‘Eldorado’ reveals that refugee stories don’t end when they reach shore

Graham Shapley

The ACT Human Rights Film Festival’s acronym contains their mission statement: to awaken, connect and transform. Awaken viewers to human rights violations, connect them through human faces and transform the discussion that surrounds human rights violations in a way that will hopefully bring about positive change.

Eldorado,” directed by Markus Imhoof, seeks to awaken its audience to an angle of the European refugee crisis that is rarely paid attention to: what happens when refugees actually arrive?


Traditionally, the narrative about refugees who set out from the Middle East and African nations is about how they actually travel. They pile onto boats and set off into the Mediterranean, floating adrift until they are eventually picked up, at which point they’re brought to the mainland and are allowed to apply for refugee status.

This process is not without its problems. The Dublin Regulation, as explained in the film, means that once a refugee is taken in by one country and begins their asylum application — starting as early as when fingerprints are taken — that country is responsible for them, and the individual is unable to apply for asylum in another country, whether they have connections there or not.

This means that where refugees come ashore is where they’re forced to stay, regardless of personal preference. The documentary focuses on Italy, which is a central figure in this discussion as one of the major locations where refugees wind up.

The film draws attention to the fact that under this regulation, European countries who do not have a coastline on the Mediterranean are not required to process refugees in the same way as those who do are.

The rules are not made by the countries with the beaches.” -Eldorado, 2018

This isn’t even to mention that while refugees are waiting for their applications to be processed, they are denied the ability to work for money and as a result, their ability to act independently. If they do have to work, they may wind up in the clutches of criminal enterprises — the Italian Mafia is specifically namechecked — to be used as illegal physical laborers or prostitutes in order to support themselves.

Documentarian Markus Imhoof relates the crisis to his own experience with refugees during World War II. In his home in Switzerland, his family took in a girl who left Italy by the name of Giovanna. Imhoof and Giovanna built up a friendship and exchanged letters and drawings in the years after she was forced to return home, eventually ending with her death.

Stories of refugees in past and present are intertwined, with Imhoof’s letters providing the unique voice of a girl who has a heartfelt and bittersweet perspective on the dehumanizing nature of being a refugee. The letters provide an insight that changes the way that the modern crisis is thought of.

“Eldorado” takes its name from the legendary city of gold which promised riches to those explorers who could find it. The truth is, casting the asylum seekers as explorers is more appropriate than it may seem. The “city of gold” likely never existed in the way that it’s popularly portrayed.

“You must risk your life to get into paradise,” said one migrant in the documentary.

Although the process of taking in asylum seekers is good, it’s important to remember that the story doesn’t end when they reach land. Refugees still face hardships for years to come and may never truly reach El Dorado.


Collegian reporter Graham Shapley can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com and on Twitter @shapleygraham.