In Transit
experimental documentary interview
Malia Bruker (cinematographer and editor)
Hannah Schwadron and Mayokun Akinruli (interlocutors & dancers)

runtime: 10:19

Histories In Transit: Hamburg Stories in the Street

How can a documentary interview between a “third generation” Jewish granddaughter of the Holocaust from the US and a recent Nigerian refugee reflect on distinct, but overlapping personal histories of exile from Germany? This question guides the following framing essay on the 10-minute video project, In Transit, directed and edited by Malia Bruker and featuring newly acquainted co-interviewees, Hannah Schwadron and Mayokun Akinruli.

In Transit exists in part because of coincidence, and in part because of the unmistakable resonances between the sociopolitical causes of migration today and those of the second World War. Imagining dance and film as collaborative paths for urgent communication, the interview begins from the premise that artful sharing of stories is powerful, and that dance can mobilize ideas beyond language. Reflecting both the process of making In Transit and the aim of its impact, we introduce a filmic and kinetic mode of sharing difficult experiences to render them more legible for audiences and participants alike.

Filmmaker Malia Bruker and choreographer Hannah Schwadron arrived in Hamburg in June of 2015 to begin production on a dance film based on Hannah’s Jewish family history there. We wandered the old Jewish neighborhood in which we would stay for two weeks, noting the many Stones of Remembrance, gold tiles in the sidewalk meant to remind Germans of those killed by Nazi rule. To fight off jet-lag we made our way through the University of Hamburg and happened on Café Knellhart, a pay-what-you-can cafe and space for political organizing created and run by students. The first wave of the current mass migration from Africa and the Middle East had started, and the Café was home to a few dozen asylum seekers. We met Mayo Akinruli, a Nigerian man who had recently come to Hamburg by way of the Italian island of Lampedusa, a frequent point of arrival for immigrants from Africa.

Together we toured the neighborhood, strolling for hours, listening to Mayo’s story. Forced to leave Nigeria due to political and economic instability, Mayo hoped to find work and a home in Hamburg. We learned that Mayo’s experiences had led him to become an active member of ASUIHA or African Survival in Hamburg, a group developed by those fleeing African countries with the purpose of supporting one another as they navigate life in Germany. Today African Survival no longer focuses only on African refugees, offering legal advice, access to medical care and a sense of community to any who share their plight. “We stand up as asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in Hamburg to demand our freedom and the right to live in dignity.” African Survival continues to meet weekly and provides refugees with resources such as legal advice and access to medical care (see here or here).

After hearing this intense story of immigration, Hannah and Malia returned to their work on their film about a very different refugee story. They met with middle school students at Ida Ehre Schule where Hannah’s grandmother, born Ursel Lievendag, had attended 70 years prior. With a team of 3 professional dancers, Schwadron and the students read and discussed letters that Lievendag and her friends had written to one another in 1939. Some of these Jewish children spoke of fleeing, others of dismay at the dwindling numbers in their classroom, and many urged bravery in the face of uncertainty and fear. The Ida Ehre students then wrote their own letters, some finding resonance in the immigration stories of their own families or in their experiences of saying goodbye to friends who were forced to leave. This led to choreography for two live performances and the dance film, Klasse. Production for the film took place later that week, shot over two days in a classroom preserved in a Jewish memorial site that was once the Israelitische Töchterschule (Jewish School for Girls).

Klasse was completed in 2016 as the exodus of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and across Africa began to overwhelm European destination countries. The timing of our dance film production, along with the multi-ethnic makeup of the student performers, continues to guide the discussion around Klasse and how the violent history it portrays still resonates today. Germany, once the source of millions of refugees that the rest of the world did not want to take, is now among the most receptive of European countries.

When we returned to Hamburg to show Klasse in June 2016, a chance encounter with Mayo on the same streets that we had walked the previous year surprised all three of us. It also solidified an interest in the connection between current and past histories of exile. With the aid of a lawyer, Mayo had submitted an application for “Duldung” status, which translates literally to “tolerated” status. According to the news organization Deutsche Welle, in 2015 there were over 155,000 refugees with Duldung papers in Germany. This status temporarily suspends deportation and provides refugees with 3 months of welfare payments. Duldung refugees may find work after that, but the government must verify that no legal residents were in competition for the job. Though considerably better than deportation, these refugees are limited in their ability to move freely and must build lives without the insurance of knowing just how long they will be tolerated. In learning more about Mayo’s continued search for the right to live in Germany, we decided to take an engaged, historical approach to contemporary immigration, refugeeism and the process of seeking political asylum. And so, in continuation of a dance film on Jewish history, we decided to find a way to work with Mayo.

