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Norwich artist’s films examine refugees’ experiences

  • Artist Bill Ramage stands in his immersive drawing in downtown Rutland in the fall of 2016 in a still from the film "Rutland," by Norwich resident Viktor Witkowski. (Courtesy photograph)

  • Documentary filmmaker and artist Viktor Witkowski, of Norwich, Vt., on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019 in Lebanon, N.H. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, February 14, 2019

Late in 1983, after the Polish government lifted a period of martial law that had been in force since December 1981, Viktor Witkowski’s parents decided they had to leave their country.

At the time, Witkowski was 4½ years old. They crossed from Poland into Germany and settled in the town of Espelkamp, which itself had been resettled after World War II.

“I remember the border crossing to this day,” Witkowski, who now lives in Norwich and lectures in studio art at Dartmouth College, said in an interview Tuesday evening in his studio at AVA Gallery and Art Center in Lebanon. The East German soldiers at the border wanted to detain Witkowski’s family, but a Russian soldier, no doubt exercising the prerogative of a Cold War power, let them go.

So began Witkowski’s life as a refugee. It’s the kind of experience that doesn’t leave you.

Witkowski, 40, has recently completed his third film centered on the refugee’s journey and what it means to flee one’s home for a foreign land. Rutland, which follows residents of the Vermont city who had hoped to welcome 100 Syrian refugees, isn’t widely available for viewing, though a suite of trailers is available on Vimeo, the web video-sharing site. The film will have its premiere at 7 p.m. on Feb. 23 in Rutland’s Unitarian Universalist Church. Though Witkowski hopes the film finds a wider audience, particularly in Vermont, there are no screenings scheduled beyond that date.

Trained primarily as a painter, Witkowski started making films in 2016, when he returned to Germany for an artist residency. There he encountered the current wave of refugees, mostly Syrian but also from Afghanistan, Iraq and Nigeria. There were several hundred in his hometown of about 30,000.

“They were just so visible,” he said. “They were everywhere.”

Most of the refugees were young men, who were pushed out by their families to keep them away from military service or conscription into a militant group. Among them was a strange mood, a mixture of excitement at escaping factionalism and war for a place of greater freedom, and confusion at the new customs, and loneliness. Witkowski decided that he couldn’t depict the people he was seeing and meeting through painting alone.

He visited his old elementary school, where refugees were living. He spoke with and filmed refugees and created a short film titled Refuge. “It’s basically a silent film,” Witkowski said.

On a subsequent residency, he met a young Iraqi man in Germany who was studying archaeology and historic preservation. This man helped to organize tours of museums in Arabic for recent refugees, mainly from Syria, as a way to help them feel at home. Witkowski decided to make a film that asked tour participants to select a favorite art object from the tour and to speak for a minute on camera.

Among the artifacts in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, which houses Middle Eastern and Islamic antiquities, is the Aleppo Room, a series of painted panels commissioned by a wealthy 16th-century merchant that borrow from several religious traditions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam, all of which intersect in the ancient Syrian city. Witkowski’s second film, titled The Aleppo Room, is still traveling to festivals.

Rutland came about because, Witkowski said, “I thought it would be good to make a film about where I live.” In the summer of 2016, when Rutland leaders planned to welcome 100 Syrian refugee families, Witkowski planned to follow the story with his hand-held camera as a film crew of one.

But with the rhetoric of fear surrounding both the 2016 presidential campaign and the efforts of a group calling itself Rutland First, the plan to resettle refugees in Rutland withered. President Donald Trump moved swiftly to enact a ban on people traveling from seven majority-Muslim countries after his January 2017 inauguration. And Rutland’s longtime mayor and leading proponent of the refugee plan, Christopher Louras, was unseated in March 2017.

Ultimately, three Syrian families came to Rutland, and rather than follow them, Witkowski chose to focus on the people who had prepared to ease the refugees’ entry into Vermont life.

“It became about the disappointment, the grieving,” he said. “People felt let down.” Rutland residents had set up Arabic language classes for themselves, he noted, something he’d never seen in Germany.

The resulting 70-minute film is part documentary, part art film, Witkowski said. He doesn’t reshoot scenes or use lighting or big microphones. He makes use of footage from a film about Rutland’s history, and images of landscape and abstract art and colors them with contemporary music.

Plans for further screenings of Rutland are on hold as Witkowski heads back to Europe next month for another artist residency, this time in Poland.

In the meantime, he’ll content himself with showing the film in Rutland. Opponents of resettling Syrian refugees have won the day, at least for now, but Witkowski expects the tide will turn, and that Rutland residents who want to welcome new residents will have a chance to do so.

“There’s nothing to argue about here,” he said. “We’re talking about helping people here or not helping people. … There’s no good argument for not helping people.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.