- The Idea
- The Genesis
The Archive of Refuge was created as a digital memory site where (hi)stories of flight and displacement to Germany in the 20th and 21st century are preserved and reflected. Both East and West Germany (and the relationship between them) were influenced from the outset by the experience of people who had left everything behind and found refuge there. Many were fleeing from war and destruction, others from political persecution or social, cultural or racist exclusion, and others again from sexual discrimination or sexualised violence. These people tell of flight and displacement, of torture, exploitation and a deprivation of rights, but also of hope and happiness; they talk of home and exile, of belonging and new beginnings – and ultimately they also reveal surprising, wide-ranging perspectives on German history.
Their stories show that flight and migration to Germany are neither an exception nor an anomaly triggered by a crisis, but historical normality. It has taken a long time, nevertheless, for society to develop a public awareness that the people living here display a plurality of origins and experiences. The (hi)stories of those who were forced to seek refuge here attracted sporadic attention, only gradually becoming visible and audible. In most cases because they fought for an audience or expressed the memories of a specific group.
The Archive of Refuge deliberately refrains from imposing a hierarchy on the experience of flight. It explicitly collects memories from different generations of refugees: from those who fled Silesia in 1945 to those who fled Libya in 2016. It covers the full spectrum of stories, whether narrated by the young or the old, by mothers or by daughters obliged to abandon all they had. People from all corners of the globe have been recorded for the Archive of Refuge. Their journeys are sometimes short and sometimes long and arduous.
In conversations not subject to any time restraints, the Archive’s interviewers set about listening to people who have found refuge in our country and documenting their stories. The narratives follow their own rhythm and their own sense of time: sometimes they falter, sometimes they are deflected or evasive, sometimes they accelerate and jump ahead. These narratives are not always linear or clear. Like all memories, they harbour errors or omissions, they touch upon wounds or are tinged with shame. Sometimes they break off and can only resume after a pause. That is all part of the picture. It is perfectly permissible – necessary, even – that a conversation recorded on camera for an oral history project like this will not be the same as a hearing by a public agency such as the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Nobody is being examined or judged.
The Archive of Refuge seeks to preserve the experiences which triggered flight and which cross over here, because otherwise they will be forgotten and buried. Only with and through these stories can we understand the present and future of society. What similarities are there between these different experiences of flight and what differences emerge? What hopes and ambitions and what traumas have people brought with them? Is there any recurrent pattern to the way people settle in their new home or sense exclusion? How are social, political and cultural thresholds to belonging in a place negotiated or shifted? What does that tell us about Here? What does it mean, actually, to seek refuge?
The Archive of Refuge took its time. Not only over the conversations with protagonists as they talked about their origins, their journey and their life here in Germany, but above all over the conception and design for the project. From the outset, a team with multiple perspectives was sought, with members who would draw on different academic disciplines and experience to devise methods and procedures for the archive project.
A year and a half was spent on workshops with this interdisciplinary team of interviewers and advisers in order to reflect upon several issues: What concept of refuge underlies this archive? What time frame should the sample of protagonists cover? How can we make sure that the conversations filmed on camera do not echo the potentially traumatic experience of a hearing by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees? What themes and motifs should be common to all the conversations so that structural similarities (or differences) in the narratives can be picked up? How open and free must the interviewers nevertheless be to take their cue from their opposite number and respond sensitively to the needs and interests of those who are telling their story? How does an archive like this avoid lending a voice only to those who are already more privileged, who are always more likely to be heard and seen?
Only then did the project begin communicating with relevant communities, associations and aid organisations in search of people who would participate. Care was constantly taken to ensure that the choice of conversation partners did not replicate the usual mechanisms of exclusion and discrimination: adjustments were made and the quest for specific experiences and countries of origin was sometimes highly targeted. Women, people with fewer qualifications, older people must be just as visible with their narratives as young, gainfully employed men.
Working together with the film-maker Heidi Specogna, the conceptual approach devised for the shoot creates a distinctive visual style and aesthetic for the Archive. It aims to express our respect for the people who have trusted their narratives to us and are prepared to make them public. Their framing had to reflect this situation of trust. A single set was therefore constructed for use in every conversation.
Significant gaps remain in the Archive of Refuge and they must be named: those who have experienced sexualised violence, those who have been tortured and tormented are not necessarily able or willing to talk about it, those who were forced into hiding with no legal status are unable or unwilling to reveal their identity on camera, those who still have families in their country of origin do not wish to endanger them by criticising a regime. The gaps in the Archive, then, are gaps created by violence, terror or vulnerability, they tell of fear or shame or pain. Because of this, the Archive’s protagonists must always remain the authors of their own stories. They could choose at any time to end the conversation, take a break, and they could ask retrospectively to have an unpleasant, embarrassing or compromising passage edited out.
