Brûle la mer: A Welcome Returned

Brûle la mer begins with a dream, one trapped between foreboding and hope. Its first image is of Maki Berchache, the film’s co-director and a harraga (border burner), Harraga is an Algerian Arabic word meaning “that which burns.” Following an influx in France’s North African population through the last decades of the twentieth century, the term gradually became an adopted neologism within the French lexicon. The term carries no inherent pejorative or derogatory connotations, given its origins in the Arab language and its use by many French-speaking North African migrants to self-identify—often referring to the fact that migrants would burn their papers as an attempt to stall the process of deportation. The term contradicts traditional French morphology in that it uses an a to signify the plural: the singular term in this context would therefore technically be harrag. The term has become less common in recent years, with the word clandestin taking its place.who risked his life to cross the Mediterranean from Tunisia in search of a new beginning in Europe after the Arab Spring. His sleep is interrupted by images of violent, frothing seas, whose waves curl and break over one another with crushing indifference. These unwelcoming waters cut to a calm Tunisian port at dusk, where beached rowboats quietly await the next morning’s fishing trip, or a longer journey to Lampedusa, Italy. As the camera pans away from the shore and towards the boundless horizon, another harraga named Shaharedin Saidi tells the story of his own crossing on the same boat as Berchache. Saidi describes his arrival in Italy, his migration across land to France, and his eventual return to Tunisia after months spent struggling on the unwelcoming streets of Paris. This interview offers a natural point of departure for a film that seeks to evoke the experiences of innumerable migrants through the harrowing experiences of a few, and foregrounds the systemic obstacles that make the harraga's dream of a life abroad all the more difficult to attain.


Amidst the escalating refugee crisis in Europe, a succession of films and reportage have attempted to document and define the current moment of historic mass migration. Most of them take on traditional documentary or narrative forms, forms that cannot help but correlate the authorial perspective with that of the (usually) European point of view. These types of films reinforce the act of gate keeping by buttressing the systemic barriers that keep people out, often by failing to adequately represent the positions and subjectivities of those attempting to enter. The people Nathalie Nambot, Brûle la mer’s other co-director, calls “the unwanted guests” are usually abstracted as ideas, kept at bay, or clustered at a threshold that cannot truly be broken through. Nambot and Berchache’s film invokes a different perspective in that it attempts to move past points of departure or arrival to highlight the immediacy of points of encounter beyond the gate, which arise from a mode that the filmmakers call hospitality. The collaborative process that their co-authored text undertakes gives the work the space it needs to embrace the plurality and urgency of this crisis. Nambot and Berchache achieve this by opening up the narrative to numerous migrant voices; by making use of filmmaking processes to cross boundaries, dissolve distances, and collapse time; and by framing Tunisia as a place whose significance as a homeland salves the wounds of political and geographical severance, despite its inaccessibility to many of those who have left it.

As Nambot and Berchache told us in our discussions about the film and its production, the friendship at the heart of Brûle la mer is also key to its significance. Nambot, a filmmaker whose political activism included work with the Coordination des intermittents et précaires (CIP)The CIP-IDF is a collective of labour activists who advocate for the unemployed, temporary workers, and workers whose jobs are deemed precarious. Part of the group’s efforts have been to coordinate and stand in solidarity with Paris’s growing migrant community. www.cip-idf.org,met Berchache shortly after the latter arrived in Paris in early 2011. Berchache was among a large group of homeless Tunisian migrants who were taken in by the CIP, just days before the organization was evicted from its headquarters in the nineteenth arrondissement. For a few days at least, the CIP was a home for Berchache and others, a welcoming space run for and by those embroiled in social struggles of all sorts. Its slogan was simple: “Nous avons besoin de lieus pour inviter le monde” (We need spaces to welcome people). Nambot’s contribution was through organizing screenings, through which she promoted filmmaking as a boundary-breaking, unifying exercise, as well as documenting and providing general support to migrants during protests. Berchache, alongside other migrants and activists, contributed his body and his voice to confront French authorities during CIP protests. Both partook in the occupation of a city building on May 1, 2011, as well as a large-scale action protesting mayor Bertrand Delanoë’s hypocrisy in naming a Parisian square after Mohamed Bouazizi—the merchant who self-immolated to protest Ben Ali’s regime and became the symbol of the Tunisian revolution—while failing to offer reasonable support to the thousands of North African migrants seeking refuge in the French capital. Occurring long before the idea of a collaborative project arose, these instances of resistance are well-documented in the film via sound recordings, news reports, and a sequence in which Nambot and Berchache leaf through photographs of the various protests in which they took part. The images depict episodes of resistance wherein their efforts were met with the state’s predictable responses: either violent counteraction or silent indifference.


