Film Screening and Discussion Examines Stories of Migrant Life in Italy

By Elena Past and Mary Jane Dempsey

For millennia, the Mediterranean has been a site of mobility, as tourists, migrants, merchants, and warriors traversed the region. In recent years, the liquid Mediterranean borders of “Fortress Europe” have hardened, as extremist nationalist politics have resurfaced or intensified in many countries. Nevertheless, migrants and refugees continue to seek hope and shelter in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. Stories of their daily lives, political struggles, dreams, desires, and successes, but also of exclusion, racialized violence, and xenophobia, often fail to receive public attention. The Rome-based Archivio delle Memorie Migranti (AMM) has responded to this lacuna by offering a collaborative platform for migrants to share their stories with those interested in learning about their experiences.

Zakaria Mohamed Ali, a Somali filmmaker, cultural mediator, and AMM vice president, and Gianluca Gatta, a researcher and AMM cofounder, discussed their work as storytellers, researchers, archivists, and activists during an event at the American Academy in Rome on July 5. The evening, organized by Mary Jane Dempsey (2022 Fellow in modern Italian studies), Elena Past (2022 Fellow in modern Italian studies), and William Villalongo (2022 Fellow in visual arts), was dedicated to organizations that advocate for social and racial justice for migrants in Italy. It began with a screening of Va’ Pensiero: Storie Ambulanti (2013), a documentary film directed by Dagmawi Yimer and produced by AMM, which tells the stories of Mohamed Ba, Mor Sougou, and Cheikh Mbengue, three Senegalese men living in Italy who were victims of racist attacks in Milan and Florence.

After the film, Dempsey led a discussion with Ali and Gatta, who contextualized the reciprocity the Archivio cultivates between migrants invited to tell their stories through filmmaking and a public that bears witness and learns from these accounts. Another part of this interactive work is directly pedagogical and involves organizing workshops on self-narration at local schools. Ali and Gatti also discussed elements of their upcoming project, ITHACA (Interconnecting Histories and Archives for Migrant Agency), which considers past and present narratives of migration to inform future choices by practitioners and policy makers.

Guests convened in the courtyard following the screening and discussion for an aperitivo prepared by Gustamundo, a project that uses food to tell stories (“ogni cena, una storia”) about the political refugees and migrants who prepare it. As founder Pasquale Compagnone explained, the idea for Gustamundo was born in 2017 to welcome economic and social integration for migrants through food, as most of them had experience in the restaurant industry in their home countries. The aperitivo’s menu represented the diversity of Gustamundo’s cooking staff, with falafel and hummus made by Mustafa from Syria and yaprak prepared by Dilruba from Azerbaijan, then served by Dilruba and Flavio.

AMM and Gustamundo were then dinner guests of the AAR’s Rome Sustainable Food Project, which sources its ingredients from environmentally sustainable farms and producers. Head Chef Kyle Pierce and his team prepared a Sicilian menu, featuring couscous as a main course, to honor Italy’s enduring history of cultural and culinary exchanges.

Over the course of the evening, participants engaged in conversations around multiculturalism, mediatic reactions to racialized violence, and representations of migrants in cinema. Some guests remarked on the political symbolism of Giuseppe Verdi’s Va, pensiero, while other discussions lingered over the closing visuals of Yimer’s documentary. In the final frames, the camera follows a haunting murmuration of starlings as they dance across the sky, a vibrant image of migration and community, distance and proximity, precarity and hope. It is an image that Fellows often witnessed from the Academy’s rooftop over the course of the year, now imbued with a new depth of meaning.

The workshop was made possible thanks to the Fellows’ Project Fund, which supports collaborative projects between Fellows. If you are interested in supporting the Fellows’ Project Fund, please contact Elizabeth Harris, Director of Development, at e.harris [at] aarome.org.

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