the Sarajevo Film Festival. In November, it will be screened at CPH:DOX.

“It’s a simple story, really. A story about how 12-year-old Vladimir experienced the events that unfolded around him, and how the war in his home in Bosnia-Herzegovina creates a vacuum on the ship.”

35 Flotel Europa 02

Old VHS Footage
Flotel Europa’s intimate portrayal of ship life was possible because the documentary is composed almost entirely of VHS footage filmed by the refugees themselves, on board the ship.

“There wasn’t very good telephone communication with families back home in war torn Bosnia- Herzegovina. So people on board the ship started buying video cameras to film messages to send to the relatives back home through humanitarian organisations.”

As he started to compile the footage, it brought back his own forgotten memories, prompting him to recount the story of his life on board.

“Some of the material was hard to watch. I just didn’t really feel like revisiting that period. But because my previous work has also dealt with themes such as conflict, war, and identity, I managed to reconcile with these memories, and even let go a little.”

Together with editor Srđan Keča from Belgrade and Selma Jusufbegović – who also resided on the ship – hours of footage were transformed into a story about a little boy and a very big ship.

A life in-between
Flotel Europa is essentially a big story wrapped in a small one – and vice versa. It shows both the mundane routines of people waiting for asylum, and their heartache and despair. A rarely-touched upon issue in media coverage of asylum seekers, the film also explores the inevitable tensions which arise between the refugees as diverse geopolitical backgrounds are forced into a small space and linked by the collective experience of escape.

Tomić presents the joys which come from starting a new life – children playing, grown-ups singing, and a 12-year-old Vladimir, trying to figure out where he belongs. Ever-present, beyond the pixelated footage, is the longing for home and the brotherhood and unity which were the hallmark of socialist Yugoslavia.

Vladimir alludes to this throughout the documentary, using old partisan movie clips as a way to express his adolescent feelings. His experience is a mass of contradictions, confronting love, lust and friendship just like any ordinary boy his age, unfazed by the extraordinary surroundings in which these ordinary coming-of-age struggles take place.

Yet he also remembers Danish Red Cross workers visiting Flotel Europa, which prompted an odd feeling of being watched, as though the refugees were exotic fish in a big tank. It’s in these contrasts that the film captures the complexities faced by asylum seekers.

“That’s just the absurdity of life on a refugee ship,” says Tomić.

With thousands of refugees arriving from Syria to Europe, Flotel Europa is a timely reminder of what it means to start a new life after conflict. As European leaders quarrel over refugee quotas and Denmark tightens regulations against an influx of asylum seekers, the film demystifies the endless numbers, the exotic fish thrown by circumstance into a monstrous fish tank. M

Features, Culture

By Hana Hasanbegović

Originally from the Balkans, Hana has a Master's degree in English, with a focus on literature and linguistics. @hanahasanbegovic

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