As the intersections of Berchache’s and Nambot’s political activism grew, so too did the idea of creating a film together. The film’s production was in part made possible thanks to L’abominable—or L’abo—an artist-run underground film lab founded in 1996 by a small collective of filmmakers and operated primarily by Nambot’s partner, Nicholas Rey, and Nambot herself. The lab’s already self-deprecating name (which can directly translate as “abominable”) contains a pun that further debases it, the suffix -minable suggesting its “minute” or “pathetic” status in relation to the international film industry. Rey also assisted with the camerawork for Brûle la merEchoing the CIP’s mandate to find spaces within which to welcome people, L’abominable is one of the key players in the international microlab system, a system that emerged as a response to the rapid disappearance of analogue filmmaking within the industrial sphere. Montreal’s Double Negative, featured in MICE Issue #1, is also a member of the microlab scene. See http://micemagazine.ca/issue-one/labour-imagingCooperative film labs have developed out of a material crisis induced by the high capitalization of modern technology, one that has mobilized artists and filmmakers to take the discarded technologies of film production into their own hands. L’abo supports filmmakers by making its processing machines and film equipment accessible, but it also promotes an ingrained approach to collaboration—encouraging knowledge sharing between experienced and emerging members. This re-skilling approach to labour has an anti-capitalist bent, attempting to negotiate another creative space away from industrial norms. As Nambot says, “The space of filmmaking (or film-fabricating) has always been one of hospitality since it’s about making films collectively, exchanging ideas, sharing labour, using one’s hands.” A term like fabricating also points to the focus on handicraft and process that is privileged at L’abo above traditional script-based filmmaking.Originally in the same location as the CIP, L’abo and its members were also evicted from their space, stimulating a secondary search for sites of hospitality within which to create, to exchange ideas, to share labour, and to show off the results. Berchache participated in this search and subsequent move, an ironic parallel that further sealed his connection to Nambot and Rey.

With the tools of production relocated and at hand, Brûle la mer became a chance to tell, in Berchache’s words, “the story of Maki, but with all the others.” The filmmakers began inviting friends and acquaintances to participate in their own ways, providing interviews or allowing their lives and interactions to be documented. The goal was not only to use diverse voices to represent a large and dispersed community, but also to compose a portrait of a shared dream, or a collective hope, about what a life of freedom might look like to a harraga, albeit solely from a male perspective. It is worth noting that all of the migrants participating in the film were men. When asked about this, the filmmakers replied that is was both the nature of that particular migration (99 percent of the people involved in the Tunisian migration were men) and that the autobiographical nature of the film largely confined it to Berchache's migrant friends. Other avenues explored, including some attempts to interview Tunisian women about their perspective on the migration of so many men, proved to be beyond the capacity of the filmmakers to adequately address under the auspices of this project.The first of these friends to appear is a rapper named Mahmoud El Saleh, who drops a few verses in his homemade recording studio about that dream deferred: “paradise on earth, perhaps in another life.” Corrupt, my country, you sell us to France / sick state, dumbed-down people, bankrupt society / brother, my brother, the homeland is rotten. That’s enough! / In Tunisia, dogs everywhere, gobbling up your life / 22 years, the same faces and the same walls / I’m going to burn the sea, discover the Bella Vita / clandestine harraga from Ben Gardane to Lampedusa / Death is in the hands of God, and my mother’s prayers… / Nothing’s changed, my brother, yesterday like today / In the dream there’s a smile. In reality, the suffering / And I say it another time: / paradise on earth, perhaps in another life / I say it another time: / paradise on earth, perhaps in another lifeIn an impressively performed set piece, Berchache and his friend Badredin Nobig re-enact a conversation between a French cop and a detainee, whom the state aims to turn into an informant. Berchache, embodying authority with a tranquil and chilling severity, offers residency papers and the comforts of basic freedoms in exchange for information about the city’s network of migrants. Their re-enactment reveals the government’s use of coercion to inflate its omniscience as well as its blatant recognition of the necessities that it deliberately withholds from those in need. A final conversation takes place between Berchache and a Palestinian friend Shadi Al Fawaghra, on a hill in the banlieue Parisian suburbs outside of the city proper, typically those made up of housing projects populated by low-income immigrant or migrant individuals and families.that overlooks Paris. Al Fawaghra, who traveled to Paris on an invitation to speak about state oppression and public resistance in his hometown of Wad Rahal, is barred from returning to his homeland due to threats of capture by the Israel Defense Forces. Looking down on the city, they observe that the two of them could have only met in Paris—that there are those “entitled to travel as they like without visas and others who are forbidden to leave their own countries” (and in Al Fawaghra’s case, return) and still others for whom “to leave is a dream.” The scene places the two friends as a traditional Greek chorus, observing and reflecting on the events of their lives as they overlook the city of their current struggle.

Each person, each friend, brings a link and a perspective to the story, to the arrival, and the coming together that took place after the Tunisian revolution and the subsequent exodus. Nambot’s voice is also heard in the film: she describes standing in line with Berchache and other migrants outside of the Seine-Saint-Denis police precinct, as they await a chance to apply for residency papers that would allow them to live freely, to work legally, and most importantly, to cross frontiers. Though her commitment to and empathy towards the migrant cause is clearly felt throughout the film, Nambot manages an almost self-inculpatory tone in her delivery of a lengthy list of documents that applicants are expected to submit: bills, civil solidarity pacts (PACS), tax forms, personal references, contract addenda, love letters, local swimming pool memberships, etc.—in short, a ridiculous compendium that illustrates how the system’s grueling bureaucracy works double duty to hamper integration and reinforce marginalization. The process, once spelled out, thus takes on the shape of a chiasmus: you exchange your entire life on paper for papers that will allow you to live.

Although the film offers a number of voices, it nevertheless remains focused around Berchache’s experience, and the effect that the collective experience of migrancy has had on him. He describes years spent working in the hospitality industry back in Tunisia at a hotel in Zarzis, welcoming European tourists who would later snub him when he arrived in Paris. The impact of this “first blow” seems decidedly more wrenching than the long journey that he took to get to France. Upon arrival, he was ushered into “the violence of a welcome declined.” Berchache also succinctly describes how the revolution and subsequent migration were a rejection of an underlying conservatism in Tunisia; one works within a self-perpetuating order that is in “the process of killing you, but very gently, without bothering you.” His critique reveals how the freedom with which France unfaithfully represents itself is also a freedom from systems of political corruption and material alienation—systems that paradoxically also encumber France. Berchache’s is a universal, youthful frustration and search for basic freedom, one which Nambot identifies as simply “living one’s life”—an ordinary statement that turns ironic when one realizes how difficult it is for some to achieve this basic right. Berchache’s expression of this frustration and search finds a perfect conduit in the creative response of filmmaking.


As mentioned above, the term hospitality is a central descriptive for what the filmmakers hope the film models to its audience. Hospitality is a striking term, in that it creates a relationship of host and guest in a situation that is often framed as invasive or desperate. By choosing the term hospitality as a key to what the film is about, the filmmakers are choosing a position of embodied generosity. In addition, hospitality, as modeled by the filmmakers, is mutual: the film is not about charity and it is not about reciprocity. It is about sharing and inherently recognizing that the creative playing field is equal, despite the vast differences in political status—both collaborators have something to offer each other, and the audience. This concept is modeled by Nambot bringing Berchache into L’abominable and, later, by Berchache bringing Nambot into his family’s life through friendship. That Berchache was a hospitality worker in Tunisia (and currently earns his living working in the restaurant business) is an accident of global economic structures. Even beyond that small irony, both Nambot and Berchache were inclined towards hospitality in a larger sense preceding their collaboration—Nambot in her work in the film cooperative, and Berchache in his welcoming of European tourists into his Tunisian home; the latter was neither reciprocated nor charitably received, and thus was not understood as a response to the possibility of mutual freedom.

Though his lengthy monologues and voice-overs allow him to express the frustration and despair that he shares with other migrants, Berchache’s portrait is ultimately one of hope, a hope that closely aligns with the creative possibilities offered by film’s material aesthetic. In the midst of their early struggles, Nambot invited Berchache to her apartment so that he could Skype with his family in Tunisia. Pursuing a natural inclination, she documented this evanescent reunion without any intention of using the Super 8 footage in a film project. This touching encounter offers a welcome familial connection near the halfway point of Brûle la mer. The use of Super 8 allows the images to dissolve the distance between the film’s disparate locations: the image of Berchache overjoyed at the sight of his relatives is followed by a lengthy sequence in Tunisia that stands in for memories of a way of life that, though now inaccessible, still exists across land and sea.

