By Pablo Gamba
Central Airport THF (Zentralflughafen THF, 2018) is a film about the airport of Tempelhof, in Berlin. It was recognized as such in 1923 and the Nazi regime developed it until it transformed the terminal into the biggest building in the world. Occupied by the Americans and transformed in a military base after World War II, it was used as the aerial bridge that supplied the occidental side of the city when the Soviet Union impeded the fluvial and terrestrial access in 1948. The airport was closed in 2008 and transformed in a park in 2010. But since 2015 it serves another function: a refugee camp was stablished there; welcoming refugees recently arrived in Germany.
Karim Aïnouz, Brazilian artist and filmmaker has said that this is his first observational documentary, and that he wanted to contrast another look with the representation that is common in the media, a gaze which he qualifies as hysteric. What interested him was to highlight the German solidarity with the refugees, a solidarity that exists among them as well. It’s a controversial point of view for the filmmaker of Madame Satã (2002) and Praia do futuro (2014), because it draws on important problems like overcrowding but ignores others. For example, a trespassing in 2016, after a terrorist attack that happened in Berlin.
The “solidarity” is sometimes confused with the institutional in this film, premiered in the Panorama section of Berlinale, and whose origins are in a project of video installations about the four old airports of the city, because of the upcoming inauguration of the Willy Brandt Berlin-Brandenburg airport in 2019. The problem is perceived clearly in the shots where the adults and children play in the landing field, and in the thanking words of an old man, and also in the recurring images of the perimeter fence in the refugee zone, which is crossed constantly by a group of young Germans that pass from one side to the other just for fun. This is portrayed as if one wanted to remark that the foreign people in there wouldn’t think to escape, in contrast to the locals.
Aïnouz studied architecture, and his exploration of space occupies a good part of the film. The film deals with the issue of how the ruins of abandoned projects by modernization have been adapted to other means. This is the case of the “humanitarian” refugee camp which was converted by the democratic Germany of today, a building that was once the pride of Adolf Hitler, leader of a regime of builders of other camps, where over 11 million people were exterminated.
But the interest of the filmmakers leads mainly to abstract considerations, like it’s perceived in the stablishing shot of the “houses” installed in a hangar. The lights, going off in a successive order, create a sort of artificial night that advances under the roof until everything is black; after that, the scene of “dawn” occurs. The same thing happens with the visual contrast of the compositions that divide the plane in incongruent parts of apparently independence, for example, or in the enjoyment of the almost oneiric beauty of parts of the airport in the mist, or covered in snow.
The representation of time is different. Aïnouz manages to peek subtly into the existential problem of who in the airport-camp-park live a sort of suspension of life. The signaling of months is placed with intertitles in Arab, read in this language by one of the characters, as is placed by celebrations, like the New Year, with its fireworks and Christmas –Santa Claus and trees included, despite that one can see that most of the refugees are muslims-. The filmmaker enjoys showing how the place changes with the stations. But all of that is in counterpoint with the situation of the people in there.
Even more important is its impugnation of the artificial distinction between the categories of “refugee” and “immigrant”. The first one is found in the country where he arrives by the supposed persecution that threatens his life in his place of origin, which is exhaustively investigated. The second one travels voluntarily to seek a better life in other country, and receiving it doesn’t depend of humanitarian reasons but on convenience. This last characterization supposes that there isn’t a coaction inherent to the socio economical system that makes people leave in order not to die, even if war isn’t a reality, like it’s happening now in Venezuela.
The difference among both things is erased in the two main characters. The first –a young Syrian man- seems to live caressing the memory of the farmer life left behind for the conflict, but dreams with a future as a mechanic in Germany. He celebrates the change of status to “person under protection” to “refugee” because this gives him the possibility to follow that goal. The other one –an Iraqi doctor whose experience admires a German colleague –works in the field as a translator, but wishes to work as a doctor in Europe. In this sence, Central Airport THF is something more than a documentary of an institutional aspect. Is a film that one should expect from a Brazilian man living and working in Berlin, whose Argelian father landed in Brazil for political reasons.
Director: Karim Aïnouz
Producer: Felix von Boehm
Cinematography: Juan Sarmiento G
Sound Design: Daniel Weis
Music: Benedikt Schiefer
Germany, France, Brazil