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Seeking shelter in fortress Europe as a Muslim transgender person

This is the journeys of Pepsi, the transgender Queen of the Calais Jungle. Journeys through social landscapes fraught with prejudice and danger, fortified by her military survival skills. The last film of Enrico Masi’s trilogy set around the impact of mega-events addresses the biggest of them all: mass migration.

  

Graham Douglas

 

The story of Pepsi stretches the imagination – a gay man who grew up in a part of the Philippines under the control of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, with whom she worked as a nurse and learned the skills of survival in civil conflict. And as a nurse she was accepted to work in Libya when General Ghaddafi asked for volunteers. From there she travelled to Italy, and spent time in The Jungle in Calais, northern France. In Paris she met film-maker Enrico Masi – and recruited herself for his next film through sheer force of personality.

Masi’s film “Shelter: farewell to Eden” is the final part of a trilogy, which began with “The golden temple” (2012), about the effects of the construction – and more especially the destruction – on local communities around the site of the London Olympics. Masi is also a musician and a researcher trained in visual anthropology, and his Ph.D thesis was focused on the impact of mega-events. He is a founder member of the Italian film collective Caucaso. Having completed the second part of the trilogy with a film about the Rio Olympics, he decided it was time for a new approach, what was the next mega-event?

In conversation with The Prisma, after screening his film at DocLisboa in Lisbon, he describes his solution, and talks in detail about his relationship with his main character, Pepsi.

How does “Shelter fit into the trilogy?

In 2010 I was living in London, and I had this dream about a marginal environment near the Hackney Marshes community, thinking it might disappear because of the Olympics. It was a sort of epiphany, because Iain Sinclair – the poet who wrote M25 London Orbital – introduced me to Mike Wells, who was in a co-op opposing the developments for the Olympics. I made the first documentary (The Golden Temple, 2012), as part of the Caucaso Collective, and it did quite well at film festivals and we had an affiliation with academics at universities, and then I made the second film about the Rio Olympics, with Mike talking about the issues that had been important in the previous Olympics.

The first film was quite scientific, so I decided on an approach based on the Italian school called Micro-history, developed by Carlo Ginzburg, which uses one person to represent a broad phenomenon. Lepanto – Ultimo Cangaceiro was a love story about how Mike’s life was no longer normal because of his activism. Then we decided that the last chapter should be something else.

My PhD thesis had been on the Impact of Mega Events, so, which is the new mega event? It’s the migration crisis. Naomi Klein’s concept of the Shock Doctrine says that when a crisis happens capitalism uses it as part of its broader operations.

This is similar to the humanitarian crisis, where you have speculation, financial movements, especially in southern Europe, and involving mafias – which is almost a taboo subject in Italy.

How did you meet Pepsi?

At Port-de-la-Chapelle in Paris, just inside the peripherique motorway, and in 2016-17, there were thousands of people arriving there moving between PARIS and the Jungle in Calais – and Pepsi called herself The Queen of the Jungle.

I was working with one of the charities giving out food, and she sort of cast herself – because she has a degree of narcissism that is important in cinema. On the first day – this is almost forbidden in social ethnography – we made a three-hour audio recording, which became the structure of the film, although the film took another two years to make. She gave her life to the film from then on.

She is now 39 years old, orphaned from a Christian family and raised in a Muslim family in Mindanao in the southern Philippines, in an area controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and you feel the military influence, she has a very dry way of communicating, even when she is talking about very cruel events.

Of course, Pepsi is anti-war, but not in the way that western people are. Once she was talking about crossing many times between France and Italy through the Alps in winter, with police with helicopters and dogs looking for migrants. I said this must have been very tough, and she said: “sometimes in the Philippines, we were living for three months in the mountains with people hunting us, so three days is nothing”.

We spent a lot of time together in our homes in Italy, dealing with papers and lawyers and just everyday living, but when I wanted to explore more psychological questions, she just said: “I told you everything already”.

So, she’s in control of the film to some extent

Yes, and I’m happy about that, although from the production point of view, there is a lack of information, but we accepted her decision, so as not to exploit her.

It was tough to not be more involved, but there is a new project planned, because she said: “let’s go back to the Philippines together, and you can meet my family”. The project may be called The Promise.

I promised to do this to help her, and she promised her family to return to help them. I hope this will be a way to tell the story in a universal context, in order to be politically active – not just to stay in academia or documentary festivals, showing films to privileged people.

She wasn’t accepted as a gay or transgender person by many Muslims, what’s her attitude to Islam now?

She respects the rules of Sunni Islam. The Moro group were very strict, and gay is taboo, which is why she took part more as a nurse than a soldier.

In 2004, Ghaddafi asked the Philippines for 500 nurses, and she was accepted. She got a well-paid job in a hospital in Libya. And in Libya she was able to have relationships. She stayed there until the death of Ghaddafi. The eastern Mediterranean culture, since Greek and Byzantine times has always been more open.

She seems to be quite politically aware talking about how the militias in Libya are not going to be united by the US or the EU, only if they choose to.

Yes, she’s making a parallel to the inability of western countries to sit round a table and decide what to do. We were watching the news in a Bangladeshi restaurant in Paris, and she was completely involved in the TV debate about the Birmanyian refugee situation.

We all get global news but it’s different, depending which country you are in, she sees it in a bigger perspective, and I’d like to make another film using what she knows as a very special witness. When we travel to the Philippines I want to write and record, and then create the film in a more fictional way.

Are you personally concerned about going with her to the Philippines and being seen as involving yourself in local politics?

It’s dangerous, yes, I have some people who support me, and I am preparing myself. This is actually the first time I’ve talked about this. This promise is like a destiny, it can’t be denied, but I want to do this for a vast audience: after the trilogy, the dramaturgy will change.

The line between film-making and activism here is super-narrow.

Next week: Enrico Masi – filming the big political issues for a mass audience.

(Photos by Enrico Masi, supplied by him to The Prisma)

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