A reoccurring set of images throughout the film are those of objects and landscapes framed by doors or windows. Windows in France often frame other tenements in the banlieues, and Berchache’s monologues are fittingly delivered through a closed window, a glass barrier that isolates him from the mechanism of the camera. Conversely, in Zarzis the windows have no glass. There are frames with no doors, connoting a cultural structure of openness and hospitality that is also arguably drawn from and adaptive to economic strictures. No wonder, then, that one of the central images of the film is a threshold in Grebis, an open doorway leading out to farmland, out of which grows a solitary olive tree. A classic cinematic trope, this image is both a gateway for leaving and an open entrance. The olive tree's distance from the viewer/lens suggests that, though the dream of leaving may lead to a journey, the traveler will have roots to look back on, and perhaps someday return to.

Two thirds of the way through the film, Berchache’s residency document arrives, which gives him the possibility of leaving France to visit Tunisia. Berchache takes Nambot and their collaborator Rey along for the trip, and the initial Super 8 images of his homeland give way to images of Berchache's togetherness with his loved ones, captured on 16mm. The nostalgia of the high-grain film stock become the pristine images of the here and now, which Berchache now has the ability—and political legitimacy—to author. Tunisia is no longer a place of the past; it is an active part of the future, sutured to France by a man granted the freedom to thread back and forth. That said, the ability to return home is particular to Tunisia, as shown by Saidi’s choice to return for good and the passage back and forth that Berchache’s hard-earned residency now enables. Migrants from other countries that have gone through political turmoil obviously have no immediate chance of return.

Although the fact that Brûle la mer is shot on Super 8 and 16mm is partly a result of the idiosyncratic nature of Berchache’s French collaborators, Nicolas Rey is especially noted for his long-form experimental documentaries, such as Autrement, la Molussie (2012), which used expired 16mm film stock to retell an anti-fascist Günther Anders novel.the integration of varied film media feeds some of the thematics that emerge out of the film itself. Most important to the filmmakers was the quality of reflection and remembrance the medium offers. As Nambot says, “film allows you to think about what you’re doing; it isn’t immediate, or direct. You have to come back to it many times, to reflect on it.” The process of shooting an image, running a machine to develop the negative, contact printing a work print, synching up the rushes and analyzing the footage through a flatbed—all of which the filmmakers did themselves—allows one to work over the memory, to ruminate organically on the ideas. As Berchache expands, “doing so is like changing bandages, monitoring wounds and ensuring that they’re healing properly.” Absorbing the process by completing every step by oneself is a reclamation of sorts, appropriating a once industrial process to tap into the therapeutic power of this physical and highly personal form of expression.

The medium of film is thus at the root of Brûle la mer’s true project, which is to suggest methods of healing the wounds that Berchache’s and others’ journeys have exposed. These wounds are inflicted both on the migrants and on the founding principles of the host nation. That duality resonates with an anecdote that Berchache and Nambot shared with us about the first days of their friendship. After he suffered a fainting spell outside of the CIP, Berchache was taken to hospital to recover. Nambot accompanied her new friend during the ambulance ride, only to endure an aggressive interrogation from a paramedic about her friendship with Berchache and what business this young Arab had in France. The irony of that scenario is painfully transparent: a civil servant, charged with taking care of the public, proves himself much more adept at aggravating the wounds of colonialism than at making an effort to heal them. Recognizing the significance of this episode, Nambot and Berchache set out to create a film that would “take care by paying attention to details, and act as a space for encounters, a home, and a place for healing.” Berchache muses that “the strong reception of the film is because it’s not only about immigrants, it’s about people, and there are links that go much deeper than the borders that have been burned, and those are the links, between people, that need to be cared for, or healed, or revealed.”

As a poem, an antidote, a shelter, or a shield, Brûle la mer “cultivates hope" This phrase, quoted by Berchache in our discussions with him, is drawn from Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “Under Siege”: Here on the slopes of hills, facing the dusk and the cannon of time / Close to the gardens of broken shadows, / We do what prisoners do, / And what the jobless do: / We cultivate hopeand reaches towards the ideal of a momentary utopia. The utopia of which Berchache and Nambot speak is one they see as both realizable and attainable. It is a simple concept of utopia: one of sharing spaces, communities, and experiences with the mutual “other.” The coarseness of that so-far untenable utopian goal, and the characters’ gradual realization that dreams must be burned along with borders in order to cope with the wounds of being unwelcome, all manifest into a double uprooting: first the uprooting of leaving one’s country, then the uprooting of the dream of the imagined new world—whose freedoms are not attainable without great difficulty. The film shows a remarkable resiliency in the face of these traumas, aided by the shared burden of collaboration that models the possibility of renewal. Ultimately, Berchache and Nambot’s ability to work together has enabled a literal re-rooting to take place: using the prize money that he earned from the film, Berchache purchased a small plot of land in Tunisia and planted an olive tree on it. That tree stands as a symbol of the small hope that this film represents in the face of such daunting humanitarian crises.