Last week I had a couple of posts on immigration, migration, and refugees. Continuing in this vein, I want to mention a few films I’ve seen over the past couple of years on the general theme. One of the more noteworthy was ‘Mediterranea’, by American-Italian director Jonas Carpignano, which opened to good reviews in France last September and in the US two months later. Its timing was uncanny, in view of the refugee crisis of last summer and fall (and ongoing, of course). The film follows the journey of two young men from Burkina Faso, Ayiva (Koudous Seihon) and Abas (Alassane Sy), who head across the Sahara to the Libyan coast, to be smuggled across the Mediterranean to Italy. This part of the film—much of it, in fact—is documentary-like, particularly the scene, in Algeria or Libya (shot in Morocco), where the African migrants are robbed—and with a few killed—by criminals/terrorists (AQIM or one of those groups). The pic doesn’t linger on the maritime crossing—a whole film, La Pirogue, has been devoted to this aspect of African migration to Europe—the story mainly focusing on what happens to Ayiva and Abas once they make it to Italy, where they work as agricultural laborers, obviously exploited, with some of the locals being kind and welcoming but more not. Europe is not the promised land they imagined, that’s for sure. One naturally sympathizes with the two Burkinabé protags, though they’re not always angels (not that there’s any reason they should be). And, as tends to be the case with migrants, they are not les damnés de la terre in their home country, communicating regularly with their folks there via Skype—conversations in which they accentuate the positive and downplay the negative—home computers in a country like Burkina Faso signifying what may be considered middle class status there.
Director Carpignano’s inspiration for making the film was the events in Rosarno—a town of some 15,000 on the southern tip of Reggio Calabria province—in January 2010, which witnessed a riot by Africans after repeated harassment, beatings, and shootings of migrants by local residents (and with implication of the mafia), and which the pic reenacts. And, as it happens, actor Seihon was an actual Burkinabé/Ghanaian migrant in Rosarno, who had made the clandestine passage to Italy and participated in migrant protests there, which is where Carpignano met him (and with the two becoming close friends). In order to make the film, Carpignano did anthropological-like field research in African migrant communities in southern Italy, as he discussed in this interview. Carapignano also explained the reason for casting the film’s protags as Burkinabé, as he didn’t want to focus on refugees fleeing war but rather on people migrating to better their lives, as did the Sicilians and Calabrians who emigrated to the United States in the late 19th-early 20th century—and with southern Italy having been as “Third World” compared to the US—and as culturally alien to American society of the time—as sub-Saharan Africa is to Italy today. Trailer is here.
Another film on African migration seen last year was ‘Hope’, by French director Boris Lojkine. This one follows the journey of a Nigerian named Hope (Endurance Newton), as she crosses the Sahara to Morocco (where the entire film was shot), with Spain the destination. A single woman in a pitiless world of men, where it’s chacun pour soi. No need to say what happens to her along the way or what she has to do to survive financially. The social organization of African migrants is depicted in detail, particularly in the sequence in the migrant shantytown in Tamanrasset, Algeria, which is segregated by nationality, the migrants sticking with their own—Ivorians with Ivorians, Malians with Malians, etc—imposing strict rules of conduct and with hierarchies replicating those back home. Like Carpignano, Lojkine—who normally makes documentaries—did field research among African migrants, here in Morocco and particularly in Rabat’s African quartier, Takkadoum, where he recruited the cast, including the remarkable Newton, who was a migrant herself (she recounts her personal story here). In the words of one critic, some of the actors are basically playing versions of themselves on screen. After an act of sexual aggression committed against her, Hope hooks up with a Cameroonian named Leonard (Justin Wang)—she wants nothing to do with her fellow Nigerians—the sole man in the migrant column who showed concern for her. Their relationship is purely self-interested at first but they develop mutual affection in the course of their journey. The film does not, however, descend into sentimentality or pathos, nor is it misérabiliste in its portrayal of the migrants’ plight. It’s a good film and that I recommend, particularly to those who have a prioris on the subject. Reviews in France were good and with Allociné spectateurs giving it the thumbs way up. See, in particular, the reviews in Africultures and Variety. Trailer is here and here.
