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A Path through the Woods: Remediating Affective Landscapes in Documentary Asylum Worlds


In his book Landscape and Memory, Simon Schama argues that an engagement with the legacies of German nationalism requires a track through the woods: throughout German history, forests have played a key role as origin myth to found a national identity (Schama 1995). In today’s forests, these entanglements between the forest landscape and the nation acquire a strange and unhomely twist: in former East German states, such as Brandenburg and Thuringia, asylum seekers—many of them from Africa—find themselves living on the ruins of abandoned military barracks in the forest. Their isolation in the forest is the outcome of post-unification asylum policies that responded to a heated nation-wide asylum debate and xenophobic attacks against urban refugee shelters in the 1990s, by relocating refugees to remote new ‘homes’ in rural East Germany—often on former military barracks in the forest.

Engaging with Forst, a documentary film produced in collaboration between refugees and European film-makers, this article asks about the possibilities of a mode of analysis that follows Schama’s call to embark on a track through the woods and shed light on contemporary entanglements between landscape, race and nationalism. Forst breaks with documentary—and ethnographic—conventions of creating empathy via the portrayal of individual life stories, or “cases”. Instead, the film situates its story almost entirely in the claustrophobic environment of a gloomy forest in which refugees live. Doing so, it provokes affects and environments in order to invoke the visceral dimensions of borders and nationalism—a method, I argue, that can be mobilized for social inquiry of both the mediation of racialized exclusions in contemporary asylum worlds in Germany—as well as their material and visceral effects.

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