Film festival sheds personal light on migration

Ahead of the RIMA Film Festival – part of a project focusing on migrant narratives and memory – we speak to two of the event’s participants, both of whom set out to add nuance and poignancy to the stereotypical political and media narrative on migration

Somali journalist Zakaria Mohamed Ali (centre) retraced his steps to Lampedusa to film a poignant documentary about the migrant experience • Photo by Mario Badagliacca
Somali journalist Zakaria Mohamed Ali (centre) retraced his steps to Lampedusa to film a poignant documentary about the migrant experience • Photo by Mario Badagliacca

‘The people hear about numbers, but not stories…’ | Zakaria Mohamed Ali


Zakaria Mohamed Ali is a Somali documentary film director who first arrived to Lampedusa as an asylum seeker, and then returned to document the experience with fresh eyes as a ‘free man’. He speaks about how his fulfilling experience as a Somali journalist was cut short by the political unrest in the region, and how the safeguarding of migrant memories through film can help to restore their dignity 

Zakaria Mohamed Ali
Zakaria Mohamed Ali

When did you first start practising photo-journalism, and what kind of challenges does the profession face in Somalia?

When I started to practice photo-journalism in Somalia, I remember it as a great time. I believed in being a good Somali journalist: I was motivated to write and be made aware of the lives of my people.

In Somalia I had many friends – all of whom were journalists, and just in front of our house they founded the office of the Somali Journalists Network (SOJON).

Eventually, I requested to become a member of SOJON. After two years, SOJON became NUSOJ (National Union of Somali Journalists).

Meeting and collaborating with all of these Somali journalists was a unique and precious experience for me – prior to becoming a member of NUSOJ, I wouldn’t have imagined that journalists could be as famous in Somalia as some of my colleagues were. But then, this was a great period, one in which I was exposed to many realities about Somali life.

One of my friends told me, “Zakaria, you must continue!” and I continued to write for a weekly newspaper (Haqabtiraha caashaqa), focusing on writing for young people, and about sports in Somalia, in Mogadishu.

In 2004 I met Abdirashid Abdulle Abikar (Deyl) the manager of Xidigta Xamar newspaper and I started to work with Xidigta xamar newspaper, which was a daily.

Though I enjoyed working as a journalist in Somalia, at one point in 2005 it occurred to me that this was also a risky endeavour. Basically, you’d need to be in the employ of some of the warlords if you wanted to safeguard your life.

The brief period in which I worked as a journalist in the country was both the best – and most active – part of my life, but also the most frightening. On 11 Auust 2007, my teacher Ahmed Elmi and other journalists like Ali Iman Sharmarke were murdered. This is the reason that I left my country, accompanied by 24 other Somali journalists. We headed to Hargeisa Somaliland on 2 December 2007… and here began my ‘escape’ – the journey in search of a better future.

What are some of the crucial differences between looking at Lampedusa from the point of view of an asylum seeker, and that of a ‘free man’? And what kind of impact do these differing perspectives have on your work?

I think it is important to look at both aspects. When you are looking as an asylum seeker you don’t know the place and you need to be one of the people in that place to be safe. You forget what you are, you forget everything. You just remember why you are in Lampedusa.

Looking at Lampedusa as a free man, you remember your arrival: what it was like, who you arrived with, why you arrived. But many questions still remain. I know it’s very important to to go back to Lampedusa, but there are plenty of answers I’m still searching for.

Why did you opt for documentary filmmaking as your format of choice to approach the subject of migration? What are the advantages of this particular medium?

To come back to Lampedusa as a filmmaker, I concentrated on the search of lost memories. This is an important thing for me, to look at and show the lost memories. These objects must be memories for the people who are coming to Europe, and must be kept alive and not left on the street (as they are thrown out at the ‘cemetery of the boats’).

This work is simple, and gives a voice to all the people who couldn’t say anything. The people whose names you don’t know, who still have their families, and they don’t know how their sons, brothers, wives, husbands, fathers and mothers died. Through voice and witnessing and the search of lost memories, I endeavour to illustrate why Europe must do something. And not just do something to solve the more immediate problems, but also get at the very source of these problems.

What is the main driving force behind ‘To Whom it May Concern’, the short film you will be presenting at the RIMA Film Festival in Malta?

The importance of this work – which was self-financed – is down to who we are and how we got there. The people hear only the numbers of those arriving in Lampedusa or in Malta, but not the stories of the people who arrive. The point of my film is to say that migrant filmmakers can also give a voice to our people, the directors who speak about their migration route, and others who are also able to recount their experiences. Cinema allows us to do this.