Though the two films portray “economic” migrants, many Africans who reach the shores of Europe are indeed bona fide refugees. For the anecdote, last August I went to a corner of the 18th arrondissement—near La Chapelle, on a quiet side street, seen only by riverains—where recently arrived migrants from the Horn of Africa congregate, just to try to talk with them. They were all from Sudan and Eritrea, with a few Ethiopians, so I was told. A couple of dozen men were lingering about, most riveted to their cell phones. None spoke French and only one English with any level of proficiency, the oldest man present—around 40 years of age—who said he was from western Sudan (i.e. Darfur). He was a truck driver by profession and said that he had decided to leave Sudan due to the security situation, i.e. civil war and absence of state protection. Sudan was a country one fled from if one could. He made his way to Europe via Libya, which he described as in a state of anarchy, with armed gangs running the show. I thought better than to ask nosy questions about the Mediterranean crossing or how they all made it to Paris. Or to delve too deeply into their actual circumstances back home and decision to migrate (which one cannot know or verify). One young Eritrean, who was listening to our conversation—which went on for half an hour—and spoke rudimentary English, said that he left his country because of its military service requirements, which last many years—ten years or even longer; it’s totally arbitrary—and that such was the case for all the Eritreans in the group. All had England as their final destination—naturally via Calais—though not necessarily because they knew anyone there (migrants invariably heading to a place where they have family or friends) or saw it as some kind of El Dorado. As asylum seekers—but in a legally precarious situation—they would, in principle, have been wiling to stay in France, except that the French state administration, such as they had dealt with it, was impenetrable. Not knowing French, they couldn’t communicate with it, and no translators were provided. And they were bereft of resources and with no local organism to help them (a middle-aged woman—in a hijab, no doubt Algerian—came to speak with some of them while I was there; my Sudanese interlocutor, who identified her as “French,” called her their guardian angel, a wonderful person who brought them cooked meals daily; no one else in Paris had shown them such kindness). As there was “nothing in France for us,” so I was told, the men wanted to move on to England, where they knew asylum seekers received temporary accommodations and assistance.
After a point I began to feel embarrassed with my inquiry, me the well-to-do, bleeding heart local who would go back to his comfortable home and life, and with nothing to propose or say to these desperate persons in a desperate situation. Apart from my questions, what could I say to these men or do for them? The one thing I did feel was revulsion at the demagoguery and general insensitivity of politicians and other public personalities who were piping off on the migration/refugee issue, presenting it uniquely as a threat to France and Europe. The men I met clearly cannot be sent back to their countries and it would be unconscionable, indeed downright immoral, to demand otherwise. Any ideas of what to do for them?
Briefly, two other films. One, ‘Macondo’, by Iranian-Austrian director Sudabeh Mortezai, came out in France a year ago—and to good reviews—under the title ‘Le Petit homme’. Borrowing from Variety’s positive review
This sensitive Austrian social drama from docu helmer Sudabeh Mortezai focuses on a [Chechen] refugee settlement outside Vienna.
Visit Vienna as a tourist and you aren’t likely to see kids like Ramasan, the 11-year-old [Chechen] subject of docu director Sudabeh Mortezai’s empathetically observed fiction debut, “Macondo.” To find such foreigners, one must venture to the outskirts, where the eponymous immigrant settlement offers housing to nearly 2,000 refugees taking shelter from their home countries. As an Iranian who split her childhood between Tehran and Vienna, Mortezai can clearly identify with the confused emotional state of her young protagonist, treating his unique situation as one example of Austria’s complex immigrant experience — a deeply humanist perspective…
It’s a coming-of-age story about a Chechen refugee boy caught between two cultures, whose combattant father was killed by the Russians, and who thus has to assume the role as head of the family, composed of his mother and two sisters. An impressive performance by the youthful actor Ramasan Minkailov. Hollywood Reporter and Indie Wire critics who saw the pic at the Berlinale also gave it the thumbs up. I thought it was pretty good too. Trailer is here.
The other film is a documentary seen in late 2013, ‘Stop-Over’ (in France: ‘L’Escale’), by Iranian-Swiss director Kaveh Bakhtiari, which offers an up-close portrait of the daily tribulations of seven undocumented migrants—six Iranians and an Armenian—in Athens, who had been smuggled into Greece from Turkey but found themselves blocked in the country, that they initially considered to be a mere stop-over in their projected journeys north (to Germany or Scandinavia). And given the situation in Greece, it clearly could not be their final destination. The film is worth seeing for those with a particular interest in the subject. Variety’s great critic Jay Weissberg reviewed it here, The Hollywood Reporter’s review is here. French critics were particularly enthusiastic. Trailer is here.