Co-authored with Maaike Engels
Friday January 15th, on our last day of shooting for our documentary 'Calais: Welcome to the Jungle' we were attacked by three migrants, armed with a knife and pepper spray. Thanks to two other refugees who came to our rescue, nothing serious happened. We were able to film the incident and decided to put the 40 seconds footage on Youtube , accompanied by a sober and factual caption. Within a few days our video went viral with nearly 700.000 views. A small media storm ensued. Over 50 newspapers picked up the incident worldwide, we were invited in TV talk shows, Channel Four, Russian TV, Huffington, the Mail on Sunday interviewed us and our story was used by obscure websites such as Pamela Geller and Breitbart. The heated discussions on social media escalated in virtual brawls. We were criticized by liberal journalists and the refugee lobby as well as by right wing, anti-migration activists. Both sides accused us of fuelling the propaganda of their opponent. Both camps urged self-censorship, warning that we could not fully assess the implications of going public with this footage. It was all very reminiscent of Cologne
However, we deliberately decided to put our attack video online. The 40-second clip is a condensed and simplified representation of the very complex refugee crisis and the diversity of the migrant population. There are predatory, 'bad' refugees attacking us, however, there are also brave, valiant refugees who come to our rescue. The audience's response to this image reflects their view on migration.
The fierce reactions on our clip prove exactly how the immigration debate has become extremely polarized: Each side has dug itself in its own, self-confirming bubble, 'information cocoon' in the words of economist Joseph Stiglitz. Both camps protect and shelter themselves from opinions and facts that challenge their viewpoints. Each side is thoroughly convinced of its own rights, swallows in moral superiority and accuses the opposite camp of either inhumanity or plain stupidity. Social media have exacerbated this trend, offering people the possibility to voice their opinions impulsively and anonymous. An opinion that is not to be discussed, but serves solely to establish one's ranking on a moral scale. The social pressure to show emotional involvement is high. The undercurrent stream of intense, but ephemeral emotions determines the discourse on the surface. And that is neither substantial nor constructive.
The picture of the drowned toddler Aylan caused an outpour of support for refugees. Whoever did not share his photo on Facebook was a monster. After extent of the New Year's Eve sex attacks in Cologne became slowly clear, the public opinion towards refugees flipped within days. The heated reactions online on our clip perfectly illustrate this bipolar, schizophrenic attitude dividing society. We think a healthy debate and constructive policies should be based on rational arguments and facts, not on prejudices, wishful thinking, day dreaming, peer pressure, but foremost, not on superficial emotions caused by sharing dramatic images on social media.
As sincere journalists who value freedom of speech, we disapprove of any form of censorship. And we think that self-censorship is eminently paternalistic. We love to think our audience is mature enough to handle the information provided by us in a responsible way. That this is not always the case, is sad, but does not legitimize a selective distribution of information.
In our documentary, we show all different perspectives without offering an ideological framework. As objective as possible, we present voices and the points of view from migrants, aid workers, volunteers, activists, politicians, authorities, law enforcement personnel and last but not least, the vox populi, the man on the street in Calais. By posting our clip, we have invited the vox populi from the online and anonymous world. It is very interesting to see the wild array of responses. We have been accused of being leftwing, naive dangerous idiots, we have been accused of either being pro-Muslim or anti-Muslim, people called us fascists, some are convinced the attack scene was fake and staged for publicity purposes. To have evoked this extreme emotional response, is an unintended social experiment, which we will use in our documentary.
The only thing we hope for is to stimulate a sophisticated, mature and realistic debate on migration. For this, we write lengthy articles and make our documentary of which we have placed a controversial preview online. The attack video does not only show the inconvenient truth of the Jungle in Calais, above all it painfully reveals how the current migration debate is driven by emotion and the lowest common denominator instead of clear arguments.
Teun Voeten and Maaike Engels, January 2016
Teun Voeten is a cultural anthropologist and war photographer. Maaike Engels is a documentary maker and video artist.