Alone the running time of Combat au bout de la Nuit constitutes a provocation, director Sylvain L’Espérance confronting his viewers with narrative overload and the potential physical discomfort of a five-hour viewing. To a large degree, the length formally supports the theme of exhaustion in the documentary. The struggle of Greek citizens awash in waves of economic collapse and the neverending trial of refugees faced with continual hardship, social isolation, and endangerment are characterized by exhaustion. Observing these situations should not be and in-and-out affair and should not be easy. The weave of documentary threads also supports the theme of complexity in Greece’s social and political plight as a whole. There is not an easy answer and each individual or group suffers from a different disadvantage.
Armed with an effective structural backbone, the director has filled it with carefully selected observations and interviews.
A group of protesting cleaning women who have been laid off seems at first to be a small, individual event. It is only by observing them in their various interactions with the public, the police, and political representatives over months and months of daily protest that we see the strength of their determination to resist. Having been illegally laid off, they apply pressure on the government by occupying the street in front of the Ministry of Finance, enduring months of court delays, public confrontation, and police deployments.
By allowing the individual protestors to speak at length at different times and in different situations, we see them in phases of anger, depression, and, most often, weary determination. Because the filmmaker develops a relationship with his subjects, the interviews become emotionally intimate and allow for an in-depth view of these women’s experiences and reflections. In most of the interviews and street scenes, the camera is close. In one confrontation, when the police trap women between their plastic shields and a parked car, we feel the physical claustrophia and the threat. Given this crisis, we are not surprised when one of the group leaders shouts to the young police officers that they should be ashamed: “We are your mothers…we curse you….when you have children, remember that.” These women have no alternative but to fight for the work and the dignity that have been taken away from them. Their protest and their time without employment or benefits last well over a year before the court finally rules in their favor.
Another major thread in the film slowly reveals the history and situation of a man from an unnamed African country. Once a language teacher in a private school, he was suddenly dragged off to a nearby military base by government officials. He tells of his confusion when in the interrogation he was asked if he “liked the Catholics,” or if had been passing on “secrets” to them. The man reports answering that he didn’t know what they meant, that he liked “everyone” regardless of their religion. He describes that when he was finally released after three months, he was told to stop teaching. When he persisted in teaching, he was kidnapped once again, beaten and tortured. When he was released after a second three-month incarceration, the man says he knew he would not survive a third kidnapping, that others had died in such situations. This story was the reason that he left his family behind to seek asylum in Greece. Having been granted asylum after six months of investigation into the details of his life, he repeatedly voices his gratitude for being allowed to say, this though during his interviews, we see that he lives in rubble with no running water or electricity, the walls falling down around him. Still he retains the ability to reflect and endure.
There are broader stories and less detailed portraits. One sequence depicts constant landings on a beach—rubber boats overfilled with new refugees. Joyous at landing, we have already heard from those who have been here longer and regret having come. On the Greek side of the story, we hear discussions of government officials, elections, and political betrayals, along with complaints about the EU and especially Germany. Some blame foreign influences or supposed hegemony for the country’s ills; some blame leadership; a few reflect upon the need for the people not to wait for leaders to fix things but to become more reflective and more active. As one man puts it: “Democracy requires work. We must remember that every day and be aware of what is around us.”
A downside of the film is that probably an hour could have easily been cut without damaging the viewer’s sense of the exhaustion or the complexity of the message. Any movie-goer who chooses to see this film is probably already going to know quite a bit of the history or at least be sensitive to the situation. In this, the film is sometimes self-indulgent in overly long takes of ocean waves or random landscape and perhaps unnecessary long takes of relatively meaningless actions—one example, a man tuning a guitar for what seems like minutes. If the topic and the perspective are the purpose, they probably should remain the focus of the footage. This point of criticism comes only as a footnote because overall the film reveals important perspectives on destructive influences that pervade many governments today and succeeds in portraying enlightening and authentic refugees stories.