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Pictures, cartoons, memes – and now a movie: the afterlife of Alan Kurdi

Boris Roessler, dpa, AFP | A graffiti by artists Justus Becker and Oguz Sen depicts the drowned Syrian refugee boy Alan Kurdi in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, on July 4, 2016.

It’s been nearly four years since harrowing images of a drowned toddler washed up on a Turkish beach became a global symbol of the plight of Syrian refugees. Now Alan Kurdi’s tragic fate has inspired a film – one that has left his family distraught.

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The two-year-old child and his family were attempting to cross the Aegean Sea to Greece on September 2, 2015, when their overcrowded rubber boat capsized off the Turkish coast, killing Alan (his name initially misreported as Aylan), his 4-year-old brother Ghalib and their mother Rehanna.

By then, thousands of children had already perished along the same perilous route to Europe, killed by Syria’s gruesome civil war or drowned at sea. Thousands more would continue to die in the years that followed. But it was a picture of Kurdi in sneakers, blue shorts and a red T-shirt, lying face down in the sand, that captured the public’s attention and drew a deep emotional reaction around the world. The image was heartbreaking but not gruesome, the child’s face invisible and his pose suggesting sleep, rather than death.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about that picture. It was very upsetting, so sad,” says Turkish director Omer Sarikaya, who is shooting a movie inspired by the toddler’s death. Titled “Aylan Baby (Sea of Death)” and starring Steven Seagal, his film has angered Kurdi’s surviving relatives, who say they were not consulted.

“I was expecting someone else to make a movie,” Sarikaya told FRANCE 24 in a telephone interview from the film set in Bodrum, near the spot where Kurdi’s body was found. “But no one did, so I decided to shoot one myself and show the world what is happening here.”

Ethical dilemmas

The controversy surrounding “Aylan Baby” marks the latest twist in a protracted debate about the media’s exploitation of Kurdi’s images and the story they carry.

Rarely have photographs been as widely circulated and talked-about as the three shots of the lifeless toddler taken by Nilufer Demir, a Turkish journalist working for Dogan news agency. Within minutes of their release, newsrooms around the world were grappling with a familiar quandary. Should such harrowing images be published? If so, how? And why not others?

In a documentary report for the Dutch public broadcaster, later summarised in an article for the journal Ethics in the News, filmmakers Misja Pekel and Maud van de Reijt describe how editors mulled over issues of ethics, privacy, respect for victims’ grief, and the impact of the pictures on the audience. Those considerations weighed in the choice of which pictures to publish on front pages, which to use as secondary images, and whether to publish them at all.

Some opted for the shot of a Turkish policeman gently carrying Kurdi’s body, conveying an image of compassion. Others chose the more immediately distressing photo of the boy face down on the sand. Others still opted for the third shot, featuring the same policeman jotting something down in his notepad next to the lifeless toddler – a metaphor for the cold detachment with which dead refugees are treated as statistics.

“I was not alone in feeling a deep sense of unease about the sight of a [two]-year-old victim of a war in the Middle East being washed up on the outskirts of Europe,” the Guardian’s Jamie Fahey recalled in an article explaining the British paper’s decision to publish the photos. “It felt like the moment a crisis defined by abstract debates over ideology, statistics and terminology suddenly shifted to one about people.”

In some cases, news editors chose not to print the pictures, only to change their minds once the images had become ubiquitous on social media, reflecting the power of social media to drive the news agenda.

Kurdi’s tragic death also underscored how photographs could raise awareness of a crisis, shape public opinion, and bring about political responses.

Within hours of the images going viral, donations to charities had gone through the roof. And within days, some of the most hardline governments had announced radical policy U-turns on the migrant issue (albeit short-lived ones). In Britain and Australia, to name but two recalcitrant countries, ruling conservatives agreed overnight to resettle thousands of Syrian refugees.

‘The image is no longer owned by the family’

The technology that allowed the images to spread far and wide also enabled web users to edit the material, generating galleries of memes that photoshopped pictures of Kurdi’s body for provocative or humorous effects.

Cartoonists from around the world also offered their take on the toddler’s death, sometimes stirring controversies, as when French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo imagined an adolescent Kurdi harassing young girls during Cologne’s notorious New Years Eve sexual assaults later that year.

