Shadow Game

Reflection by Nebil Kusmallah on the price winning documentary

Do or die … that is the question! [smile] … “do or die”.

Fouad, a 15-year-old boy from Afghanistan.

In the afternoon of the 8th of April, the focus area Migration & Societal Change hosted a screening of Shadow Game. Below you find the written reflection by Nebil Kusmallah on the film. He gave a presentation during the event as well, and we are happy to present his thoughts once again here.

The catch
When the documentary started the first thing that caught my attention was the sound of walking feet of people who are fleeing. As someone who has done a similar walk (I usually call these ‘fear walks’) under duress, and in the context a fortified border between Eritrea and Sudan, where border guards are given a shoot-to-kill order for any person crossing which in my case was being a “deserter”. Hearing the walking sound at the beginning of the documentary made me sit up straight and pay full attention to what Shadow Game had to offer.

Just to have a kind of logic to my reflection, I would first like to share the highlights I observed in the depicted journey of those young people. In other words, their journey was determined by speed and velocity; by gregarious experiences; as a transition to adulthood; as a site of resistance, of political consciousness; and of hope and yearning. Lastly, I would like to straighten my thoughts by leaving people with some food for thoughts where the acts of resistance and resources of these young people are visible.

The film
“Shadow Game” is a documentary directed by Eefje Blankevoort and Els van Driel. First, I would like to extend my congratulations to all the team and crew for bringing such a remarkable work of art to light. Secondly, I would also like to express my gratitude to them for showing what young refugees and unaccompanied refugee minors must go through in their horrendous migration trajectories to Europe or elsewhere.

“Shadow Game” is a story of vulnerability and hope; and it is a story of tenacity and yearning. It is a multilayered narrative where precarity and resources meet. I was trying to make sense of some of the scenes in the documentary whilst at the same time I was trying to remember what was said on the talk show with Zygmunt Bauman, on Al Jazeera, “Talk to Al Jazeera''. On “Liquid Fear” he pointed out that refugees represent suffering bodies, which are impossible to ignore. “Shadow Game” brings these imminent and suffering bodies to the forefront.

More importantly, these are the stories of Durab, the funny and naughty-boy; SK, the optimist; Waqas, the boy who loves chicken; Mo, the artist; Jano, the guardian-angel of his brother Shiro; Fouad the articulate philosopher; Faiz, the well-informed all the way from western Sudan Darfur; Mohammed, the child and the gentle soul and Mustafa, the caring and the responsible. I would have loved to write a long exposé about every young person I mentioned but first let me pick some points for the consideration. I will square on the journey as “game” with full speed and velocity; the journey as a gregarious experience; and the journey as transition to adulthood. 

The “game”
“Shadow Game” reveals the journey as described by young people from Afghanistan as being a “game”. In that regard the words of Durab caught my attention: “it is a mission, if you complete it, you win the game. Of course, this game is dangerous, you will lose, and you will die in this game”. Elsewhere, Joris Schapendock (2011), talks about the speed and velocity of the journey in his meticulous Book, ‘Turbulent Trajectories’, in the context of West African migrants moving to Europe. Schapendock claims that moving is neither linear nor frictionless. Moving is not merely about going from point A to B; but it is also the distance between A and B. In the case of “Shadow Game”, the journey that brought young people like Durab forward is as crucial as much as their destination was.

Additionally, moving is also associated with friction, as young people in the film were telling us their stories of blocked roads [Servia, Bulgaria, Bosnia, and Slovenia], returning [Ventimiglia and Commo], coming forward [France/ Belgium and UK] and reassembling and rethinking [back in Servia, Bosnia, Croatia etc.]. It is amazing to see that all these journeys are always full of friction.

Another point that caught my attention was when SK was joking with his friend, when tending the wounds of his friend Waqas, where he said: “treat him well because I don’t want him to stay on this mountain”. This is clearly about agility; some people move fast, and some people move slow, such agility depends on the financial and emotional support of family and friends.

Gregarious and liminal experience
“Shadow Game” unveils that, if the game is an individual experience, it is also a gregarious endeavour. This is evident when Durab and his friends talk about travelling on an open-wagon train with other 14/ 17/ 16 years-old.

There was one part in the documentary that really struck me, which was the scene at 20:34 minutes. In that scene there are three young people covered in a blanket tacked next to each other; in blankets under full blown-fluorescent light. For those young people, gregarity is a strategy to avoid harm and danger in the state of precarity.

Additionally, it shows that the game is also an initiation from childhood into adulthood. Shiro's words are a case in point: “beard coming out “little-little”.  Shiro asked: “Where is my childhood, …what happened to my childhood. I feel like an old man”.My point is simple, in this trajectory there is no room to be fallible or to be a child, whereas moving fast in age and experiences has become the better option.

Biopolitics and Necropolitics in action
Mohammed’s experiences of him being arrested in Zagreb, where he was caught by the police wearing intimidating gear and protective armor, carrying lights and guns, where they thought he was a terrorist.  When the police asked him to smile. Mohammed said, “How can I laugh when I am crying?” For me this is clearly an act of the state acting and inacting at its will. Again, Mustafa, when he was tortured by the Croatian police, revealed that “I do not know what to do [crying and sobbing] “What can I do? I am so tired. We are hurt and we are tired”.

