“Although I knew there are people coming to Germany who have seen horrible things, listening to the stories first hand was unbelievably difficult. Only by talking to refugees myself I learned about the true circumstances of their lives.”

The assembly hall of the Catholic University of Applied Science in Aachen, Germany is filled with people. It’s a Monday night so the week has only just begun. The event organisers are inviting the city to watch a movie. Instead of Batman or Star Wars, today’s feature is Asyland, the documentary feature of Cagdas Yüksel, a young German filmmaker who is still a student himself.

Heroes in this movie don’t have superpowers or lightsabers; instead, they are refugees trying to acclimatise to their new environment in Germany.

Two hours later the audience is leaving the assembly hall, some crying, some laughing. Just like after every other good movie…

Asyland portrays the life of four refugees who are trying to build a new life in Germany, the last stop for many on the pursuit of happiness fleeing war, poverty and destruction. The man responsible for this feature is a mere 22-year-old and still goes to university. As a sociology major, he always had a keen interest in social issues. At the same time, Cagdas has enjoyed capturing moments with his camera since he was a teenager. Asyland is his way of combining both interests.

Cagdas Yüksel (left), journalist Hubertus Koch, and MoTrip (right), a famous German rapper, after a screening of Asyland. [Image credit: Cocktail Films]

The film introduces us to four refugees with varying experiences. We meet a young Palestinian who discovers Germany and its people while barbecuing in the park and going to clubs, while another Syrian man struggles to shake off the image of being “the foreigner” who came to exploit Germany’s welfare system. Cagdas even found a Syrian woman who shares her experiences of living – and being imprisoned – in her native country and the subsequent flight she embarked on to save her life.

“We wanted to make an emotional, personal movie about the reality of refugees,”Cagdas told the IPF.

Instead of focusing on the life-threatening journey to Europe itself, the young filmmaker turned his attention towards the “arrival” rather than the “departure”.

The impact of the film

Cagdas told the IPF that the impact Asyland has had was worth all the hours of work, which even caused him to fall behind at university.

“I planned for 100 people to see the finished product and as of the end of 2016, 20,000 people all over Germany have seen it.”

But the impact his film has had exceeded his expectations far beyond the viewing numbers. Cagdas has seen people begin to understand refugees better after watching Asyland. Following the screening of the film at schools, Cagdas was informed that students had decided to host events that allow them to mix with refugees – and had even invited immigrant children to play basketball with them on Friday afternoons.

“Those are experiences we might not see the effect of immediately but they are incredibly valuable in the long run,” Cagdas said, praising the children’s dedication towards reaching out to refugees better than some grown ups.

A screening of Asyland. [Image credit: Cocktail Films]

On a larger scale, Asyland has even made some on-the-ground changes. The media caught onto one of Cagdas’ protagonists describing partly abysmal living conditions and the filmmaker was able to take action against this.

“In Mönchengladbach we actually managed to call for better conditions at the refugee residences.”

The journey of Asyland

Filming for Asyland started in 2014, before the infamous refugee crisis of 2015.

“There were already a lot of refugees in Germany before the summer of 2015 and the topic was barely talked about,” Cagdas explained.

Today, Cagdas calls immigration and refugees the “topic of the decade” and can barely believe that just two years ago Asyland was getting media support for focusing on a social issue that was “barely talked about”. With the help of a friend and his sister, Asyland slowly started taking shape.

Soon Cagdas’ friends wanted to be involved. His team of three grew to six, all taking responsibilities behind the camera. Through contacts acquired at media internships at two major German TV broadcasters, the narrators of Germany’s “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” started supporting Asyland and joined the project. The movies cutters worked their day jobs during the day and edited the movie, on a voluntary basis, at night.

The search for a cast proved challenging when Cagdas found three male protagonists, but no female.

“There are already many more male refugees in Germany, and the women often did not feel comfortable exposing themselves in a media production about their life.”

After a long search, he found his female hero. And what a hero she was, reliving her days at a Syrian prison in front of Cagdas’ rolling camera.

[Image credit: Cocktail Films]

For every meeting with the protagonists, the whole production team would travel to Stuttgart, Berlin and Mönchengladbach respectively to build a relationship with their protagonists.

“We wanted them to feel like they are talking to friends, not a camera.”

In the process, friendship indeed blossomed. To this day, the producers keep in touch with Asyland’s stars and they sometimes accompany them to screenings, where they participate in audience Q&As.

The timelessness of Asyland

Despite the fact that Asyland features numbers and statistics that have changed since the film’s initial release, the focus of the film is on its people.

“Numbers and statistics can change, but their experiences never will.”

Therefore, Asyland continues to draw in viewers, showing them four perspectives most people have never been confronted with.

“Its hard to say if the wave of refugees in March 2015 had a positive influence on the project,” Cagdas said. “We possibly drew a larger audience because the topic became more relevant. At the same time, a lot of bigger publications rejected our work because they already had their own formats in place.”

On a personal level, making the film only brought Cagdas positive experiences. He has improved his portfolio, raised the stakes from being a wedding videographer to a feature film producer and director, and helped to encourage both immigrants and inhabitants of Germany to seek the conversation.

“The reality for some refugees in Germany is still very dire.”

[Image credit: Cocktail Films]

He explained that people have changed their perceptions after the 2015 New Year’s night in Cologne and the Berlin terror attack in December 2016. These events continue to initiate fear and avoidance of refugees, especially from Muslim countries. However, Asyland shows that reaching out a hand goes a long way for these new citizens and that conversations with them is the fastest way to learn about them.

“Maybe some of the problems today only arose because we didn’t start talking about it earlier.

“Although I knew there are people coming to Germany who have seen horrible things, listening to the stories first hand was unbelievably difficult. Only by talking to refugees myself I learned about the true circumstances of their lives.”

To find out more about Asyland, visit their website and like them on Facebook.