14 Kilómetros tells us how far the Moroccan coastline is separated from Spain. Tantalizingly close, visible from your window whether you're in Tangier on the African side or Tarifa on the European coast. But if you are one of the thousands of desperate African migrants who has spent your last cent crossing the Sahara getting to the jump off point, you are not going to let 14 Km get in your way. Or you are going to die trying, as thousands do.
Dr. Bichara Khader of the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CERMAC) at Belgium's Université Catholique de Louvain knows this world of mass migration, and has made the study of it his life's work. Today's presentation at MEDEA's "Mediterranean Midday" was largely devoted to Maghrebi migration to Europe, but the Africans of 14 Kilómetros were never far from our minds.
The fictionalized trio of francophone Africans in Olivares' film (amateurs recruited on the streets of Mali and Niger) start a little hesitantly, and at first appear to be reciting their lines a bit mechanically. But that impression passes, and the viewer is left with just the three protagonists and the utter vastness of the Sahara. One of the film's most lingering images is of the impossibly overloaded truck (Olivares was reminded of "boat people" on wheels) lumbering through the desert, dropping people off at some unmarked crossroad in the sand: Libya to the right, Algeria and Morocco to the left.
Our trio takes the latter route, and add to the 100,000 or so sub-Saharan Africans living in the limbo of the Maghreb. Their Algerian and Moroccan "hosts" may still attempt to make the crossing themselves, but the heyday of North African migration to Europe in the boom time of the Sixties and Seventies is long over. With Maghrebi birthrates dropping to European levels, how long will it be, asks Dr. Khader, until the Africans simply start to replace the missing Maghrebi workers and give up on their dreams of Europe?
For the crossing is increasingly difficult. Whether it is 14 Kilometers in the Strait of Gibraltar or hundreds of kilometers to the Italian coast from Libya, European nations are increasing their pressure on the countries of the Maghreb to prevent the African migrants from crossing. With their detention centers and increasingly sophisticated patrol boats, are the North African countries becoming, in Dr. Khader's words, "the gendarmes of Europe?"
In Olivares' film, the characters are shunted between border posts, safe houses, and brothels. We come to care for the characters, and to root for them as they confront traffickers whose only interest is in their well-hidden wads of Euros. We hold our breath as they risk being discovered by Algerian, Moroccan, or Spanish border guards.
For what? To spend their lives on the edge of society, performing "Difficult, Dirty, Dangerous" jobs shunned by Westerners?
Gerardo Olivares' amateur actors have no such illusions. As the director told Nicolas Crousse of Le Soir, at the Madrid opening of his film, they saw how African migrants lived in the Spanish capital. "If it's like that," they told him, "we prefer staying in our own countries."
(Image: Strait of Gibraltar, NASA Earth Observatory)