Isabella Alexander is an anthropologist, filmmaker, and writer teaching at Emory University. She recently wrote a harrowing account of African immigrants and refugees attempting to cross the border between Morocco and the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Her story, entitled The Crossing, was part of Longreads on Conflict, a part of PRI’s GlobalPost Investigations.
Q: As a journalist, what types of stories are you most attracted to? Why?
Although I started out as a journalist, I don’t currently think of myself that way. I introduce myself as an anthropologist, a filmmaker, and a writer. There is a written element to all that I do. Stories allow me to talk about big issues through a small lens - to highlight the human element within any larger story. My goal with this piece was to humanize the migrant crisis. Because the global migrant and refugee crisis is so vast, it can be overwhelming for readers. If readers can see their brother, their nephew, or their son within a story, it’s harder to turn away.
Q: In The Crossing, you were able to tell a very complicated story through the eyes of one 14-year-old boy, Beni. How did you find him?
After my first few visits to the camps in Morocco, I assumed my focus would be on the chiefs who, although very young, are regarded as the camp elders. I had mentioned to the GlobalPost editors that there was also a boy, Beni, who everyone in the camp had taken to – he was young, scrawny, and, despite the abuses he had endured, still held on to a certain level of innocence. We all decided that we should tell the story through Beni’s eyes.
Q: You are both a writer and a filmmaker. Which form of storytelling do you prefer?
For me, both are intertwined. I never pick up a project where I’m not telling a story in different formats, and there’s always overlap between my writing and film direction. The ways in which I craft scenes in film or print inform one another. When I’m in the field working on a story, there might be moments when the danger is so real, or the sadness so visceral, that I’d wished I’d had my camera with me. It can be hard to capture those intense states through language alone, but it’s a challenge I enjoy.
When I first shared The Crossing with my students at Emory, I chose to do so without any images. The students told me that, even without the images, they could see Beni - he was someone with whom they could closely identify. But with my next class, I shared both the story and the images and found that they connected with the individuals on an even more intense level.
Q: In its story-telling capabilities, how does GlobalPost separate itself from other online or traditional content providers?
GlobalPost reached out to me and asked if I would do a Longread within one of their identified conflict zones, so I started researching the kinds of work they had been doing within these zones. I am so encouraged that there is a news source that allows writers a space to tell long stories, which is so uncommon in today’s world. I also appreciated the fact that they were going to give me sufficient time to do the research I needed to on the Moroccan refugee crisis. Had they only given me a week for the story, I couldn’t have told the it from the perspective I did, which allowed for deeper, more meaningful and emotional storytelling.
Q: What is currently on your nightstand?
The Land of Open Graves, by Jason De Leon. For those moved by The Crossing, this is a powerful story. De Leon works with migrants who cross the Mexican-American border, humanizing that story in much the same way. It’s not a mass migration - it’s a story about individuals. He incorporates powerful visual imagery within his storytelling, too, working with a professional photographer, and illustrating the power of words to build off of visual data.
Isabella Alexander's latest film project is called The Burning, a film that follows three individuals as they attempt to enter the European Union via a Moroccan Spanish enclave.