The Danish filmmaker discusses refugee children living in Denmark, the safety of schools, and the quiet power of the observer.
At the center of award-winning Danish filmmaker Andreas Koefoed’s new documentary, At Home in the World, a 10-year-old Chechen refugee, Magomed, who has fled with his family to Denmark, sits at a dining room table across from his father. He has been granted residency in Denmark—along with his mother and sister—but his father has not been so lucky. “What will happen if you are sent back to Chechnya, and we stay here?” the boy asks. His father considers the question briefly. “They will shoot me or put me in prison for a minimum of fifteen years,” he says. “I would rather be shot.”
The film, which made its North American debut at Durham, North Carolina’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival this spring, follows Magomed and a handful of other children who have fled from myriad war-torn countries—Afghanistan, Syria, Bosnia, and Chechnya—to seek refuge in a small Danish town, Lynge, where they attend a Red Cross asylum school. They are among 2,940 children who, in 2014, sought safety in Denmark.
At the asylum school, the children learn not just to assimilate, but to reclaim and rebuild their childhoods. They learn to coexist and play peacefully; to count, read, and spell; to speak Danish. Alongside his classmates, who carry with them traumas and nightmares of brutal pasts, Magomed begins to settle into his new surroundings. The film hinges on many unknowns: Who, of Magomed’s classmates, will be granted residency? What about their parents? How long will the decision take? What kinds of marks will war-torn pasts leave on these children? Will Denmark, finally, become home for them?
I met with Koefoed at a café near the UN headquarters in midtown Manhattan. We discussed the power of storytelling in the wake of trauma, the life of refugee children living in Denmark, and the bureaucratic obstacles that determine the fates of refugee families who have settled—for now—in his home country.
—Eve Gleichman for Guernica
Guernica: How did you decide to focus your film on refugee children, in particular?
Andreas Koefoed: Before I went to film school, I studied sociology and anthropology. I had a course with a professor from Australia [who] had this theory about storytelling, about the importance of telling your own story, and especially for people who have been through traumatic experiences—through war, refugees, that sort. After experiences like that, what does it mean to tell your own story? When you have lost your home, you’ve lost your place, what does that mean? What can storytelling do for you? His point is that it is crucial for people to be able to tell their own story when they have to move on in their lives after experiences like that.
How is it to be a kid in a class like that, where you don’t know who’s coming to school tomorrow?
Guernica: It’s empowering.
Andreas Koefoed: Yeah. And, mentally, just to put your story together, to create a chronology, is crucial for you to move forward in your life, and not to get stuck in past experiences. I got inspired by that, and I did some research about refugees in Denmark. Some years later, when I finished film school, I read an article about this refugee school in Denmark. One of the facts in the article was that every year, there was a turnover of 80 percent, because some kids were sent back to their home countries, or were rejected, or were sent on to Danish public schools because they got residency.
Some families escaped and tried to flee to another country, because they were afraid that they would get rejected in Denmark. And I got curious about the climate in a school class like that. How is it to be a kid in a class like that, where you don’t know who’s coming to school tomorrow, you don’t know the other kids, and the kids speak different languages? I contacted the Red Cross and asked for permission to film there.
Guernica: Was it difficult to get permission?
Andreas Koefoed: A little bit, because they normally don’t allow journalists or cameras, because, of course, they want to protect the kids. And some of the kids are still in danger; they are afraid of being discovered in Denmark.
Guernica: What was it like to film these children? How did you settle on Magomed as your main character?
Andreas Koefoed: It’s very different, kid to kid, with how they react to a camera. Some of them didn’t like it, and I didn’t follow them. Some of them liked it too much. And in the middle were some who didn’t care so much and were really natural, right away. The main character, Magomed, is one of those.
It’s also just a matter of intuition. I really liked his appearance and the fact that he was so reserved, but at the same time, you could feel that he was thinking a lot, and he was observing the other kids a lot, and that he was very aware, but he never took part in playing—or very little, in the beginning, at least.
I thought it was interesting to have a main character like that. When I filmed him, it immediately just worked. Also, he’s observing the other kids who move away or who have a final day at school. And then, at some point, he has to take the step himself, after watching all the others. I liked that.
I could also feel he was curious about his father’s story. He knew a lot, but there were certain things he didn’t know and that were never talked about in the family, so I tried to focus on that.
I thought, well, it’s the father. I’m not responsible for what the father says to his son.
