The sea inside

The films screened as part of the Rima Film Festival shed welcome - and necessary - nuance on the migrant experience in Europe

Ethiopian director Dagmawi Yimer shooting his short documentary ‘Soltanto il Mare’ (‘Nothing but the Sea’)
Ethiopian director Dagmawi Yimer shooting his short documentary ‘Soltanto il Mare’ (‘Nothing but the Sea’)

‘Migration’ has taken on a variety of connotations these days, and continues to do so at an alarming rate. The media, perhaps aided and abetted by an increasingly anxious international populace, regularly churn out boilerplate proclamations and narratives on the origins of what is routinely dubbed as the ‘migration crisis’ – as incited by conflicts in various African countries as well as places like Syria.

But in these rapid-fire considerations of what is becoming one of the most dominant talking points of our time, nary a thought is spared on the everyday subtleties that characterize the migrant experience. It’s as though we give plenty of space to political rhetoric, but very little to the social and psychological realities that ripple around the individuals in question.

The series of short film screened as part of the Rima Film Festival earlier this week – forming part of the wider ‘Rima’ project and screened in Valletta in collaboration with the Archivio Memorie Migranti (Rome) and Viaggi Solidali (Turin) – attempt to tap into precisely that sadly neglected terrain.

The Festival opened on Friday evening with the 15-minute short ‘To Whom it May Concern’ by Zakaria Mohamed Ali – the Somalian journalist also responsible for ‘Dadir’, screened on the following day. The film’s simple premise belies a complex network of submerged emotions. Formerly an asylum seeker in Lampedusa, Ali returns to the detention centre in which he stayed in the early noughties, now as a ‘free man’ and with something of a mission. A fellow detainee has asked him whether it would be possible for Ali to retrieve some photographs and documents that were taken away from him upon arrival in Lampedusa.


Some of these items have both official and sentimental value – relevant professional documentation, as well as wedding photos – and all in all, constitute key markers of identity. The fact that Ali is prevented from retrieving this material, not out of any malice on the authorities’ part, but simply as a by-product of bureaucratic procedure, is harrowing. This is a story about institutionalized erasure of entire individuals, as the fateful detention centres swallow up memories and identities whole.


The next film in line, however, turns the lens away from the cold glare of the authorities to lend an ear to the local Lampedusans themselves. In so doing, Dagmawi Yimer’s ‘Soltanto il Mare’ (‘Nothing but the Sea’) ends up being a poignant and necessary film that cuts through all the codified talk about migrant landings in the media – in which Lampedusa, much like Malta, is framed as an unwitting protagonist to varying degrees of responsibility and blame – to give ‘normal’ Lampedusans a chance to tell their own side of the story.

While it should be taken as something of a given that the interviewees approached by Yimer would naturally not be of a racist disposition, it still feels significant that the people the filmmaker spoke to were less concerned with the (real or imagined) problems posed by migration, and more with the hard economic realities that they face in their daily lives.

Predominantly consisting of local fishermen, along with a smattering of other locals, Yimer’s informants paint a picture of a kind but embattled people, seemingly forgotten by the mainland and pressured into accepting tourism as the new economic standard for the island – pushing aside longstanding traditions like fishing. ‘Migration is the least of our problems, if it even is one,’ the Lampedusans seem to say.


Saturday’s edition of the festival opened with another poignant vignette from Zakaria Mohamed Ali. ‘Dadir’ – originally a segment in the ‘Benvenuti in Italia’ anthology of shorts – charts a significant day in the titular protagonist, a famed footballer in his native Somalia. Visibly bitter about his talents going unrecognized in Italy, the knife plunges deeper when we discover that Dadir is reduced to sneaking onto trains to be able to travel to a significant football match, since he can’t afford the Milan-Rome train ticket.


But proving once again that he’s the more artistically gifted of the directorial duo on show at the Rima Film Festival, Dagmawi Yimer’s concluding feature, Va’ Pensiero, was the strongest film of the Festival’s quartet. Taking as its starting point two racially motivated attacks in Milan and Florence, the film paints a melancholy portrait of two men processing, though not necessarily overcoming, a brutal obstacle in their bid for reintegration.

The jewel in the film’s crown is the tender and charismatic Mohamed Ba, a Senegalese griot (itinerant storyteller – think troubadour) who refuses to give up the pursuit of knowledge over material gain, and eventually finds employment in a local school. But after he’s stabbed at a Milanese tram station, his otherwise strong sense of optimism also takes a dent, leaving him feeling as though all his hard work of building a new life for himself and his family has been for naught.

Similarly, Cheikh Mbengue – a father and a market vendor in Florence – struggles to reconstruct his sense of well-being and identity following a shooting by confirmed Neo-Nazi sympathisers.

Framed by Mohamed’s live storytelling performances – to his own percussive accompaniment, and weaving Senegalese folk tales and real-life history – Va’ Pensiero suggests that it’s only by telling our stories to a receptive crowd that we can even begin to start healing.

For more information on the RIMA project, log on to The project is supported by the Malta Arts Fund and the Valletta 2018 Foundation