Urgent profile of attempts by refugees to make the dangerous nocturnal mountain crossing from Italy to France


Source: Visions du Reel


Dir: Juliette de Marcillac. 2023. France. 69 mins

Montgenèvre, on the French-Italian border, is a sleepy town with a ski resort that wants tourism but refuses asylum. At night, refugees, many from Afghanistan, who have already travelled some 1700 kilometres, hike through the thick of forest and snowfall in the hopes of crossing from Italy to France before dawn. But the border is patrolled by the gendarmerie and the fear of being caught means moving higher up the slope, resulting in increasingly more dangerous attempts to cross the vertiginous mountain. Also present are a group of volunteers from Médecins du Monde, director Juliette de Marcillac’s titular ‘nightwatchers’. Hushed tones and high stakes create tension in this confident debut that deftly captures the quietly calm yet ultimately urgent events at twilight.  

Achingly present but only ever observing, Florian Berthellot’s camera bears witness 

Nightwatchers opens Visions du Reel, and is de Marcillac’s debut feature film, coming six years after her sole dramatic short film Leap Into The Void (2017). Despite its economic 69-minute run time, Nightwatchers is far from slight, revealing the tireless efforts of the volunteers to enact their humanity on a growing crisis - the number of forcibly displaced people in the world has now surpassed 100 million thanks to the war in Ukraine. Nightwatchers should attract further play on the documentary festival circuit with particular interest for events that focus on human rights. 

The film plunges headfirst into chaos and confusion: the opening scene takes place in daylight, as volunteers approach a stream of wearied people to offer them medical attention and advice. Many refuse to stop, a heady mix of fear and exhaustion outweighing their trust in humanity. There are children separated from parents and journalists who request information from the police only to be referred to the Ministry of the Interior’s website. On paper, at least, these people are legally allowed to apply for asylum on their arrival in France. The reality, de Marcillac points out in white text against an all-black screen and in complete silence, is that they are often turned back to Italy by the police without being allowed to file an application. This forces them to take far riskier paths higher up in the mountains; hypothermia and frostbite are preferable to an encounter with the gendarmerie. 

Achingly present but only ever observing, Florian Berthellot’s camera bears witness to the candid conversations between volunteers. These include their encounters with racism and false testimony from the police, known violations of international law – specifically the need to collect and record accounts of abuse in Croatia to bring to the European Court of Justice – and the negative impact that volunteering has on their own mental health. In one especially moving conversation, uttered only in a whisper, one volunteer recounts her experiences at Calais, where the authorities rerouted food distribution so that people would have to cross at easier to intercept places. The battle, she says, is David and Goliath: “Not enough people are helping.”

The film has a melancholic undercurrent that runs through the slow, rhythmic drums and guitar chords of multi-instrumentalists Oiseaux-Tempête. This is echoed by the film’s unique colour palette: the cold, dark blue glow across the night sky where the light of the moon bounces off the white snow contrasts with the warm glow of the golden lights in the valley, where the residents of Montgenèvre sleep safe and warm in their homes. 

The issue is alarming, urgent and often incredibly upsetting, but wherever there are people and protocols to detain and deport, there are also people in protest who will heal and help. In this way, De Marcillac’s film remains optimistic, forgoing the bigger picture to focus on the details of just one night in the mountains, and with it the hope, nay promise, of day.

Production Company: Dryades Films

International Sales: Dryades Films, contact@dryadesfilms.com 

Producers: Claire Babany, Eléonore Boissinot

Cinematography: Florian Berthellot

Editing: Marie Molino

Music: Oiseaux-Tempête