Guernica: But then they do talk about it. In the climax of the film, Magomed sits down with his father and says, basically, What happened to you in Chechnya, and what will happen to you if you return to Chechnya? And the father lays out, in explicit terms, the answers to both those questions. What was it like to be at that table when that conversation was happening?
Andreas Koefoed: It was kind of strange, because actually, the starting point of the scene is that I asked them to talk about it, which was the first time I asked anybody [to talk about anything]. I knew that the father was rejected, and that Magomed and the rest of the family got the residency. But I didn’t have any scenes that told that. So I asked them if they could talk about that: what is the status? And then they started that conversation. It was in Chechen and I was alone; I didn’t have an interpreter. So I could feel that the father was saying some really hard stuff. And I could feel that it affected Magomed a lot. But it was only afterwards that I got the translation.
The father is kind of desperate, so he also uses the fact that there’s a camera to tell his story, and in that process, he doesn’t respect the child’s innocence. And I thought, well, it’s the father. I’m not responsible for what the father says to his son.
I had a lot of second thoughts about that scene. It’s a very normal thing to do in a documentary, to ask two people to talk about something, so I don’t feel that I’ve forced them to do anything. But at the same time, the only reason that the father tells so much is because there’s a camera. It’s kind of complex.
Guernica: So if you hadn’t been there, you feel the conversation wouldn’t have taken place.
Andreas Koefoed: That was my feeling. But that’s sometimes a part of the game, that the camera, or the fact that you’re making a film, actually starts that process, which is also, in many cases, a positive thing. That by having a camera, you can actually reflect on some things that you normally would just put aside. Magomed normally didn’t take the initiative to start conversations like that. So I was afraid it was out of his character. At the same time, I knew that he wanted to know more about his father, so in a way, the film helped him ask the question. It’s the point where Magomed starts to move on in his life. He faces his past, in a way, and the situation with the father becomes clear, and he has to take responsibility himself, and move on in his life himself.
Guernica: What did you decide not to include?
Andreas Koefoed: I had a scene with a boy, Ali, and his parents and their lawyer, where they are discussing their case, and both of the parents are upset and crying and saying that it was only after they came to Denmark that they got really traumatized; that the Danish system is worse than the Taliban. They had waited for six or seven years in different refugee centers, and their case has been pending, and they got rejected three times.
In that scene I shot, the parents are crying a lot and screaming and Ali is just sitting next to them. The whole atmosphere in that scene is different from the rest of the film. You feel that they are also talking to the camera, which is a different style than the rest of the film. It’s not the camera observing something; it’s more them just communicating directly. And it doesn’t work together with the rest, even though it’s very powerful.
Guernica: I left the theater feeling hopeful, that this school was a wonderful environment for refugee children. But maybe it’s also, in a way, a false representation of Denmark as a safe place to seek refuge. How would you characterize the way Denmark treats its refugees?
Andreas Koefoed: From my experience, filming at the school, I feel that there are resources and really skilled people who are very much up for making the best possible beginning for these kids. And I think they have more facilities and resources than most European countries have with regards to educating children. They send the kids—immediately after they arrive in Denmark—to school. So I have a feeling that that part of the system works really well.
But then there are all these policies created to make it less attractive to come to Denmark. It’s hard for me to judge compared to other countries; if it’s worse to come to Denmark, or if it’s the same, or if it’s better. But my feeling is, on the ground level, there are a lot of good intentions and a lot of skilled people in the education part of it.
They feel totally powerless. They can’t do anything to improve their situation. They just have to wait.
Guernica: What about the parents?
Andreas Koefoed: One of the biggest problems is that the cases go on for so long; it can take three years for a case to be handled, and in that period of time, especially the parents, they just lose hope. It’s different with the kids, because they go to school and they keep on playing and they adapt much faster than the parents. But the parents are just stuck in the refugee centers. And they feel totally powerless. They can’t do anything to improve their situation. They just have to wait.
In many cases, the judgment in these cases is based on reports, but also, partly, on intuition by the authorities, because they are very focused of the credibility of the refugee: if they were really in danger, or if they’re making something up. Because there are so many false stories and testimonies circulating, they are obsessed with finding out: is he telling the truth?
Guernica: Is that why it takes so long?
Andreas Koefoed: Yes. They try to crosscheck a lot of things: You say you’re from this town. Do you remember if there was a gas station on that corner? You say your uncle has that name; we can’t find your uncle. And they do several interviews, and if you don’t tell the same story in every interview, they start doubting your credibility.