Our ideas on why this work matters were clear: Mayo, and many others, are in great need and we believe that artistic work can influence the way people think about the issue of immigration. Further, our previous collaboration in dance film had led to convictions about the value of processing historical material through the lens of performance on screen, for both viewers and performers. For the students who performed in Klasse, the creativity of dance and the discipline of film had been very impactful. Finally, we felt in creating a project with Mayo we could explore the reasons, beyond chance and coincidence, for the meeting of a Nigerian refugee and a Jewish-American artist on the streets of Hamburg.

The nature of In Transit is fleeting. There are few Jewish artists working in Hamburg today, for reasons intrinsic to our focus on forced exile, which is part of why Hannah was invited to make work there. Germany places great importance on the culture of remembrance and the policies of the last several decades are designed to learn from past mistakes. Mayo’s time in Hamburg, though longer and more dedicated, is precarious and, as of yet, that of an outsider. While an ideal documentary project, particularly one with an ethnographic component, involves a deep and sustained investment of time in the environment and with the “subject,” the precarity of both parties necessitated a short-term, improvisatory exploration of how film and dance might communicate experience. This decision was not reached with ease, but through ongoing discussion of performance and documentary ethics, of theory versus practice, and the ultimate realization that an exploration into what is possible on these terms was better than doing nothing.

Armed with Malia’s camera gear and Hannah’s practice of improvisatory choreography and performance, we met Mayo again at Café Knellhart. We caught the final moments of an anti-fascist rally in the university quad, and Mayo showed us his latest immigration paperwork. We asked where we could sit to talk, and he led us to the Keller, a large underground walkway, a place he described as a political meeting space. Covered in graffiti, lit in fluorescent and echoing with the sounds of a man practicing Salat, this space became our backdrop as we discussed the ways that Hamburg had brought us all together.

The improvisatory nature of what happened next on camera frames the project’s story-based focus on the cityscape through dance and documentary interview. As a two-time impromptu meeting prompts the telling of two pasts, the physical convergence of movement partnering enacts a micro-choreography of their intersection. In Transit peers in on talking and dancing subjects as they interview each other through actual and abstract means. In doing so, the dynamics they co-create reveal curious connections across disparate pasts and almost-indecipherably separate presents.

Works Cited and Additional Resources

“African Survival” Facebook page, Hamburg, GE. Accessed 2/15/2017.

"African Survival in Hamburg – ASUIHA E.V." Accessed 12/20/2017.

Bello, Hakim. “I was a Lampedusa refugee. Here’s my story of fleeing Libya - and Surviving.” The Guardian. 4/20/2015.

Bohne, Julian. “Lampedusa asylum-seekers bed down in Hamburg Protestant church.” Deutsche Welle. 10/23/2013.

Gabriel, Jürg Martin, “Maritime Migration in the Central Mediterranean 2011/2012: The Impact of the 'Arab Spring'” Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich - Center for Comparative and International Studies. 6/21/2013.

Germany. Federal Office for Migration and Refugees. Access to the labour market for refugees. Nürnberg: Federal Office for Information Technology, Federal Office of Administration. 9/1/2016.

Semenova, Janina and Manasi Gopalakrishnan. “What happens with rejected asylum applicants who are not deported?” Deutsche Welle. 7/25/2016.

Mayokun Akunruli is an activist with Africa Survival in Hamburg, Germany, which works on behalf of asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants in Hamburg.

Malia Bruker is a filmmaker and Assistant Professor of Communication at Florida State University. Influenced by her early work in independent news and her ongoing interest in radical forms of media, Bruker’s documentary films have included performance, animation and other experimental non-fiction practices. The choreographic aspect of the collaboration with Schwadron has led to further interest in exploring how performance can expand political communication in documentary film.

Hannah Schwadron is a dancer, choreographer, and Assistant Professor of Dance at Florida State University. She began creating and performing choreography in Hamburg, Germany in 2012, after an invitation as artist-in-residence at the Ida Ehre Schule to work with middle school students on performance material dealing with her Jewish family history there. Since then, she has returned for three subsequent research trips with filmmaker Malia Bruker on the subject of political exile, past and present.

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