How Archive of Migrant Memories uses collaborative storytelling to shift representations of migrants

Zakaria Mohamed Ali begins to read the list of names in his diary as he sits at an empty port in Lampedusa: “Maslah Mohamed, Abdil Fatah, Alas, Omar, Abikar.” The names continue as his voice echoes alongside the sound of the Mediterranean sea. These names belong to friends who trekked with him across North African deserts and through the perilous journey across the sea.

Zakaria Mohamed Ali screens "To Whom it May Concern" at the Rima Film Festival in Malta. Photo by Desislava Valentinova Stoichkova.
Zakaria Mohamed Ali screens “To Whom it May Concern” at the Rima Film Festival in Malta. Photo by Valentina Paciullo

This powerful scene is part of Ali’s documentary “To Whom It May Concern,” where he journeys back to Lampedusa, the island he once landed in as an asylum-seeker eight years ago.

“I was remembering all of these things, all of these faces of my friends at that moment when we landed in Lampedusa,” Ali told ivoh at a bustling cafe in Rome’s main train station. “In that moment when I was filming, I was remembering everything that happened.”

Documenting memories through written and oral testimonies to produce audio and video documentaries is at the core of the Archive of Migrant Memories association in Rome, Italy.

The association “brings together both migrants, non-migrant volunteers, researchers and media operators committed to a participatory method in recording current migratory processes and registering their traces in the collective heritage of national and transnational memory,” as stated on its site.

Gianluca Gatta, the secretary of AMM, said it is a creative space where individuals like Ali, who have stories to share, can learn how to tell them using media. It is a place where they become the producers of their own narratives.

AMM projects include “Benvenuti in Italia” (Welcome to Italy), a five-part documentary series filmed and directed by a group of migrants from Somalia, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Senegal.

According to Gatta, Italian media often focuses on the negative narratives of migration. “It’s difficult to create an audience when people are used to listening to on TV and in mainstream media that are terrible. These kind of representations are very stereotyped.”
Gatta noted how media focuses on the chaos of migration and deaths at sea, without thinking of the whole migrant story. “They represent migrants as victims, only as victims,” Gatta said.  “For us this kind of representation is dangerous for migrants. They are that have a name, a background, a future, and aspirations.”

Zakaria Mohamed Ali, Hamed Diarra from Burkina Faso, Aluk Amiri from Afghanistan, in the “Welcome to Italy” training workshop. Photo by and courtesy of Desislava Valentinova Stoichkova.
Zakaria Mohamed Ali, Hamed Diarra from Burkina Faso, Aluk Amiri from Afghanistan, in the “Welcome to Italy” training workshop. Photo by and courtesy of Desislava Valentinova Stoichkova

In the Italian public sphere, migration is often considered a side item and a problem. Gatta adds that there is a type of segregation in migrant experiences and memory.

“We want to say that migration process belongs to everybody who lives in a country, in a city,” Gatta said. “That’s our approach and we are trying to work together.”

Ali and other participants in the association are part of the institutional structure of AMM. Ali is a member of the board and Dagmawi from Ethiopia is the vice president.

AMM hopes to share its methods with other associations and filmmakers working with media.

“There are many professionals that produce movies, but the point of view is often that of that tell story. We want to invert that point of view,” Gatta said. “Migrants are not only objects of representation but subjects of that representation.”

Before escaping to Europe, Zakaria was a young man who dreamt of becoming a journalist. He described his time in Mogadishu as beautiful but also the worst experience in his life. When his journalism teacher was assassinated, Ali left due to the danger facing Somali journalists.

Today, Ali the filmmaker who hopes to one day become a journalist again, says his film was not only about his personal experience but for those people like him, who have no voice or opportunity to share their story with a camera.

“ … When people arrive here only their pain and the risk they have been through are covered, no attention given to how people adapted and where they are heading to years after their arrival,” Ali said. “When people arrive and stay about 5 to 8 years people change, they adopt the country, learn the language and culture and integrate with the community. Italian media tell these stories.

“It’s very important experience  because you’re going back to a place you were once detained, now as a free man with document imprinted with your picture and your name,” Ali said.

Ali’s film was selected by the House of European History. He is currently working on “To Whom It May Concern 2,” which follows the lives of the friends he travelled with to Europe eight years ago.

Gatta said that when AMM gathers oral and written testimonies for their research, the team conducts in-depth interactive interviews in order for narratives to emerge organically. AMM tries to listen for narratives that cannot be represented in mainstream media. He recalls a memorable interview with a young man from Ethiopia describing his journey through the desert in Darfur, Sudan.

He told Gatta about a dangerous part of his migration: “It was night, he was scared, there were fighters in the desert, but at the same time he looked at the sky and saw stars in the sky, it was a joyful moment.” Gatta believes that looking at the whole story permits migrants not to be labeled as only victims or poor refugees. “For us, this kind of representation could produce a shift in migrants’ representation, because they are able to decide how to represent themselves.”

Editor’s note: Interview excerpts have been edited for length and clarity. 

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