In Swiss filmmaker Lisa Gerig’s The Hearing, which played at the Sheffield Doc Fest, four asylum seekers re-enact their conversations with the authorities in order to determine whether they will be given the permission to stay in the country. These are four people who come from different parts of the world, with incredibly difficult histories and traumas. Will they be able to convince the authorities-working for the Secretary of State for Migration (SEM), who are scrutinizing every single move of these applicants as they answer questions, which are recorded as per protocol? The exercise of documentation turns into a double-edged sword by the end of this 81 minute film, hiding an immensely defiant, humane twist halfway through the proceedings. (Also read: No Winter Holidays review: Doc on two widows surviving in the hills is wondrous in style, frustrating in effect)
The setting and re-enactment
The Hearing begins with the space of the Swiss office being set up before the interviews begin. It’s a characterization in itself- blank white painted walls without any character of its own- and it is almost like a construction of a stage before a play. The government officials also arrive without fuss and get ready for a day of work. That’s exactly where the cruelty of The Hearing stems from, how the real-life stories that will eventually decide the futures of the asylum seekers are examined with tautness and precision. The attendees in focus are a Nigerian woman, a man from Cameroon, a trans woman from Sri Lanka and a young Afghan man. Their interviews are mediated in the presence of a translator, the government official asking the questions, and another person seated by the computer- responsible for recording each detail as per protocol. A fourth person records the procedure and sits on the table overlooking the entire conversation, and takes notes in-between.
Gerig’s camera situates these vulnerable characters at a sincere distance, and is keenly observant of the ways in which their horrific and painful experiences are transferred through the translator. Language difference is an unspecified line drawn here- the officials speak a different language and the asylum seekers do not always know what to interpret from their manner of asking these questions. For instance when the official insists on taking a ten-minute break inbetween the session, the simple implication is lost on the seeker who feels as if they have said something wrong in the conversation.
Questioning the system, not the stories
Lisa, who co-edited The Hearing with Ruth Schlaepfer, intercuts the sessions of the three applicants in parallel tracks, stays for the pauses in-between questions and answers mirroring a tense anticipation. The process is cathartic and deeply personal, but The Hearing is not interested in exposing the traumas of these vastly different subjects, but rather in interrogating the sufficiency of her country’s authority to take the final decisions based on these stories. “You have to tell them everything about yourself, you’re naked before them,” is how one of them describes the process.
The shift in perspective
Just as one begins to follow and question the ways in which the process can come to a culmination, Lisa takes on a reverse point of view perspective that provides The Hearing with a bravado very much its own genius. The Hearing takes a 180° turn with the seekers now taking the position of the official, and asking them questions about how they got into this particular profession and their opinions on the authenticity of these applicants and their stories. The shift in focus infuses the film with a startling sense of urgency. The contrast in energies is made clear.
It is an experiment that succeeds in showing the subjective and objective distance between the positions of power, ultimately challenging the reasons that are given by the management to deal with the refugee crisis. At the end, when the results of these applications arrive, their fate is sealed. This is a thought-provoking, ferocious film that wants to ask the right questions.
(Santanu Das is covering Sheffield Doc Fest for Hindustan Times as part of the accredited press.)