The number of migrant workers and refugees entering Europe has increased exponentially since 2011, after political and social upheaval in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia caused their citizens to flee. Whether it’s the civil war in Syria, the Afghans’ ongoing war with the Taliban, the Eritreans escaping forced labor camps, or others just fleeing untenable living situations, each left because they had no ability or resources to improve their lives back home. On top of leaving their country, which is surely one of the hardest decisions of their lives, each migrant must still make the difficult, usually treacherous journey to Europe where they are greeted by an entirely new set of problems. The process is almost cosmically, comically dark and arduous. That realization was what inspired Swiss animator Fabio Friedli to create his still all-too-timely tragicomedy “Bon Voyage.” Typically reserved for expressing good wishes to those about to go on a journey, Friedli twists the saying “bon voyage” into a hilariously cynical and ironic title for his film.
In 2010, when heavy migration from Africa to Europe started to get more media attention and politicians began to use (or abuse) it for their campaigns, Friedli became motivated to create a counterpoint. Shortly after he started production on the short, the media reported on a boat with 300 refugees that sunk in the Mediterranean Sea. People told him what a timely and topical story he was telling, but he saw it differently. “Since there are people on this planet, there is migration,” he explains. “We should stop treating it as a problem, but as an [opportunity].”
Friedli took the opportunity to make a statement and approach the subject matter as a comedy of obstructions, as opposed to a comedy of errors. Instead of a story about migrants making mistakes or being at fault or a danger, they are simply victims of circumstance and means. To accomplish this, Friedli used a very stripped-down style and approach: stick figures and no dialogue. Early on in the story process, while speaking on the phone with a friend, he “accidentally” drew the film’s thumbnail — a group of migrants piled impossibly high onto a truck. He knew immediately that the simplicity of the stick figures was the most powerful way to express the film’s message and cloak the characters in anonymity. They represent no race, and yet every race. Friedli subjects each stick figure to horrific and terrible ends, but to shock audiences, each accident is performed as ever-escalating slapstick comedy. The truck hits a pothole and a body falls from the pile onto the ground and is snagged by a rope and dragged for miles. People are left behind, run over, drowned, eaten by giant fish, caught by fisherman, or mercilessly killed by a downed helicopter. It’s the sheer brutality and absurdity that makes you sit up and notice. Some might even question if these deaths are in poor taste. Friedli insists, “Of course you ask yourself, ‘Am I allowed to do this?’ In my eyes, the scene with the helicopter — who should bring the refugee relief but ends up killing half of the migrants — is probably the harshest scene. Not only because of the deadly action itself but also because of the meta-level, that development aid can destroy more than it helps.”
It’s these choices and the subtext behind the “visual gags” and anonymous, simple style that elevate the film from dark comedy to cultural poignancy. The film’s most damning indictment also appears as playful, when the final frame of the film shows the immigration admissions officer absent-mindedly doodling the same truck that opens the film. This image is emblematic of the world’s passivity towards this growing crisis. “Bon Voyage” is Friedli’s mea culpa, but what is ours going to be? This time, we can’t say we didn’t know.
After you watch this Fabio Friedli creation, be on the lookout for his newest short film, “In A Nutshell,” which is currently on the longlist for the Academy Awards and playing at film festivals around the world.
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