Displaced: commencement of principal photography

18 September 2017

Principal photography on the 100-minute documentary Displaced commenced on 7 August 2017 against the grim backdrop of a record 65.6 million people forcibly displaced from their homes. Never before, reported the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, have so many people been affected by displacement, having fled persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations. The number of refugees, those who had crossed international borders in search of safety, stood at 22.5 million, while a further 2.8 million were seeking asylum in foreign countries, and 40.3 million people were internally displaced. Broadly stable around the 40 million mark during the first decade of the century, over the past five years the size of the global forcibly displaced population has been on a distressingly steep upward trend to current unprecedented levels.

As ever, immense human tragedy underlies the stark statistics. Children are overrepresented: only 31% of the world’s population, they make up more than half of the forcibly displaced. The number of newly displaced is high: 10.3 million people became displaced in 2016 – equating, as the 2017 edition of the UNHCR’s annual Global Trends report points out, to one more person being displaced every three seconds, or twenty per minute, for every minute of the year, over 28,000 newly displaced every day. From Syria and Palestine to Colombia and Afghanistan, from Iraq to South Sudan, a human tide of millions opted for the perils and hardships of flight rather than staying rooted to places, lands and homes where carnage and cataclysm had finally rendered daily life devastatingly unliveable, where they had become desperately unable to envisage any semblance of a viable future.

Displaced is a retrospective of the oeuvre of artist Emma Willemse who has, in her academic and creative work across a number of genres and media, for more than a decade been dealing intensively with the themes of home, the loss of a home and displacement. Apart from the Western Cape where she is based, she has exhibited in Dakar, Florence, Johannesburg and Paris, and her extensive body of work includes moving, magisterial pieces. Often working with the traces of habitation left by the displaced, the marks remaining on the landscape after the departure of those who are now absent, she has sought to explore the connections between land-and-home, identity and memory, and how the trauma of displacement from a home manifests in fractures, lacunae, absences in memory and identity. Her interest in these themes stems from personal experience when she lost several homes in the 1990s, and her work is focused on the subjective experience of displacement. Tracing the arc of her creative output over the years and contextualising it against local and global realities, the film is a profoundly empathetic engagement, refracted through art, with the traumatic experience of the forcibly displaced.

Through scenes of the artist at work, cinematic set pieces presenting her work, and interviews with academics, gallerists and critics, the intriguing relationship between materiality and meaning is explored: how we imbue objects with meaning both in the artmaking process and in life, how the layers of meaning can be unpacked in almost archaeological fashion, and how the deep engagement with a great, richly layered work of art can rank among life’s most rewarding experiences, adding to our high-level understanding of the world, and helping to guide our actions through its manifold, daunting complexities.