In a New Documentary, Refugees Reclaim Their Narrative

One of the pressing complaints about Western journalism is that traveling reporters drop into the scene where a story is unfolding, tell only a fraction of it, and jet off to the next destination chasing another lede. Marginalized people seeking media coverage also sometimes find themselves at the mercy of journalists who lack cultural context in their reporting, resulting in clickbait headlines that reinforce problematic stereotypes. In Nothing About Us Without Us, a 2022 documentary film produced by ReFOCUS Media Labs and commissioned by Allianz Kulturstiftung, refugees of the Moria camp in Lesvos, Greece, are behind the camera, reclaiming control of their narrative.

On Thursday, December 1, New York University (NYU) International Education and NYU Abu Dhabi hosted a screening of the film along with a Q&A session with ReFOCUS Media Labs. The film was written and co-directed by Yaser Akbari and Nazanin Foroghi, two Afghan refugees turned reporters through ReFOCUS Media Labs’s media training program at the One Happy Family community center in Lesvos.

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Teaser trailer for Nothing About Us Without Us (2022) through ReFOCUS Media Labs

Akbari and Foroghi were frustrated with the “parachute journalism” coverage of the overcrowded and under-resourced Moria refugee camp and sought to tell their story outside of the Western gaze.

Tensions at the camp eclipsed just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic monopolized news broadcasting in 2020 when yet another string of protests against the construction of an additional migrant camp turned violent. Later that year, a man-made fire burned down the entirety of Moria, further displacing more than 13,000 asylum seekers who were living in the camp that was built to accommodate only 3,000.

Produced between 2020 and 2022, the 32-minute film shows Akbari and Foroghi discussing the most impactful ways to curate their on-the-ground footage and interviews of life in Moria after the devastating fire with their team of refugee videographers and reporters. One team member spoke about how BBC News published a feature with an image of a Moria refugee throwing stones at the police during a protest, opining that it painted asylum seekers in a negative light.

“I don’t know why they used those shots,” he said in the film. “Do they want to show that we’re guilty or something?”

An example of the harsh conditions and limited resources available to migrants (photo by Douglas Herman; courtesy @refocusmedialabs)

Select footage documents the harsh conditions that asylum seekers face during their stay at the temporary camps that replaced Moria: unsupervised fires, gushing floods and torrential downpours, unsanitary living conditions, refugee protests met with police brutality, and overcrowding with limited, rudimentary resources. Yet, instead of the routine narrative of helplessness and hopelessness that follows portrayals of refugee strife, Nothing About Us Without Us contextualizes these shots with notions of fortitude, perseverance, and refusal to back down from advocating for human rights.

“We are more than more than sources, more than translators, more than victims, and we are not alone,” Akbari says in the film, urging Western media to partner with on-the-ground reporters for more thorough, sensitive, and credible storytelling. “But you won’t find us unless you look!”

These haphazard camping tents are no match for the inclement weather and intense flooding in the area. (photo by Yaser Akbari; courtesy @refocusmedialabs)

After the film screening, Akbari and Foroghi participated in a Q&A session during which they noted that reporting on one’s own circumstances is certainly not without risk.

“Most of the people don’t want us to tell the truth,” Akbari said over Zoom in response to Hyperallergic‘s query about the perception of his work. “I’ve been threatened many times by police, fascists, and even other migrants who don’t want to give us a voice.”

Akbari also spoke to his experience with one-track-minded journalists assigned to the scene. “They don’t come here for the truth, the reality,” he continued. “They come for the story, they take their pictures, and then they try to leave as quickly as possible.”

Foroghi corroborated Akbari’s statements about the ramifications of autonomous reporting, citing her own experiences of poor treatment and dismissal as a migrant woman seeking healthcare in Lesvos and difficulty with the police checkpoints that asylum seekers must enter and exit through when coming in and out of the camps.

ReFOCUS Media Labs’s co-founder, Douglas Herman, told Hyperallergic that Nothing About Us Without Us is intended for “global citizens and leaders at international media outlets” alike. “The former to be informed of what is unfolding inside the borders of Europe, and the latter to advocate for a new standard of engagement with impacted communities when reporting,” Herman elaborated.

Nothing About Us Without Us is not yet available to the public, but future dates will be publicized on the film’s website.

Yaser Akbari and Nazanin Foroghi calling in from Lesvos, Greece, for the post-screening Q & A session (photo Rhea Nayyar / Hyperallergic)

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