The Swiss documentary filmmaker Anna Thommen spent two years with a class of young refugees. Her award-winning film "Neuland" is about high expectations and poor prospects - and a teacher who makes a difference.
It's the first day of school in an integration school in Basel. Many of the students arrived in the country just a few weeks earlier. They traveled long distances, using all imaginable means of transportation. Most of them have fled a war-ridden country, hoping to find a better life and jobs in Switzerland.
The teacher, Christian Zingg, introduces himself to the class. He first says, "You are here because you don't understand," and goes on teaching in German.
The students speak different languages, so they truly do not understand much. Yet they cannot expect to get a degree without German language skills, and without a degree they don't have any job opportunities.
This integration and career choice class aims to prepare the newcomers for the labor market. They learn German, prepare resumes and practice for job interviews.
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The film "Neuland" demonstrates one thing very clearly: Switzerland is not the paradise these young people were expecting. The teacher is well aware of the difficulties awaiting the young refugees. The never-ending wait for asylum and the many setbacks and rejections are bound to traumatize some of them.
Paths full of detours
The teacher is compassionate with his students. Every now and then, he'll unexpectedly ask them direct questions: "Did you choose to be here?" "No," replies Ehsanullah Habibi, a student from Afghanistan. "My father decided I had to come."
Habibi needs to make money in Switzerland to support his family in Afghanistan. It took him a year to reach Basel and he paid $20,000 for his journey, which was filled with many detours. Now that he has arrived, the bitter reality of the asylum center is catching up with him.
The Serbian Nazlije Aliji is also struggling with difficult circumstances. The young woman is studying seriously to learn German. She wants to become a primary school teacher and Mr. Zingg encourages her in her plans. Yet financial needs could jeopardize her dream: It would take another eight years before Nazlije could be allowed to work in a school.
"Don't give up," is the teacher's message. The tough conditions these people are facing do not count in the long run. What matters the most is how they grab every opportunity and never lose hope.
Trying to help
Anna Thommen's film tells the stories of young people who hoped to find a better future in Switzerland. It shows how much encouragement they need to realize their dreams - if they have any.
It also portrays a dedicated teacher, who can turn out to be very strict and sobering when he needs to take action. The teacher's excessive demands show one thing: He is trying to help - even when he pushes some limits.
Thommen does not moralize nor politicize in her film. She does not interfere, but simply observes, getting very close to her protagonists, revealing their personal conflicts, worries and dreams.
Thommen filmed "Neuland" in 2013 as the final project for her film studies program at the Zurich University of the Arts. It received several awards. The Swiss documentary film was released earlier this month in German cinemas.