Are you looking forward to coming to Malta?

I’ll answer the question with another memory. When we were in the middle of the Mediterranean sea, we discovered that we were afraid. We did not know where we were going. We were looking for Malta. We were looking for Lampedusa. We called for help from Malta, from Italy, Libya and Tunisia. This was on 24 May 2008, and after three days we found a Tunisian military ship which brought us back to Tunisia. When you’re in a harrowing situation at sea, you don’t have a clear idea of where you’re going… 


To whom it may concern - teaser from AMM on Vimeo.


Beyond sensationalism and inquisition


Gianluca Gatta is the co-founder of the Archive of Migrant Memories in Rome. While collaborating with the RIMA to help organise its film festival, he speaks about the Archive’s empowering mission and its global scope, as well as Malta’s crucial geopolitical position in this ever-unfolding issue

Gianluca Gatta
Gianluca Gatta

How did the Archive start, and what were its initial aims?

The idea of compiling an archive of memories made by and for migrants came out of an experimental School of Italian for migrants and asylum seekers which was started in Rome in the early 2000s in association with a group of psychologists and therapists, named ‘Doctors against Torture’, who were helping migrants affected by post trauma stress. Together with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers mostly coming then from the Horn of Africa, we were a small group of volunteers, schoolteachers and researchers coming from different work and field experiences who simply wanted to make migrant memory a source of valuable knowledge and common good to all.

What are some of the key challenges you face? 

The Archive of Migrant Memories was born out of the necessity to gather, share and make public the daily stories of people who, through a mix of choice, determination and external forces, decide to leave their countries in search of a new future, and come to stay or cross the Italian peninsula.

Only a few echoes of these narratives reach private media, and no trace of them is to be found in public statements, as little peoples’ histories often struggle to find an audience beyond the attentions of sensationalist journalism and inquisitorial bureaucracy. The Archive’s aim is to put together researchers and migrant witnesses in order to produce oral, written and audio-visual narratives. In this way migrants participate directly in the collection, archiving and diffusion of their own stories and testimonies.

Do you have an ultimate aim for the project in mind?

It was our own way to respond to the need to leave a trace in public records and in the consciousness of society of the importance of transnational mobility and of its human entrepreneurship in Italy. We wanted to empower migrants and their voices so that their presence and role in our society could be delineated in all its creative agency and self-expression. This participatory process involves Italian and non-Italian actors in one single ethical and political project which aims at changing transnational migration from being something radically ‘other’ into a collective shared patrimony, one which – we hope – might allow a more balanced view of Italy’s own growth and change in time.

Are there particular geographical locations that you’ve focused your work on over others, and why?

At the beginning (early 2000s) we worked mainly with refugees and migrants coming from the Horn of Africa, as the turn of the century saw repeated crises and interethnic wars in Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia-Eritrea, and our earliest movie production (‘Like a Man on Earth’) was co-authored by an Ethiopian refugee, Dagmawi Yimer (our vice-president). But later of course we broadened our scope and we worked with Afghan, Kurdish, Bulgarian or West African migrants.

What is your impression of Malta, in terms of its geo-political position with regards to migration? Would you be interested in expanding your field of research and archival to Malta?

For us Malta is a key geo-political actor in migrants policies. Italian mainstream media used to exclusively represent Malta as a sort of “competitor” in avoiding to save migrants in danger of life in the Mediterranean Sea, while benefiting from a wide Exclusive Economic Zone. At the same time, the percentage of migrants rescued by Malta in the total population is dramatically higher that the Italian one.

From our point of view it would be very interesting and innovative to stimulate a dialogue between the civil societies of the two countries based on the migrants’ self-narratives. For migrants play a “mirror function” in a society, such a transnational communication process could also contribute to better understand the whole Mediterranean situation, producing a complex account of inhabiting this area from different “status” (citizen, denizen, stranger, refugee, “undocumented”…) and points of view.

Are you looking forward to experiencing it directly during your participation at the RIMA Festival?  

Yes, together with the organizers of Rima Festival we are trying to create a network involving
migrants and citizens interested in migrant issues. We hope that the screening of our movies and the discussion of our approach would be a good opportunity to meet existing or incentivate new similar project in Malta.

The RIMA Film Festival will be taking place at Casa Pereira, Republic Street, Valletta on November 6 and 7. Entrance is at €3.50 per night or €5 for two nights. Drinks will be available at the bar. The event forms part of the RIMA project, which is supported by the Malta Arts Fund and Valletta 2018. For more information on the project, log on to