For a white European citizen, the border is merely represented by a line on a map, passport control at the airport or at most a visa requirement. However, for refugees, the border is associated with fear, violence, and even death. In this essay, I will discuss the Netflix film His House (2020) as a method of demonstrating the gravity of the European border violence.
At first glance, the film’s narrative of a haunted house might point to a classic horror film. However, it is more than that. This film’s supernatural elements are a mere symbol for the real-life horrors faced by migrants. The film follows a young Sudanese couple, Bol and Rial, who fled their country to seek asylum in England. Quite early on in the film, they are appointed a house in an unknown place in the U.K. to await the assignment of their British citizenship. However, they turn out not to be alone. In the walls of the house, they hear and see the ghost of their daughter, Nyagak, who they lost at sea during their journey towards Europe. The girl communicates through a silent humming; a humming that sounds both innocent and anxious. For me, this humming sound represents how immigrants who survived their journey are still haunted by the fear and violence they have experienced at the border. In fact, it becomes clear throughout the film that immigrants also face new instances of border violence within the UK, such as bullying, and discrimination from their new neighbours.
The drowning of Nyagak is unfortunately not mere fiction; in 2016, 4581 people died on their journey to Europe through the Mediterranean route (Walia, 2021). These deaths are caused by the rigorous and violent European border. As mentioned previously, this border violence is not visible to Europeans themselves since for them the border is a mere line on a map. The film His House nevertheless manages to convey this violence to a European audience by turning the story into a literal horror narrative. Through the use of traditional horror tropes such as ghosts, haunted houses, and jump-scares the public feels the pain, fear, and violence that immigrants experience in real life when facing the border.
In the second half of the film, we are faced with an extra level of violence. During a flashback of Rial, we learn that Nyagak was not the couple’s real daughter, but a girl they stole back in Sudan to gain a place on an already fully packed bus of refugees. They are thus not merely chased by the trauma of their refugee route, but also by the guilt they feel for failing to protect a girl that they selfishly used for their own safety. One might say that Rial and Bol themselves are also the actors of violence and therefore responsible for the death of Nyagak. However, I will demonstrate how actually Europe can be held accountable for both the abduction and death of Nyagak. Harsha Walia (2021) explains that Europe externalizes its borders to Africa to outsource its responsibility. For example, the EU has provided Sudan (the home country of Bol and Rial) with millions of euros for their border security and readmission to ensure a decrease in the refugee flux towards Europe (Walia 2021) However, the Sudanese organisation in charge has been engaged in war crimes and ethnic cleansing (Walia 2021) which worsens the living conditions of Sudanese people and so presses the urge to leave the country. Since Europe invests in the Sudanese border control, I believe that they can also be held accountable for the violence committed by them. As seen in the film, the increasing urge for fleeing Sudan is at times accompanied by unconscious violent actions by the refugees themselves. However, the Sudanese refugees find themselves in such desperate circumstances that they are driven to violence out of a need for survival. Therefore, I argue that they cannot be held accountable for these violent actions. Notice that the European border politics are consciously contributing to these desperate circumstances by investing money in unethical organisations. Therefore, I argue that Europe must also be held accountable for violent acts committed by the refugees.
In conclusion, the multiple layers of violence portrayed in His House show the gravity and reach of the European border violence. Through the cinematic horror tropes used, the film ensures that the audience truly feels the violence, fear, and pain caused by the European border. I believe that the film in this way motivates a critical reflection on border violence and the role Europe plays in this.
Vera de Wit
Weekes, Remi. Dir. 2020. His House. London: Netflix.
Walia, Harsha. 2021 “Fortress Europe”. In Border & Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism, and the Rise of Racist Nationalism. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 105-130.