In his fascinating work Necropolitics (2003), Mbembe highlighted the effects of power, as expressed by structure/state, on the individual bodies of people and for him, individuals are subjected to extreme violation and scrutiny where they were left to suffer by sustaining continuous injuries. In his own words – the experience of death while living, to what he precisely denoted as: “death-in-life.” It seems to me that certain states are acting in double-fold: the one-fold is acting in brute force, known as “action” and the other is by acting hands-off, i.e., “inaction”. In the case of Mohammed and Mustafa, the state acts of profiling migrants and refugees in detention centres by fingerprinting, led to both boys being purely reduced to “objects.” However, as in the case of the latter fold, the state takes deliberate “inaction,” (Davies et al 2017) in which it ignores migrants and refugees by refusing to act even in the most needful situations, and this is done by reducing the rescue operations on the high seas and by closing boarders. In other words, by reducing people to “bare-life”, to use Agamben’s term. In that regard, one of the protagonists, Fouad, did ask an existential, if rather ironic, question “will you be spending your life there … in an area where there is no education, safety”. He himself subsequently answered “you will not be spending life there”.

The power of language
“Shadow Game” is also a reminder of the power of one's own language to express pain, anguish, and trauma. The scenes when Jano lost contact with his brother Shiro, and where he emotionally said in Arabic رجعتالكامبمالقيتاخوية“rejaeta al kamp …ma—liet—akuye” “I returned to the camp, but I could not find my brother”, and the scene where Mustafa was talking to his mother uttering إن شاء الله تفرج  “Insha’Allah Tefreje“ “It shall resolve, God willing” and Faiz calling his mother in Sudan  كيف الحال يومه“Kef al Hal Uma” “How are you mama”, those scenes made my heart drop as someone who understands Arabic, hearing these first-hand in their won setting, tone and intensity. Shadow Game has delivered in that respect as well.

Agency in precarity
“Shadow Game” is also a documentary on resources and agency. Resources of the young refugees are seen in terms of showing solidarity and comradery bonds created by the journey. For example, Faiz setting up his baby brother ‘Shiblye’ - the little calf - Ahmed for the journey and telling him to get a jacket with a hood; and Jano protecting his young brother Shiro – whilst getting deeply worried when he lost track of his brother in Slovenia.

Mo expressed his challenges through arts, music and by tooting his hands that “life is a war”. Using humor as a coping strategy, for instance in the scene where Waqas was tending his wounds, is a case in point.  

Furthermore, showing defiance in the state of precarity, for instance the graffiti of Mustafa, where he depicted in beautiful Arabic script [25:05] ماركون, نحنجايينMarcon Nahnu Jayen “Marcon, we are coming” and in Gasmi’s words جايين من الموت وماشيين للموت Jayen min al moot. Mashen lel moot “We are coming from death. We are going to death”. It is also expressed in the boys’ devising strategies of protecting themselves against harms, for instance by kneeling in a row with lighted fire-gas to scare off wild animals. Again, using aspiration, as a source of reliance and resources for instance, as SK said, “I want to study biology”; “I want to be a bodybuilder” and Faiz, “I want to be a president of Darfur”, Faiz.

Collective agentic acts are visible by unsung heroes against structural violence and against border regimentation, who are providing crucial medical, spiritual, and moral support to the young people in question. To mention some, as cases in point, are for instance the Spanish medics tenderly caring for the foot of Waqas; and the amateur musicians entraining Faiz and his cohort by uttering the words “Should I stay, or Should I go”.  

Final words
“Shadow Game” is an urgent reminder that we need to guarantee safe passage to people in need. It is also a reminder that it is not by chance that most of the young refugees, who have crossed often hostile borders, took those horrendous journeys, because the real reason was that their right to move was not safeguarded, and indeed they were forced to take matters into their own hands when they decided to cross the high seas, the freezing roads, and face the landmines. Young refugees should get guarantees to not only move, but also to move with speed, (following Mbembe 2017).

“Shadow Game” is also a reminder that we need to be consistent in our allocation of humanity. In recent months, we have seen those borders which, until recently, took years to cross for youngsters like Durab, Faiz and Mo and others have now been swiftly opened for ‘other’ groups of refugees and displaced people.

Finally, I would like to express my reservation regarding the word “game”. Despite that many protagonists in the documentary call it a “game” (Durab, Waqas, Fouad and Mo) to mention a few; critical scholarship needs to be cautious as to not oversimplify such experiences of migration and displacement, in terms of these being merely a “game” or a “gamble” (as mentioned elsewhere) because it fosters more vulnerability instead of promoting resources. It is therefore crucial to highlight such oversimplifications, and, in my view, this requires careful reflection. 

Bio Nebil Kusmallah

Nebil Kusmallah was born and raised in Asmara, Eritrea. He lived as an undocumented and documented refugee in Sudan and the Netherlands. He also works as a researcher and intercultural mediator at the Nidos Foundation with particular emphasis on resolving conflicts in guardianship, facilitating therapy, and mediating in the youth social care system. He is a PhD student and research fellow at the department of Sociology, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.