Abraham T. Zere*
With the Eritrean government’s dismal failure to live up to high expectations, and a hopelessly polarized diaspora community, we’ve reached a vile state where seemingly any casual observer can suddenly turn into an Eritrean expert and even be celebrated among the Eritrean diaspora. This trend, unfortunately, is devolving into self-hate and an unseemly dependency on foreigners. Characteristically, if non-Eritrean appears on the international media or other forums to discuss the Eritrean abysmal situation, subsequently many Eritreans on the opposition camp would change their Facebook profile photo to the person’s the next day. It also goes similar way on the other camp.
The situation can present fertile ground for pseudo-experts to exploit and capitalize on the continued suffering in Eritrea.
Meanwhile, fawning YouTube videos by non-Eritrean “nobodies” can garner more than 18,000 views while being widely shared by regime toadies.
With all legitimate international correspondents expelled, we have the obnoxious spectacle of the “only independent journalist living in Eritrea,” Thomas Mountain, appearing in an interview on wearing a T-shirt showing the image of the Dictator, to provide “independent views” from inside the country.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Eritrean tragedy can magically transform people like Chris Cotter – boasting a career that spans 24 years as a “head engineer, producer, A&R, session drummer” – into documentary film directors. As someone who widely traveled, “seen different places and enjoys beer with locals,” Cotter decided his “next trip should mean something.” He felt compelled to Google some country he had never heard of before. That incredibly comprehensive search (not!) recommended Eritrea – with its tragedies and headlines in international media – as the ideal subject for his filmmaking attention.
Cotter and a friend embarked on a journey from their home in Philadelphia, with the first stops being Eritrean rallies in the United States. After hearing contradictory views about the country, they packed off “to Africa to see the crisis firsthand.” The crew wound up in refugee camps in Ethiopia where they interviewed random Eritreans and people in charge of the camps, then continued their journey to Israel, then returned home.
Cotter’s Refugee: The Eritrean Exodus acts as if it’s the first to stumble upon this refugee crisis. When the self-anointed “savior” talks to despondent refugees, he assures them he will speak on their behalf (to someone, somewhere) and try to bring about a solution. After his adventures, upon his return, the director pronounces: “They will finally become known to the world.”
The film, narrated by director and traveler Cotter, depicts the Eritrean refugees as anonymous crowds. When a few of the refugees relate their tragic stories, the camera is careful to record the director’s reaction. Not only that, the film wastes a lot of footage following the director and crew, carefully chronicling their thrilling adventures such as falling ill or dealing with a flat tire.
While everyone, including the dog Lucy Coyne, is credited in the film by name, the main subjects, the refugees, remain nameless and only appear as foils for Cotter’s amazement and chagrin.
Assuming that nobody but they know about the refugee crisis, the film crew posted the following on the Facebook page for the film:
“We had an excellent screening at the State Department in Washington D.C. on Monday! We were able to talk directly to our country’s leaders, and policy makers, about the Eritrean refugee crisis. We are encouraged about our meeting and excited to see some forward momentum.”
As shown in the photo on the Facebook page, only one Eritrean – credited as translator in the film – accompanied the team to talk on behalf of the Eritrean refugees.
Cotter’s film reveals the consequences of landing in a foreign country by virtue of a Google search, for the sheer sake of having a different adventure. In sophomoric re-enactments, the narrator commits gross factual errors. He presents the Ethio-Eritrean border conflict that started in 1998 as starting in 2001. He states that the government imprisoned 30 independent journalists in 2001, rather than the actual dozen.
The film confirms he’s also ignorant of the history and geography of the area. Cotter errantly cites “the Islamic extremists” in the desolate Afar area as the reason for a lack of travelers and humanitarian agencies. Many of the interviewees tell farfetched stories. For example, one says he knows of prisoners who used kerosene to burn themselves to death in prison, despite the fact that Eritrean prisons don’t use kerosene for fuel. Another interviewee tells an unbelievable story of being conscripted at the age of 10 during the armed struggle of independence. These are just a few examples of questionable anecdotes.
Refugee: The Eritrean Exodus follows the by-now time-worn script of other NGOs and humanitarian do-gooders by starting a Kickstarter campaign. Just as all their ilk, Cotter’s crew comes up with their own superficial band-aide solutions to help Eritrean refugees. As announced on the documentary’s website, 25 percent of all proceeds purportedly will go directly “to supporting Eritrean refugees around the world” (do not ask where and how). Some of their activities include an original motion picture soundtrack for $7; 8 x 10 photo prints of refugees for $15; movie poster for $10; T-shirts for $20.
The film, punctuated by saccharine “save the world” type moralizing songs, ends when the crew return to their homes and the director lecturing about humanity. The obvious takeaway for viewers is that this film will bring a permanent solution to the Eritrean refugee crisis. Apparently bewildered by the magnitude of the humanitarian tragedy he’s chronicling, Cotter states midway through the film: “It made me wonder if the film would make any difference at all.”
No, Mr. Cotter, I can assure you your film won’t make any difference for the refugees, but only for you and your crew. Oh, and it may irritate more people like myself enough to make them write articles like this one.
*Abraham T. Zere is executive director of PEN Eritrea in exile and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org