Ellis is a short film about one of the world’s largest sites of immigration: the historic port of entry, Ellis Island. It’s by French artist and director JR, whose own art installation makes up a vast amount of the shots of his movie. The photography installation, featuring the faces of past and contemporary migrants, took place in the abandoned Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, where, following its opening in 1902, approximately 1.2 million people passed, attempting to forge better futures for themselves. The purpose of the art piece and the film in today’s climate is obvious, then. From wars to refugee crises, from terror attacks to climate change, we are living in a time of constant radical change, during which human beings are left with no choice but to migrate, in order to improve prospects or even out rightly save their lives, just as generations tried before them. As a First-world country with a Third-world memory, having a history tainted by bloody civil wars itself, it’s astonishing that America isn’t inherently more empathetic. Ellis got me thinking about the political violence enacted on helpless human beings who are denied a chance at new life.
Robert DeNiro, reciting a scripted voiceover as he paces his surroundings lamentingly, paints a picture of the type of person who seeked refuge in New York years earlier. As he stands in the middle of perfect, untouched snow, the symbolism mirrors how refugees considered these more promising pastures. However, it also works to depict the harsh conditions that people arrived in. The hardships of immigration are often not appreciated. Why would someone willingly set off in the dangerously cold winter and risk not having their status approved (and be forced into hiding, as was the case for the character of DeNiro’s monologue), unless they truly had to? The Syrians would rather not board rubber and gravely burstable dinghies to travel great distances across seas. Their reasoning isn’t economical, it’s survivalist. As poet Warsan Shire excellently put it, “No one puts their children in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land”. The tragic circumstances described in the voiceover of Ellis cannot evoke anything but empathy and regretful horror that we had lacked such humanity; JR aspires, in this raw and extremely personal portrayal of denial, to appeal to the hearts existent in even the most anti-immigration among us, and even to have his film act as a catalyst for moves towards inclusion as opposed to exclusion. This aim is underscored as DeNiro says, “I came here because I wanted a home. Where I could be anyone I wanted to be.” Who isn’t deserving of that? That’s why JR has tried to have his short shown at schools and universities throughout the country.
The character of Ellis explains how he was turned away because he brought illness with him. It reminds me of a scene in John Crowley’s Brooklyn where a fellow Irish lass advises Saoirse Ronan’s character in customs to make sure she doesn’t cough, or her chances at a new life could be dashed immediately. The man in DeNiro’s voice over was denied entry, and so went into hiding, into what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben would call a ‘state of exception’, which is “a juridical no-man’s land”, wherein this person is no longer protected by human rights, because the sacred and inalienable rights of man echoed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights only apply to members of the State. This man is a subject of biopower, as are those who attempt reaching these shores in a Trump age: biopower is “an explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (Michel Foucault). It regulates the space of immigration and race and follows the rhetoric that the regime of the total institution is in the interest of society at large and that these policies are invested in the duty to defend society from migrant and indigenous others. Yet power shouldn’t trump common humanity. JR asks in regards to his short, “Will we stand united against violence? Will we welcome people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds into the countries we now call home?” This however disregards those forced from their homes because of climate change, something Trump still denies the extent of, probably because of his own ties to the fossil fuel industry. Terms such as “climate refugee” and “environmental refugee” are still not classified as legal categorisations. They are not covered by the Treaty of the 1951 [Refugee] Convention. Therefore, this amorphous, global population of refugees does not have any international legal protection or agency upholding their basic human rights; they would remain in limbo, which also echoes Agamben’s theory of ‘bare life’, where some life is worth investing in and some is not.
When DeNiro solemnly yet nonchalantly mentions the (spoiler alert) death of the woman he fell in love with who was also in hiding, the camera appropriately pans over a view of the Statue of Liberty, one of the most defining icons of freedom. He sent her floating body on a journey across the bay to where she had set her sights but could only make it to in death. Inscribed on a plaque in the museum in the statue’s base is a lyric from a sonnet: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Is there a fine print in this proclamation that explains how this doesn’t apply to Muslims?
America is a nation of immigrants, one that is familiar with oppression, so Ellis asks where this understanding has gone. As a recent expat myself, this film resonated very closely, as I’m sure it did and will for many, many others, more now than ever. I was moved significantly, particularly at the injustice I feel at the fact I and other Irish are so welcomed, generally. U.S. immigration records indicate that by 1850, the Irish made up 43 percent of the foreign-born population, which is why maybe we get preferential treatment. I can’t help feel a slight pang of guilt at how easy I have it, and have it compared to the Famine Irish then, who had to cope with life in the lowest rung of society on arrival here. Why can’t we give other foreign nationals a chance to prove their worth to this country, like America did the Irish? I was granted permission to get onto a road and “start to walk.” The speaker in Ellis is the “ghost of those who will never get there” and he haunts us as a reminder of a self-repeating issue (highlighted by the use of photographs of people of the present time). Aside from what I believe was a message well communicated, this piece is one of the most aesthetically pleasing I’ve seen in a while.