In Through the Eyes of a Refugee Amnesty International uses hypnosis in an experiment sending five participants on a dramatic journey from the war zone of Syria to safety in the Netherlands.
What happens when you let ordinary people live out the experiences of a refugee? The video Through the Eyes of a Refugee documents an experiment in which five participants undergo the dangerous journey from Syria to Europe by means of hypnosis. First, the hypnotised test persons experience how their house is bombed and family members die. They start the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean Sea and find accommodation in a refugee camp where inhuman living conditions prevail. Only their arrival in the Netherlands puts an end to their suffering. After awakening from hypnosis, the participants are confronted with their own reactions and finally meet the Syrian woman, Marwa, whose story they have just recreated. All test persons express deep sympathy for the woman (‘Can I hug you?’, ‘I hope we have embraced you here, I hope you feel safe now’). In the end, the refugee and the Dutch participants of the experiment are hugging each other and crying. This is where the idea of the unification of nations is symbolized, combined with the melodramatic exaggeration of the Netherlands as a redeeming, safe haven.
Through the Eyes of a Refugee seems very effective in its strategy of arousing empathy in the test persons, and in the audience, as well, but questions immediately arise: Are we dealing with a credible representation here, or is it simply pseudo-scientific nonsense? Is hypnosis at all realistic in the way it is depicted, or is scepticism called for? Aren’t we searching for signs of acting or performance throughout the film? And is it appropriate and ethically justifiable to use Marwa, who is brought into the scene after the experiment, as a ‘model refugee’?
In an empty factory hall that seems like a panopticon, each participant sits alone on a chair in the middle of the room and is illuminated by a spotlight. The architecture of observation corresponds to the exposure of the test person, who is subjected equally to the gazes of the camera, the hypnotist, and the viewer in front of the screen. The structure of the stage-like environment and the lighting remind us of a theatre. Thus, the experiment that is carried out is given the quality of a show or even a spectacle, but at the same time loses scientific credibility.
The five test persons of different ages and genders represent affluent, White, Western society, which is also the target group of the video. Despite its passive observer’s perspective, the experiment forces the viewer to experience the painful experiences of the dangerous journey in a simulated reconstruction. The video provokes strong reactions by means of banal, but nevertheless effective emotionalization strategies, such as the significant use of music and the awakening of somatic empathy. Close-ups of the faces, typical for feature films, support the emotional contagion: a tear rolls out of the eye of a participant and suggestively conveys to the viewer: You should be feeling something here!
Only the original sound of the experiment is heard, including a rustle and hiss, in the beginning. The space of the empty factory hall gives the hypnotist’s voice an evocative echo. Like in a feature film, the music begins to underline the emotional climax when the test persons imagine finding the body parts of their siblings. The vibrating, threatening sounds intensify the emotional statement, but remain almost unnoticed at the threshold of consciousness. The sounds only lighten up when the insert ‘You are finally safe’ appears. A gentle piano melody underlines the relief on arriving in the safe Netherlands. The viewer is supposed to have a cathartic experience in which fear and terror are followed by redemption and a happy ending.
Since empathy can be evoked more effectively through a personified drama than by conveying abstract facts, Through the Eyes of a Refugee exploits Marwa’s fate to the full. Her tragic story, however, represents the suffering of thousands of war refugees. The choice of the 29-year-old Syrian woman, dressed in modern clothes and speaking English, is certainly no coincidence. To what extent Marwa, here staged as a symbolic figure of successful refugee policy, can actually be representative of all the refugees is questionable.
Doubts about the credibility of hypnosis also arise. The hypnotherapist Jos Claus, a television personality in the Netherlands, apparently puts the participants into a trance using only three calming standard sentences. The effect is impressively visualised: The dramatic structure determines the speed of cross-cutting in order to make the reactions of the test persons comparable. In order not to lose the interest of the audience, hypnosis must be fast. However, the juxtaposition through editing also reveals how their reactions conform to similar patterns: While the participants are experiencing the rocket attack, they crouch under their chair or hold their hands over their heads for protection. They cough as if they are actually experiencing shortness of breath from the dust of the explosions. They cry and run around in the large hall as they flee from an imaginary police force. This ostentatious unwinding of standardised behavioural programmes undermines the authenticity of the emotional reactions.
At the same time, however, the film’s technical and cinematic professionalism as well as Amnesty International’s good reputation give the whole thing enough credibility to make the viewer emotionally willing and able to get involved. Amnesty publishes an accompanying explanatory video as a safeguard: In About the Participants (Amnesty International NL, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zapZdgq1hw) the hypnotist and the participants explain the effects of hypnosis. As this second video only counts about 1000 calls, it can be assumed that most viewers of the first one might have oscillated between belief and doubt.
It is possible, however, that Through the Eyes of a Refugee does not attempt to claim scientific credibility at all, but rather aims primarily at awakening empathy and a heightened form of compassion in the viewer. The central point is not whether we believe the experiment, but that we engage in a thought experiment: How would I feel at this point? What would I do? How would I feel?
The form of documentation of a supposedly unscripted social experiment is quite common in NGO campaign videos, as here with UNICEF (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQcN5DtMT-0) or Amnesty Poland (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7XhrXUoD6U). Through the Eyes of a Refugee was produced by Amnesty in cooperation with the professional advertising agency TBWA/Neboko, which, among other things, does advertising for large corporations such as McDonald’s (https://www.tbwa.nl/work). Amnesty made use of their experience in influencing the emotional world of viewers through audio-visual texts. This raises the question of whether the NGO makes itself vulnerable to attack: What ethical concerns does a human rights organisation have about having image campaigns implemented by commercial advertising agencies that work with strategies of persuasion through emotional manipulation? What possibilities are there for them to reach a broad audience and address them effectively?
Through the Eyes of a Refugee offers the viewer neither facts about flight and migration nor clear appeals for action. Nor does it ask for donations. The video creates an awareness of the fate of traumatised war refugees and illuminates the complex of topics from an emotional perspective. The experiment seems convincing because of its emotional impact, which supplants the viewer’s analytical reason, but on closer inspection it can fail the credibility check. It nevertheless fulfils its function: It changes the perspective of experience, allowing one to step out of one’s own life world, and thus generates empathy and compassion in an amazing way.