It isn’t always clear from mainstream news reports but the bulk of migration originating from Africa happens within the continent. According to a 2020 report commissioned by the International Organization of Migration (IOM) and other partners, migration on the continent takes place primarily by land and not by sea. This is at odds with the general reporting in the global north where migration- particularly of the irregular kind- has since become a hot button political issue.
The visual picture often painted is that of a horde of desperate black people fleeing war-torn countries or besieging western borders on rickety boats. While elements of this discourse remain valid, one-dimensional portrayals merely distort the larger framework of migration in Africa, one that is far more complex than media depictions are capable of processing. The story of migration on the continent on a human level is at once the search for better opportunities elsewhere than options available at home. But it is also one of cross-cultural exchanges, regional integration and the possibilities of economic prosperity.
Two films, The Last Shelter by Malian filmmaker Ousmane Samassékou and Zinder directed by Niger’s Aïcha Macky, offer valuable contributions to the migration discourse. Both films, produced as the first batch of narratives from the pan-African Generation Africa project are in tune with these complexities and engage with the factors surrounding migration with genuine curiosity and respect for the people involved.
Domiciled in South Africa, the Generation Africa project is an ambitious undertaking by the non-profit Social Transformation and Empowerment Projects (STEPS) to work with talented filmmakers on the continent to produce feature, medium length and short creative documentaries related to migration.
Supported with funds from the German DW Akademie, the project managers put out a call that resulted in the selection of 25 films out of about 180 entries, supported through story development workshops, technical expertise and financial support. The films in the project, sourced from 16 countries mostly in East and West Africa are expected to be unveiled sometime next year in a global broadcasting event.
Generation Africa is off to a decent start already.
Samassékou’s sophomore feature, The Last Shelter, a revelatory look at the mental states of migrants as they make their way in and out of a halfway house on the edge of the Sahara desert premiered at Hot Docs and won the top prize at CPH:DOX.
The Last Shelter is actually a physical structure domiciled in the city of Gao, in northeastern Mali. Gao serves as a gateway for migrants from African countries attempting to make their way across the Sahara to the Mediterranean and Europe ultimately.
The shelter run by the Red Cross and Caritas, a Catholic organization, is the last sanctuary before the perilous journey across the desert. The home also represents the last stand between desperate migrants and the dark fates such as violence, forced prostitution and slavery that await them on the road. Migrants who come to the shelter are offered boarding, rehabilitation and any other resource that they might need as they figure out their next steps; either continue or return home defeated.
Every frame of The Last Shelter is infused with the beauty and brutality of the Sahara. The film opens with young men digging up graves for deceased souls, marking them and granting them some of the dignity that eluded them in life. The camera captures in breathtaking shots, the endless vistas of sand, the stillness and the signs of life that erupt from the wastelands. It isn’t just physical, it is psychology. The stories of the dead are as important to Samassékou as those of the living and the lost. And how could they not be? He remains haunted by an uncle who left home years ago for a new life in Europe and was never heard from again.
Obtaining intimate access to a cross-section of the inhabitants, Samassékou is patient with his subjects until they are ready to open up to him. For the tortured souls that Samassékou encounters in Caritas house, the initial wall of resistance that they draw up is a reactive mechanism to block out the unspeakable atrocities they encounter along the way.
The stories that they tell are revealing but none more so than those of the three women who give The Last Shelter its emotional nucleus. An important development considering women are rarely at the heart of narratives of migration. One of these ladies, Natacha has been rendered amnesiac by her private trauma which she is never quite able- or willing- to articulate. She says a lot with her eyes though and Samassékou captures the sadness that she telegraphs so eloquently. Another, Khady, speaks of being broken in spirit after she was sold into modern slavery by a man she once trusted. As if these stories weren’t painful enough, the third lady, Esther gradually unpeels her personal tragedy of being rejected by her family thus giving form to her quest of getting as far away as possible from her home in Burkina Faso. Even at the risk of personal danger.
Told a certain way, The Last Shelter with all the stories that it houses could be received as a voyeur’s peep into the suffering of broken people but in Samassékou’s expert hands, he is able to map out noble portraits of people merely playing the cards they have been dealt. Migration for them becomes the natural consequence of their lives and presents the only means of survival as far as they understand.
The desert route to Europe remains deadly though and for some of these migrants who have survived the horrors of the road but failed to make it across, at the house of migrants, they are able to confront and negotiate within themselves what it would mean to return home branded as losers.
Samassékou is also a producer on Aicha Macky’s terrific Zinder, a piercing portrait of a community birthed from lack. Macky grew up in Zinder, Niger’s second-largest city but for kids with her respectable upbringing, Kara Kara, the infamous part of the town was off-limits. A former settlement colony for lepers and beggars, Kara Kara is essentially a neglected ghetto with little or nothing by way of government impact. Now crowded with young people seeking modes of expression, Kara Kara organizes itself into gangs and criminal setups.
Taking advantage of the shared provenance, Macky is able to situate herself into the lives of some of these marginalized strivers. A lot is often said about documentaries being collaborations between filmmaker and subject but Zinder particularly feels like it. Macky’s empathies lie with the people as she channels her camera into understanding and then revealing how people born with zero opportunities navigate life.
Apart from a segment that tracks one of her subjects crossing Niger’s shared border with Nigeria to trade in the black market for fuel, Zinder isn’t particularly concerned with moving across borders. Which is not to say that the documentary isn’t a migration story. It very much is, as it is quite obvious that these hustlers and dreamers who populate Kara Kara, seeking to make meaning of their lives are eventually going to end up one way or the other in the house of migrants. If this feels like a damning or prejudiced conclusion to make, then it is only because the confluence of factors- young population, non-existent infrastructure, crippling poverty, insecurity, limited prospects- are exactly the same ones that the people in The Last Shelter are fleeing from.
Even when the funding for the Generation Africa project is mostly foreign, there is a deliberateness to the project implementation that ensures that the local gaze, narratives and voices are centered. Both films telegraph vistas of hopelessness but they also make sure that the subjects are portrayed with the dignity that they are deserving of.
This can be gleaned from the regal way that Macky films the bodies of the young men in the Zinder gangs, the scars that the women wear proudly and the platforming of their voices. Zinder isn’t a reclaiming as much as it is a reimagining. This centering is also visible in the ways that The Last Shelter maps the complexities and interiorities of the migrant experience. If film can be deployed as a tool for decolonization, then The Last Shelter and Zinder make for solid case studies.