Although we made every effort to cover a broad spectrum of narratives and experiences, we realise that our project is incomplete. An archive always signals an ability and a desire to be continued, complemented and extended. The sample compiled here does not claim to be exhaustive. Rather, it has gone out in search of significant perspectives. Our interview partners were perceived as individuals. They could not and were not intended to perform the function of representing “refugees from a particular country”. Taken in their entirety, they reveal outlines not only of global history but also of historical developments in the two German states up until and beyond unification. At the same time, they narrate the chequered ways in which refugees and migration are politicised.
People from all corners of the globe were recorded for the Archive of Refuge and they speak in nine different languages. The Archive unites contributors from altogether 27 countries of origin in South America, Africa, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, the Near and Middle East, South-East and East Asia. The Archive includes extremely varied social and cultural backgrounds, religions, sexualities. It portrays 41 people: 18 women and 23 men, four among them identifying as LGBTIQ. At the time of recording, the protagonists ranged in age from 19 to 87 years. Qualifications and occupations were checked for diversity, too, and there is a full array: from shepherd to professor, from working to upper class.
On grounds of logistical feasibility, the selection was confined to people in the region of Berlin and Brandenburg. Another city or region would doubtless have given rise to a different cross-section. Over the four consecutive rounds of filming, the sample was regularly reviewed to pick up any mechanisms of exclusion or social marginalisation – and readjusted as appropriate by searching out the voices and perspectives that would otherwise be neglected.
The very notion of refugee is controversial, and consequently so are the criteria applied to the selection. The decisive factor for the Archive of Refuge was that none of these individuals left (or stayed) of their own free will. Our concept of refugee, then, includes not only people who were forced to leave their country of origin, but also people who originally came to Germany on a study grant or for a job, but whose status changed while they were here because they could no longer return to their country and were thus coerced into exile. Taken as a whole, these conversations are a powerful challenge to a political imagination that sometimes tries to articulate such clear-cut definitions and draw clear distinctions between refugee and non-refugee.
The choice of interviewers aimed to assemble a group of people who not only had the skills to conduct thoughtful, intelligent interviews for the camera, but who could also contribute to the conceptual development and joint preparations in seminars and workshops. It was important that any blind spots in the project, any misconceptions or false assumptions, could be criticised and corrected again and again from different perspectives.
This made it essential from the outset that the interviewers for the Archive of Refuge should combine different academic disciplines and cultural backgrounds. The group needed to contribute a variety of experience and forms of knowledge, but also a wide spectrum in terms of age, migration experience and origin. The interviewers who embarked together on this multi-year project are Jewish, Muslim or atheist, heterosexual or homosexual, white or PoC.
Apart from a small number who joined the Archive of Refuge later, the interviewers took part in and helped to shape every stage: the genesis, the selection of interviewees, the formulation of questions, the interview guidelines and even the criteria for website search functions. The knowledge and experience clustered in the group of interviewers was complemented by a team of experts who have supported the project throughout every phase since 2016, not least with legal advice about asylum and residence rules, psychological counselling with regard to the possible traumatisation of protagonists, but also linguistic and technical consultation about interpreting the interviews.
The interviewers and advisers on the team were: see contributors
The jointly formulated guidelines provided dramaturgical and thematic orientation for the interviews. They structured the narratives in response to biographical development: the interview begins with childhood and ends in the present, passing via the incipient decision to seek refuge elsewhere, the journey, whether fast-moving or slow and tortuous, and a new life or perhaps many years in Germany. It was up to the interview tandem to weight the themes and the timing, and so an interview can vary from one to six hours.
It was important to respond productively to people’s understanding of their story as a typical refugee story. Of course, everybody was able to narrate their own personal biography and experience, but also to place this individual story within a context of conjunctions, structures and local conditions.
During the process, there was a critical questioning of the preformulated guidelines to ensure that the conceptual ideas were making sense in practice. After the first round of filmed interviews, the interviewers talked with each other about the experience to reflect upon deficiencies and needs for correction, about what to look out for and what not to overlook. Already it was becoming clear that interpreting the guidelines too strictly would stand up neither to their own different disciplinary aspirations nor, above all, to the heterogeneous narratives and experiences of the interviewees.
