Geology of Separation: this poignant study of migration uses the specific to illustrate global truths

Using two asylum seekers as a focal point, Yosr Gasmi and Mauro Mazzocchi’s documentary, shot in black and white, interrogates the nature of borders, Europe’s approach to migrants, and the existential stasis in which so many refugees find themselves.

Geology of Separation (2023)
  • Reviewed from the International Film Festival Rotterdam

The myriad hazards of migration towards the West and the arbitrariness of international borders are the primary targets of Yosr Gasmi and Mauro Mazzocchi’s plaintive and moving new documentary, Geology of Separation. Focusing largely on a couple of asylum seekers, Abderhaman and Laly, who are both attempting to navigate the European bureaucratic systems that seem at once to welcome, marginalise and turn away immigrants. Although this recurrence of individuals and their ongoing stories means it feels quite different to Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow (2017), the film achieves a similar sense of scale and historical scope, combining the specific with grander ruminations on the nature of geopolitical boundaries.

Shooting in stark black and white, the filmmakers act both as flies on the wall and as interlocutors, observing and discussing the difficulties faced by migrants in a new country. In several different instances, the implicit prejudices – even of the people trying to help them – come to the fore, such as the people running a hostel reprimanding its inhabitants for not understanding “how things are done in Italy”. Elsewhere, a group are set to work and shouted down when they ask how much they will be paid, told that they should be grateful for the opportunity to be seen as hardworking so that someone looking for cheap labour might approach them with a job. When Laly reads out the letter denying his claim for asylum, one of the marks against him is his intermittent volunteer work.

In one particularly striking sequence, the camera unblinkingly follows Laly as he stands on a travelator deep in some transport hub, presumably in Paris. Constantly being brushed past by hurrying commuters, he first moves in one direction before rounding to go back in the other. It’s a hypnotic scene that gradually comes to symbolise the stuck groove in which such asylum seekers are caught; continuously turned about, travelling in circles while others progress forwards, but equally never able to stop and settle. The use of monochrome photography can conjure a variety of different effects – from being a visual evocation of the past to a palette for beautiful chiaroscuro – but here it seems to act as a filter, a way of dialling down the drama, of colouring the mundanity in a dull gradient of tones.

Still, there is loftiness to Gasmi and Mazzocchi’s endeavour, and perhaps the most arresting section in Geology of Separation is one in which a text written and read by Gasmi is set against images of mountains. In it, she discusses Pangaea and the break-up of Earth’s landmass. The rocky visuals evoke naturally occurring borders – separation by geology – but the words feel damning; the juxtaposition makes it almost seem like the planet is watching us and finding our treatment of migrants severely lacking. It is difficult to watch Gasmi and Mazzocchi’s film and not come to a similarly damning conclusion.