In 2015, Europe saw a huge influx of refugees from Syria, Somalia, Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan – countries that had become more and more dangerous, and too dangerous for some people to be able to survive. Especially in Europe, the year 2015 will be remembered as such, and, to many, it will be remembered as the year humanity failed. Refugees were treated like potential terrorists, they were locked up in camps, shot at at borders. It was a year of numbers. The famous one million that has “flooded” Germany, for example. But what is going on behind those numbers, who are those people who flee their home, not willingly, but as a pure attempt at survival, putting themselves at risk, knowingly, by choosing an unsafe boat trip across the Mediterranean, organised by corrupt smugglers?
I was surprised to see Sorayos Prapapan’s film, which deals, beyond the surface, with exactly this. I had seen the Thai director’s Boonrem before and was taken by how the young filmmaker places emphasis on detail, on observation, and on exploring a character’s mind. His short film A souvenir from Switzerland is different in that it is, first of all, a documentary. Or is it? In some ways, it is. In others, it is more a personal description of the director’s trip to a film festival in Switzerland. The film opens when he is back home. But we don’t see Prapapan, nor the friend who visits him. Instead, the director uses almost cliché images of Switzerland he has shot during his trip.
Voice-overs are pretty common in film, and it is a method that guides this film, too. However, I’m not too sure whether we can speak of a voice-over here. The film made me question the term. I don’t think it’s applicable to A souvenir. To me, the term voice-over suggests that the real action happens in the image. This isn’t the case here. Prapapan creates the action in his words, and I do believe that the voice is the guiding principle, so why do we not speak of an image-over? Yes, I’m going wild with thoughts now, but I genuinely believe that the term voice-over is limited and that A souvenir might just be the right starting point for rethinking this.
If I compare the film to the other five films we offer on tao films, then I can easily say that this the film in which the least happens. If you wait for visual cues, for some sort of action in the images, you will be disappointed. A souvenir asks you to listen instead, and it tests your patience. The film is based on a conversation between the director and his friend. Prapapan tells his friend about Switzerland, the way the people live in that country, and how expensive it is. It is a normal conversation which you would not consider as worthwhile putting on screen. But if you’re an attentive listener and an engaged citizen, then you reconsider your position.
Prapapan brings a souvenir from Switzerland with him. For his friend. A gift. The title suggests another aspect of the word “souvenir”, namely a memory. In the second half of the film, the director mentions an Afghan filmmaker friend of his. He met him by chance, and he was taken by what he told him; that he became a refugee and is now seeking asylum in Switzerland. The souvenir from Switzerland becomes a story of an unfortunate artist who had to leave his country because he spoke up against oppression. This is the souvenir that Prapapan really takes homes with him. Interestingly, he never shows the Afghan filmmaker. The choice is deliberate: this is a film not only about this particular filmmaker, but about many thousands of people who were forced to leave their country. A souvenir from Switzerland tells the story of one specific person, but renders it universal by using absence as the main aesthetic formula.
A souvenir is certainly minimalist. It is an improvised piece that developed out of the director’s encounter with his friend. Yet, it is a contribution to the current developments and puts the spotlight onto the person, and puts aside the numbers that have been so prominent in writing about refugees.