REVENIR is a ruthlessly interrogative documentary. The Document 2018 Jury Award winner challenges the audience to consider who has the right to tell a story.
Ten years after he fled his home, REVENIR (‘To return’ in French) follows Kumut Imesh as he retraces his route to France from the Ivory Coast, illustrating the illegal and perilous route than many West African asylum seekers take through the desert. Shot and presented by the intelligent and deeply empathetic Imesh on a camcorder, he painstakingly relives and reflects upon his traumatic experience in a way that is nuanced and committed, utilising fly on the wall and video diary style filmmaking. Returning to Africa is one of his first obstacles, with his new French refugee status making travel difficult, and poses the risk of arrest. Committed, Imesh sets off, travelling first to the border of the Ivory Coast and Ghana, before making his way through Benin, Togo and Niger.
While travelling, Imesh picks up odd jobs – from construction to working in a food van, sleeping in various hotels, rooms and floors. While in these posts, Imesh meets with people fleeing their countries from civil war, or migrating in a search for greener pastures. This unblinkered look at life for many West Africans on the road confronts the truth of poverty, corruption, and overhanging, crumbling infrastructure. Imesh visits fellow refugees in camps, highlighting the impact poor regulation has on vulnerable people – with many of them destitute, living in shacks that aren’t properly insulated or sheltered.
With a goal of crossing Algeria on foot through the desert, Imesh must navigate the various authoritative obstacles that lie in his path. As a refugee, his citizen status is vulnerable and his travel through Africa contentious. While attempting to reach the desert, Imesh is apprehended, his camera equipment taken from him and his footage and phone searched. At this point in the film, the diary-style footage is replaced with animation of the text conversation between Imesh and co-director David Fedele, who keeps contact with him from his home in France.
The text chat between Imesh and Fedele is perhaps a pivotal point in the film – Imesh is despairingly low, the abuses he faces from the prison guards grinding him down. He desperately expresses his isolation to Fedele through text, who attempts to comfort him whilst encouraging him to “stay strong” and finish the film, eventually sending bribe money at Imesh’s request to coerce the guards to let him go.
Fedele’s presence in the film feels like one of an overseer; before the film begins the audience watches a short clip of him introducing REVENIR. Like the faceless text chat, Fedele is a distant supporting character in the narrative. Positioning himself as the director of the film, with Imesh as his co-director is perplexing. While framed as a collaboration (the film’s poster hails it as a collaboration between a filmmaker and a refugee), it feels the labours expended here are imbalanced, and polarises the two men in a way that implies a charitable gesture. In one scene where Imesh reflects on his immigrant status, he expresses discomfort with the label ‘refugee.’ Imesh investigates his own past and relives a traumatic experience he was forced to endure. It is he who records the majority of the footage, occasionally getting help from friends on the road to set up third person shots. With Imesh at the helm of the film, REVENIR feels deeply personal, but the forced presence of Fedele implies a less autonomous dynamic.
After almost two weeks in jail, Imesh is let free, only to be arrested once more and deported back to France.. Even ten years after his ordeal, Imesh is still not considered an African nor French citizen. This conclusion to the film may feel shocking in a world of happy endings in mainstream cinema, but reflects the truth of the situation