For example, they started doubting Magomed’s father’s story, because the first time he told them that he had been arrested by the Russians for three days and tortured, and the next time, he told them it was four days.
Guernica: But of course, he’s recalling a traumatic event.
Andreas Koefoed: Yes. And maybe it was three-and-a-half days. Who knows? But that just gave his story a not-that-credible effect. Another example is a boy who was one of the unaccompanied minors who came to Denmark. He had said that he got picked up by—his word was “moto.” In his language, this can mean a motorcycle, or it can mean a car. And the first time he said it, the interpreter translated it to “motorcycle.” And the second time, one month after, another interpreter translated it to “car.” That created big problems.
It just shows that the focus on credibility—it’s almost paranoid. And in many cases, the authorities can’t really prove if the person is in danger or not, because they can’t send a person to Afghanistan to investigate each and every case. So they have to base it on reports that might be one or two years old, on assumptions, and on feeling: is this person credible or not?
Guernica: Do you feel this part of the Danish system is corrupt?
Andreas Koefoed: The hard thing is, it’s very hard to come up with a better way of doing it. I think it’s just a notoriously complex situation that is very hard to deal with, and it just decides the fate of people.
I don’t think any countries really do any statistics or surveys about what happened to the people they sent back. Because there’s no interest in finding out if they were actually persecuted, killed, or anything, because that will just backfire on the system.
So there are no statistics from Denmark about the people they send out. And it’s really scary. They never have to admit, “Oh, we made a mistake,” unless a case comes up in the press.
I just wanted to give people the opportunity to spend time with kids that are refugees, and just to feel how it is to be them.
Guernica: What were your initial goals for the film? Did you set out to make one type of film and end up with another?
Andreas Koefoed: I wanted to make a film that combined a very intimate way of storytelling with a story that has to do with society, and is crucial and political. Previously, I did mostly films with kids that were more universal stories, about growing up, about having a mother who’s sick, where it was more isolated from society. With this one, I wanted to combine my sociological background with an intimate way of storytelling from the child’s point of view. I think documentaries can do both—both give a very intimate personal relation to the main character and, at the same time, tell an important societal story. That’s the best recipe, I think, for a film.
I didn’t want to think of it as political, because I didn’t have a clear agenda. If there was an agenda, it would be that all people are equal, and refugee kids are just normal kids as all other kids; a general humanistic agenda. But I didn’t want the film to be a clear critique of a system. I just wanted to give people the opportunity to spend time with kids that are refugees, and just to feel how it is to be them.
I started making the film five years ago, and of course it was an important topic back then, but it has just become much more at the center of all media and political discussions, the whole refugee issue. I’m really happy that the film can show a side that you almost never see in the mainstream media, because you always hear stories of masses of refugees crossing the borders, tragedies at the Mediterranean. If you get to meet a refugee, it’s mostly a reporter telling about the refugee, who can give one statement to the camera. Or it’s photographs of refugees in certain situations; it’s always a reporter’s view or a storyteller’s view. It’s never just [the refugees] coming forward. So it’s very rare that you move out of the stereotype, I think. Of course, in my film, there’s also a storyteller, and it’s also me watching them. But I try to hide and let them come forward.
Guernica: It’s very observational. I didn’t feel, in your film, that you were a character.
Andreas Koefoed: I’m definitely not a character. But I still make a lot of choices that present things in a way. Making a documentary, there are thousands of choices, all the time: the angles and the pace and the choice of characters, the choice of music. But I just wanted to let the kids come forward, and give them a platform to tell their stories, not in words, but more by just being there.
Guernica: What draws you to the perspectives of children?
Andreas Koefoed: I like to work with children because their way of reacting to the world is simple, and they are innocent. I think very few films have children as main characters without being a children’s film, or without looking down at the children, telling about them. Making a film with kids as main characters, but for a grown-up audience, is not something you see so much, at least not in documentaries. So I like the fact that you can respect kids as main characters just as much as adults. Kids’ lives are just as important and difficult as grown ups’.
By choosing kids in a film about refugees, you kind of skip what I’ve noticed can be a skeptical view on refugees: did he flee because he was really in danger, or because he wanted to have a better life, and get a better job, and come to our country, and get our goods? and so on. That skepticism is something I notice people have, all the time, when they work with adults. But you can’t have it with kids, because they never decided to flee. They are just there.
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