Finnish artists making invisible migrants visible
Writer: Aura Nikkilä
In February 2019 the Finnish broadcasting company Yle aired Juho-Pekka Tanskanen’s film Waiting for Barcelona (2018), a documentary that shows a darker side of the sunny Barcelona through the portrayal of the everyday life of Mou, a Gambian young man who collects junk metal on the streets of the city. Tanskanen’s black and white film follows Mou around the city, roaming the streets with his shopping cart, checking one dumpster after another hoping to find scrap metal that he can sell. During the one and a half years that the camera follows him, Mou in the end wounds up in a psychiatric hospital after suffering from psychotic symptoms. In addition to the individual story of Mou, the film also follows some of the illegal street vendors of La Rambla and their daily struggle with the police who rely more on violence than reason.
Both the scrap metal collectors and the street vendors, mostly Africans, are a familiar sight for someone who has visited Barcelona – or almost any other bigger Spanish city for that matter – even though they do not belong to the ideal image of the tourist’s holiday experience in the beautiful capital of Catalonia. But even if one has never strolled the wavily tiled La Rambla or marveled at the organic beauty of the forever-unfinished La Sagrada Família, at least many Finnish comics readers might recognize the city of Tanskanen’s film, for it looks very similar to the one portrayed in Ville Tietäväinen’s comic Näkymättömät kädet (Invisible hands) from 2011.
There are many similarities between Waiting for Barcelona and Näkymättömät kädet, even though the film is a documentary and the comic a work of fiction. The protagonist of Tietäväinen’s comic is a poor Moroccan man Rashid, who crosses the Mediterranean to Spain in search of work and a better life for himself and his family. After drudging in the greenhouses of Almeria, Rashid travels to Barcelona, where he tries his luck as a street vendor but eventually ends up homeless and insane.
Näkymättömät kädet gained quite a lot of visibility in the media in 2012 when it won the Comics-Finlandia prize, and the work still appears from time to time in various literature blogs. What usually is emphasized in regard to Tietäväinen’s comic is how the reader can’t help but be affected by the touching story it tells.
Näkymättömät kädet appeals to the reader in various ways, for instance by placing Rashid as the focal point of the comic and hence as the object of the reader’s identification. The comic includes an abundance of intertextual references that stem from Arabic and Spanish cultures but also from Finnish history. For example, in the beginning of Näkymättömät kädet there is a quote in French: “Deux rives, un rêve” (Two shores, one dream). An explanation at the bottom of the page states that this is “[t]he slogan of the Boughaz (Gibraltar) ferry connecting Tangiers [in Morocco] and Algeciras [in Spain]. Under its original name of Viking 5, this ferry connected Helsinki and Stockholm in the 1970s, bringing unemployed Finns to Sweden in search of a better life.” Through this quote, Tietäväinen draws a parallel between contemporary migration from Africa to Europe and the historical migration of Finns, thus creating contact surface for the Finnish readers of the comic. After WWII, hundreds of thousands of Finns migrated to Sweden, work and better livelihood being the main reasons to cross the Baltic Sea. In this respect, the Finnish migrants did not differ at all from Rashid or many of the non-fictional Africans trying to get to Europe today.
The ‘touching’ mentioned in regard to Tietäväinen’s comic is a key term here, as already the title of the comic points to what is central to the work: hands. Visually they appear again and again as close-ups, and the comic contains many panels showing only the hands of the characters. Verbally hands appear in the dialogue for instance in the context of religion – Rashid repeatedly states that he trusts his faith in “a greater hand”, that of God – but also in relation to the manual labour done by the undocumented (and hence invisible) migrants. Both verbally and visually represented hands function in the comic as an important element through which different themes are emphasized. Hands allude not just to the idea of work and labour but also to individuality – and at the same time to the profound similarity of all human beings.
The depiction of hands creates a bodily layer to the reading of the graphic novel: the readers can almost feel Rashid’s suffering in their own body. This – in addition to the fundamental differences between the two different media – seems to set Näkymättömät kädet apart from Waiting for Barcelona, which follows the protagonist Mou usually from a distance.
Both the comic and the documentary film are depictions of the everyday struggles of an undocumented African migrant in Europe made by a European author. The aim of the two artists appear similar: to make the plight of invisible people visible through the story of a single individual. But where Tanskanen relies on the power of documentary, Tietäväinen makes use of fiction. Both strategies have their ethical dilemmas and possible pitfalls. There is a possibility that the story of a real individual, in this case Mou, is interpreted as just such, a story of a single human being that does not represent the life stories of others. A story with a fictional protagonist, on its part, might become a victim of its own fictionality if the reader after having read the comic shrugs off the empathy created by the reading experience on the premise of it being only fiction.
On the other hand, compared to film, a comic has the advantage of appearing very immediate. While film cannot help but to appear as the documentation of things that have taken place before the camera in the past, drawn comics seem to happen here and now. Therefore the events depicted in a comic might appeal to the readers more powerfully.
However, it is rather futile to rank these two works of art, Tietäväinen’s comic and Tanskanen’s film, in relation to each other, because all in all they function very well side by side, complementing each other, both making the life stories of marginalized people visible both in their own ways. They are visually beautiful depictions of ugly realities that everyone is recommended to read and watch.
Still frames from the movie Waiting for Barcelona: Jeremias Nieminen
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