“Alan [Kurdi] became a symbol brandished by different parties, sometimes opposing ones, including those who wanted Europe to open its doors to migrants and those who argued otherwise,” says Pekel, who co-authored the Dutch documentary on media coverage of Kurdi's death.

“Different people use the pictures for their own goals,” Pekel told FRANCE 24. "And at a certain point the image takes on a life of its own, detached from the family."

The relentless media glare has taken its toll on Kurdi’s father Abdullah, the sole family member who survived the shipwreck.

After losing his loved ones at sea, Kurdi has seen his story hijacked several times already. Within days of their death he had to fend off callous accusations that he was himself a people-smuggler. He was then used as a pawn by politicians hoping to advance their cause, including Kurdish leaders who sought to portray his late son as a martyr of the Kurds’ struggle for self-determination.

With his family’s story now inspiring a movie, Abdullah feels he is again being dispossessed of his grief and of the memory of his loved ones.

“They have not consulted me,” he told Rudaw TV, a Kurdish network, threatening legal action to halt the movie. “I cannot watch a movie where my son is depicted alive […] His images really hurt me.”

Abdullah Kurdi and his siter Tima stand in front of a Sea-Eye rescue ship named after Alan Kurdi during its inauguration in Palma de Mallorca on February 10, 2019.
Abdullah Kurdi and his siter Tima stand in front of a Sea-Eye rescue ship named after Alan Kurdi during its inauguration in Palma de Mallorca on February 10, 2019. Jaime Reina, AFP

His sister Tima Kurdi, who lives in Canada and has written a book about her nephew, called “The Boy on the Beach”, was equally distraught in an interview with CBC.

"I'm really heartbroken right now," she said, noting that no one involved in the movie had asked the family for permission to tell their story. "It's a lot of hurt. […] They're calling him the wrong name   Aylan instead of Alan. They say he's three years old, not two years old. What do [they] know about my family to make a movie?"

Tima Kurdi said the family had turned down a number of offers to turn her book into a movie. She added: "We can't. We're not ready."

Not for profit

In his interview with FRANCE 24, Sarikaya said he did not read Tima Kurdi’s book and did not base his film on her family’s tragic fate. Instead, he said he took inspiration from multiple stories, including interviews with refugees who had made it to Europe and others still waiting in Turkey. He added that he planned to make a link with the tragic death, last month, of a Mexican toddler and her father in the Rio Grande, which has drawn comparisons with Kurdi’s fate.

“The film is not about Alan Kurdi, it is about all refugees,” he claimed, despite the film’s title and poster – which features the unmistakable image of a child in a red t-shirt lying face down – pointing to an obvious link with the Syrian toddler.

Sarikaya said he would be happy to meet the Kurdis and invite them to the film’s premiere, though he did not seem to think it was up to him to reach out to the bereaved family first.

“The pictures of refugees, and the stories they tell, are out there for everyone to see,” he said. “Nobody can control them.”

The filmmaker also stressed that nobody would be making a profit out of the movie, which he hopes to complete by September.

“All the actors came here in goodwill,” Sarikaya said of the film’s international cast. “No one is getting any money from this. All the net profit from the film will go to charity, to UNICEF,” he added, referring to the United Nations’ fund for children.

Pekel, the Dutch filmmaker, said the director’s intention is of paramount importance when tackling such sensitive topics. “Are they doing this for money or to say something about humanity? It makes all the difference,” he explained.

The documentary maker expects that, as a work of fiction, “Aylan Baby” is unlikely to stick to an accurate account of events, though it may yet carry a powerful message.

“There is still a lot that is unclear about what really happened on the beach in Bodrum [where Kurdi was found]. We couldn’t verify everything, so there are parts we left out of our documentary, whereas feature filmmakers can hide behind fiction,” Pekel explained.

He added: “It’s a highly sensitive subject, we’re talking about the death of a toddler found on a beach. It is still so unclear, so fresh, that it’s perhaps not an ideal subject for a film. But, at the same time, it’s a story about humanity – and hopefully this will be a film about humanity too.”

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