In multicultural Berlin, it's not unusual to find immigrant children and teens who are struggling with integration issues – despite having all the documents they need to live legally in Germany. But for Lial, Hassan, and Maradona Akkouch, it's a different story. The siblings have lived in Berlin for as long as they can remember, but every day, they fear their family could be deported back to their native Lebanon.
Now, a documentary about the siblings' lives has hit German movie screens. Filmmakers Agostino Imondi and Dietmar Ratsch of Indi Film followed the teenagers over a period of several years, documenting all aspects of their lives: at home with their mother, at school or vocational training, at the immigration office, and at the clubs where they give free rein to their passion for rap, hip hop, and street dance.
The result is a film which has earned critical acclaim, including from the jury of this year's Berlinale, where "Neukoelln Unlimited" won the Crystal Bear for Best Film in the category Generation14plus.
The film had its national cinema release on April 8, meaning that a wider audience can now delve into a world that most Germans don't know exists.
Neukoelln is Berlin's most multi-ethnic neighborhood, home to the Akkouch family and others who, like them, never manage to feel truly at home. That's because, despite moving here almost 20 years ago, the members of the Akkouch family have never been granted residency permits. Instead, they have what's called "exceptional leave to remain." They can be deported any time at short notice, and their movements are very limited.
Maradona, who is now 16, laughs bitterly when asked how his residency status impacts his life.
"My status is basically a piece of paper that folds in three, with a red line through it, and because of this piece of paper, I'm not allowed to travel outside the city of Berlin. I can't open a bank account, get a driver's license, and I'm not allowed to work - nothing," he says on the sidelines of the "Neukoelln Unlimited" premiere.
"A modern Cinderella story"
Maradona is perhaps the film's most engaging - and most frustrating - character. He has talent and charisma in spades, and yet he hangs out with a bad crowd, has run-ins with the police, and is frequently suspended from school. His older brother, Hassan, 20, says Maradona's attitude toward life in Germany suffered from the time in 2003, when the family was woken up by police and told to pack their things. They were sent back to Lebanon the same day.
"The moment the plane took off, it was suddenly clear to me that life is not a game," Hassan says in the film, thinking back to the deportation. "I think everyone has a moment like that, when they realize that they're not a kid anymore. The deportation marked the end of my childhood."
For the Akkouch family, Lebanon no longer felt like home. Eventually, they returned to Neukoelln, but they are in constant contact with the local immigration authorities, and that has an impact on their lives. The film shows how Hassan constantly needs to update his residency permit in order to pursue a high school diploma. The family also has to prove that they can look after themselves financially, which makes the siblings even more determined to make money from singing and dancing. Their persistence is what attracted filmmaker Imondi to the project.
"What interested me is that it's the story of a family that doesn't give up; it's really a modern Cinderella story for me," he told Deutsche Welle. "They are a family that, despite all the difficulties, all the walls they encounter, is able to break through these walls as they fight for their right to be here."
Lial, 21, is hopeful that the film's release might change things for her family. Both she and Hassan have now been granted residency permits, as they are both of legal age. But her mother and her younger siblings are still in Germany on exceptional leave. If they were to be deported, her family would be split up. After fighting for so long to remain in Neukoelln together, that's a prospect none of them wants to face.
"I hope that the film opens people's eyes to what we've gone through, because there are many other families in the same situation," she says. "Maybe they'll see it and say to themselves, okay, we won't give up either. And the people higher up, maybe they'll look down and see that there are people who've integrated here, who've grown up here or maybe were born here who are suffering because of their situation."
"Exceptional leave" affects thousands
Critics have praised the film for showing the complex realities of immigration in Germany. The Akkouch family works hard, but they also make mistakes. They want to integrate, but at the same time, they don't want to deny their Muslim heritage. And they often get discouraged because their residency status, instead of encouraging integration, can leave them feeling alienated. It's a fate shared by some 200,000 people in Germany.
"My hope is that the film will start a political discussion, one that asks the question how it's possible for a family to be living in Germany for almost 20 years and still only be tolerated when there are other possibilities to solve the problem, for example, to get a residency permit on humanitarian grounds," says Imondi.
"We hear so much from politicians about integration. We have a family here that's perfectly integrated, and yet the system makes their lives so difficult. Why does it have to be like that?"
Author: Deanne Corbett
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn