“Lovren: My Life as a Refugee”

The documentary film about Liverpool FC’s defender Dejan Lovren was announced over twitter by the official Liverpool FC (LFC) account. The majority of comments people added were frankly awful, mostly centering on terrible jokes about sending him home in exchange with someone who could defend. But the film itself offers a welcome pro-refugee message. The type of comments found on the twitter announcement, while not exactly representative, still indicate that voices such as Lovren’s need to be amplified, and this is what the film does. In the documentary he describes his family’s experience of fleeing from the Yugoslav war in 1992. Born in Kraljeva Sutjeska (in Bosnia and Herzegovina) his family was compelled to leave behind a small business and, by his account, an idyllic life in the Bosnian Republic. They fled to Munich, Germany, where Lovren’s Grandfather had a just enough room for the family. He spent his early years in Germany, developing a sense of home, but like many Yugoslav refugee families, they were sent back once it was deemed safe enough to return people.

But Dejan returned to a place he had never known. Germany, as he recounts in the film, was the home he knew. His family settled in the Croatian town of Karlovac, where 10 year old Dejan struggled with being “different” from local kids in Croatia. He found himself in football, and it became his means of communicating and negotiating his identity with others, a common engagement of sport for displaced youth. Sport in such a context becomes a language without words, though it can also easily divide with the same logic.[1]

As such, the story is compelling. The film oscillates between pleasing studio shots of a hansom Dejan, drone shots of Munich, Karlovac, and his birth place, and historical footage of the war. Aesthetically, this emphasizes a very black and white remembering process, and also where the limitations of the film start to become clear. There is a sense from the images of the tragic versus the idyllic. Germany and Munich are represented as a place without problems, masking a restrictive asylum policy and the everyday hostility towards Yugoslavs that was common at the time. Perhaps this should not be surprising: today we see something similar happening. Germany and Merkle in particular, again appear to be the last bastion of liberalism, welcoming more refugees than other countries. Yet it is also sending many people back, restricting border access, and giving concessions to voices on the far right with respect to immigrants.

In all this, Yugoslavia remains an unexplainable mess. It is represented strictly in nostalgic terms or as a warzone. This is a familiar refrain. Lovren’s feelings about his past, the struggles of his family and of being a refugee, and the current refugee crisis are sympathetic. Moreover, as Alexander Holiga points out, the fact that Lovren doesn’t point any fingers or assign blame for the war, is commendable.[2] Despite this, the film nevertheless falls into a trap of reproducing historical images without any explanations, often reducing all the various experiences of flight to people walking with bags in terrible conditions, and images of intense violence without any distinctions.

Individual stories of hope and success will always mask the realities of being a refugee. As charming and inspiring as they can be, such stories also reproduce notions of entrepreneurship and “hard work” as being enough to overcome hardship, and a distinction between good (read successful) and problematic (read unsuccessful) refuges or foreigners. A theme that is common among sport documentaries. As Ian McDonald writes, “… sport documentaries have tended to capitalize on the market that has opened up for documentaries by emphasizing the human drama decontextualized from issues of power, and therefore complicit in reinforcing dominant ideologies: here, the ideology of sport as the route to success and the exemplar of character.”[3]

Clearly it is always challenging to tell a story about an individual when the backdrop is war. But precisely that is the problem: war is not a backdrop for individual success stories; at least it should not be. At one point we encounter the image of Četnik solders as Lovren talks about the arduous and fearful 17 hour drive up to Germany, while borders were not clear, the checkpoints frequent, and everyone a suspect. Are we meant to understand that his Croatian family made it through Serb lines? Does the film want us to think of the Serbs as the enemy, the bad guys of the war, preventing innocent families from getting out of harms way? Lovren didn’t feel the need to make such claims, yet are the filmmakers? Or is this just a random and poorly chosen image from the Yugoslav war that fits our West European/North American conception of the war?

Dejan Lovren talks about being “returned” after the war was over; something that should force the film to ask why, after almost 10 years in Germany, where Lovren was in school and growing up, was the family not able to stay? Also absent is any sense that we in Europe and North America also bear responsibility beyond creating a positive “Wilkomenskultur”. Is “giving them a chance” really enough? Or is it perhaps also about changing the way we see citizenship, the way borders work, and the way our expectation of a certain living standard creates instability in other parts of the world? By relegating the war and the refugee experience to a platform for this individual story, the film avoids the difficult and necessary questions. As is so often the case when we represent the Yugoslav wars, and the current refugee crisis, on film or in text, these types of questions simply go unanswered.

You can watch the film for free here http://www.liverpoolfc.com/video/catch-up-tv/cutv-features-documentaries#

[1] For examples, see Roy Hay’s article Croatia: Community, Conflict and Culture: the role of soccer clubs in Migrant identity (1998), and Ramon Spaaij’s Refugee youth, belonging, and community sport (2013)

[2] http://telesport.telegram.hr/kolumne/nogomet-narodu/ona-pamti-sve/

[3] McDonald, Situating the Sport Documentary (2007)

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