I didn’t want to make a scoop; I wanted to show the emotions, the fears, the attempts at getting free from the past of those who, from one day to the next, find themselves victims only because of the colour of their skin. The film allows the migrant to shed his anonymity and the public to rediscover the man behind the victim. – Dagmawi Yimer
In the summer of 2006, Ethiopian born Dagmawi Yimer departed Libya for Lampedusa by boat. A year later, following a film-making course in Rome, he, and five other migrants co-authored The Desert and the Sea (Il Deserto e il Mare). Eight years on from his arrival on Lampedusa, and following the international success of Like a Man on Earth (Como un uomo sulla terra), Yimer has produced another poignant account of migrants’ realities in Italian cities.
While Like a Man on Earth (Como un uomo sulla terra) was based on Yimer’s own migration journey from Ethiopia, his most recent cinematic contribution Va’ Pensiero. Walking Stories (Storie abulanti) tells the dramatic stories of three different men – Mohamed Ba, Mor Sougou and Cheik Mbeng. All three living in Italy but of Senegalese origin; all three brutally attacked in their ‘new home’.
Through the skilful interweaving of Ba, Sougou and Mbeng’s stories, Yimer reveals the realities of racially motivated violence in Italy, which he explains, “generally gets a two-line mention in the press and is never told from the victim’s point of view”. The film delicately portrays the enduring fear and pain felt through the eyes of the victims. Performer and teacher Mohamed Ba describing how he was left to bleed in the street as passers-by fled after he was stabbed in May 2009. He describes how the police failed to follow it up as the institutions turned their heads. Not surprising his wife, Chiara, explains that the experience changed her husband, as Milan, his home for over a decade, became the place where a black African man can be attacked without cause or reason and then abandoned by witnesses and justice alike. The equally harrowing stories of Sougou and Mbeng, shot in the back while working in Piazza Dalmazia, Florence, in 2011, reinforce this message. As Mbeng explains, the worst thing was that the gunman did not know him, had no reason to shoot him or the other migrants attacked, except for their African origins.
As I have written elsewhere, it is not always easy being black in the ‘Bel Paese’[i] as ‘race’ continues to shape understandings of Italian identity and ‘Italianness’, with migrants from the African continent routinely reduced to the role of the vù comprà,[ii] and migration across the Mediterranean remains polemic. These more subtle, everyday experiences of rejection, alienation and racism, do not go unrecognised in Yimer’s sensitive portrayal these migrant men. Despite the grave and shocking nature of the violence narrated, Yimer manages to skilfully blend the explicitly racist attacks of 2009 and 2011 within narratives of broader, more pervasive experiences of exclusion. In one particularly striking scene, Ba is faced with an example of such everyday racism, which, while by no means benign passes unrecognised as such by the perpetrators who laugh through a jovial rendition of La Facetta Nera.
Although films about migration are increasing popular in Italy, Yimer’s film works against the reified stereotypes deployed elsewhere. Meanwhile, his unwavering conviction in the power of film for telling migrants stories (or rather allowing migrants to tell their own stories) and moving them from object to subject, gives the film an optimistic undertone, despite its harrowing content. Attention is given to the positive social and romantic relationships that these men have developed as they work to build lives for themselves and their families in Milan and Florence. And, although Mbeng expresses concern at raising his son in the same city where he was attacked, Yimer remains hopeful about the potential of successive generations, growing up in a more diverse Italy.
Today, it is over a year since more than 60 migrants were killed in a shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa, sparking international outrage. However, as I argued at the time, the problems facing migrants continue long after any arrival on the shores of Lampedusa. Such a crossing is but one part of a process that, in reality, starts long before any physical movement is made and continues as migrants negotiate life in their new places and homes. We know that intolerance and racism against migrants in any society will make this journey harder but without the migrants’ perspectives one cannot hope to understand the hidden world of migrants within our societies. For Yimer, it was his experiences and those of fellow African migrants that pushed him to make this film, “to dig deeper into the issue of racially motivated violence in Italy,” and to raise awareness of migrants’ lived realities. The result is a beautifully shot, sensitive and honest portrayal of three men’s experiences as they struggle through past experiences and hope for a better future.
Human Rights Watch (2011) Everyday Intolerance: Racist and Xenophobic Violence in Italy
[i] Bel Paese is an Italian phrase, literally meaning Beautiful Country, to refer to Italy. The phrase was first used by the famous Italian poet Dante.
[ii] “Vu’ cumpra’” is a derogatory neologism, used in Italy, to refer to walking vendors (‘peddlers’) of African origin. The phrase is based on the Italian “Vuoi comprare?” (“Do you want to buy?”) as it would sound in an ‘African’ accent.