The guidelines provide a structure which invites certain topoi and motifs and offers a dramaturgical sequence. Even so, each conversation derive its dynamic from the narrative mode of the protagonist and the personality of the interviewer, generating an order entirely of its own. The guidelines nevertheless help to identify similarities and differences in these narratives on the basis of recurrent themes.
The Shot and the Cut
The Archive of Refuge centres on a conversation between an interviewer and an interviewee. A classic documentary work scenario. Telling and listening.
The key here is to create a space for dialogue that permits trust and intimacy to evolve between two parties to a conversation. A setting that conveys a sense of safety and appreciation for the interviewees sharing their story. The Archive of Refuge aims to listen to people, regardless of their legal status, their origins, their route of travel, their language. They are not ticking off a checklist and nor are they being evaluated and judged in political or legal terms.
The recording equipment – camera, lighting, sound – unfurl qualities here that support this approach in particular ways: they can display a presence, but also discretion. A presence in the sense that they are “documenting” and discretion in the sense that they are “subordinate to the flow of conversation”. It was important to create an atmosphere clearly distinct from other interview situations, such as those required for asylum applications.
The setting for the shoot is unmistakable: the camera, and hence our attention, is aligned towards the interviewee. Camera on tripod, two frame options at most, discreet lighting, clear sound. In the background, for all the interviews, a mottled backdrop of grey and green, establishing a consistent space for everyone and permitting a concentrated focus on the individuals and their narratives. The conversation is documented as a continuous flow with no cutaways. Viewers see and hear in sync.
Every interview begins with a short documentary introduction: the two protagonists greet each other, the studio setting is visible, the lighting equipment, sometimes the sound engineer wiring up the participants. The conversation ends with a portrait shot of the interviewee and sometimes with a parting gesture between the two protagonists.
The edit takes its cue from the course of the conversation. No change of angle during the interview, no retrospective dramatisation or compression. The remit: leave space to think a thing over and between thoughts. Like resonance chambers that viewers can share. What that meant for the edit was: nothing was cut out or shortened unless the interviewee requested it on personal grounds or unless there had been a real break in the conversation with the sound and camera switched off.
These places are marked in the interviews so that they are obvious to viewers: by a black screen lasting 4 seconds before the conversation resumes. Here too, the core principle is to respect the documentary dramaturgy and the flow of the conversation, and not to process the footage in order to veil anything or touch anything up. Quite the reverse: any cut is flagged up by fading to black.
This film strategy relies on the power of the conversations and encounters that have been documented.
Just as the Archive of Refuge took its time, so too should viewers as they sift through the interviews. These conversations are intended to be watched in full. Viewers should, if they possibly can, submit themselves to the entire interview; just as the protagonists and the interviewers submitted to their dialogue – and ultimately to each other. However, viewers should also have the option to search interviews for concepts or chapters.
First, a decision was made to borrow a coding procedure from qualitative sociological research and test it on a specimen interview – although this method was then adapted, amended and in some ways reversed to suit the material and the purpose of the Archive of Refuge. Before a code or concept could be allocated to the material (i.e. the interviews), it was essential to work closely to the text (i.e. interview transcriptions). Drawing on the interview guidelines, the parent category “flight and migration” was broken down into further categories and subcategories – with the open coding method turned on its head.
The first step was to read the text (transcription) in its entirety to acquaint ourselves with the story and get to know the people who were talking. It made sense at this point to mark striking or significant points and note recurrent themes.
Then, by applying the open coding method used in qualitative research, we processed all those places in the transcription that fell under the parent category “flight and migration”. Words, sentences and even whole paragraphs were broken down into units of meaning and tagged with an appropriate concept. Some concepts were lifted from the text, but new ones with related meanings were also formulated. Every concept was marked in the text and allocated its own time code (contained in the transcript).
Finally, the concepts derived from this process were matched to categories and subcategories derived from the interview guidelines. Categories not derived from the guidelines but lifted from the text were then added. The aim here was to ensure that the list of categories and subcategories could be expanded with every interview.
After further reflection and discussion, however, we felt that this was not an effective approach for the Archive of Refuge. It intervened too directly in the material, as every concept allocated to a passage was a coder’s interpretation. The Archive of Refuge, on the other hand, does not seek to explain or interpret – that is entirely a matter for the visitors to our website who come to watch and observe. We therefore opted for a softer, almost imperceptible intervention by sequencing the interviews instead. Each interview (text, transcription) is divided into larger units of meaning in the form of sequences or chapters. These sequences, likewise tagged with time codes, serve as a table of contents. Viewers can use these like a DVD menu to select the various chapters and are then taken straight to the chosen place in the interview.