A Limpadusa c’era nu focu ca sempri ardi api Maria
E da lu mari la genti vinia e pi lu mari la genti s’innia
greci e romani, turchi e cristiani dintra na rutta nzemmula stannu
di l’ogghiu sacru mai fannu ammancu e ognunu prega alla so manera
e nzemmula si nchucchiunu li vusci do mediterraniu
e fannu na parlata sula sulu na litania na poesia a Maria Maria Maria
matri Maria alla casa tu fammi turnari
Song of the Porto Salvo Madonna Sanctuary, Giacomo Sferlazzo.
“The encounter with the other” was the main theme of the fifth “Lampedusa in festival” (19 – 23 July) a cultural manifestation hosting a film competition by young artists, and collateral events such as artistic exhibitions, concerts, a series of historical documentaries on the island from the Historical Archive of Lampedusa, and workshops and seminars, which starting from the complex reality of Lampedusa, produced intense debates around migrations, global economy, European politics, citizenship, collective memory, cultural belonging. Emblematically inaugurated under the Porta d’Europa (gate to Europe), the monument on a splendid desert hill near the old port, that Mimmo Paladino dedicated to the migrants dead in the sea, the festival offered rich food for thought about “the encounter with the other”, meant as an urgent cultural and political question concerning both the local and global reality. This thematic choice, in fact, sounds almost obliged, if one considers the crucial role Lampedusa has assumed in the contemporary processes of migration from the South of the Mediterranean to its northern shores. The geographical and historical dimension of Lampedusa as the place where the migrants from the South first seek refuge in their passage from Africa to Europe recalls immediately to the cultural and political dimension of the island as a critical territory, where the encounter with the other, although its complex, contrasting and destabilizing aspects, can constitute a cultural challenge to the colonial thought and its diverse declinations.
The competeng films and docs (La voce dei sogni by Simona Bonomo, Mineo Housing by Cinzia Castania, Just Play by Dimitri Chimenti, Number9 by Sara Creta, Nadea e Sveta by Maura Delpero, Timbro rosso by Laura Di Pietro, Mohamed e il pescatore by Marco Leopardi, Le monde est comme ça and Vol spécial by Fernand Melgar, Il limite by Rossella Schillaci, Maria en tierra de nadie by Marcela Zamora) showed in the main public spots of Lampedusa, offered diverse thematic and aesthetic perspectives of the encounter with the other, recalling to the critical question, widely analysed by postcolonial studies and feminist theory, of who the “other” really is, by whom or what his or her otherness is defined. A common critical narrative emerged from the films, insisting on a gap between what actually the encounter with the other means in juridical terms, in today Europe, and what it may instead signify in human, empathic, affective terms (or even in the terms of a post-human perspective). The migrants are the “others” we encounter on the southern borders of Europe, those against whom our legitimate residence, our regular citizenship is defined; their identity, their status, their simple being there, even their existence, are rendered “illegitimate” by law and its procedures. In the last years, the legislation concerning citizenship and asylum, in contrast to what the increasing fluxes of migration required, has become more and more unreasonably strict, untill establishing an implausible correspondence between the categories of “clandestine”, asylum-seeker”, “non-citizen” and status of non-human. Here, before the “other”, the universalist humanist principles of human equality and “sacredness”, to which law is inspired, reveal all their partiality and inconsistency. We are even further the impossibility, as Carl Schmitt has argued, by any giuridical order to respect the equality of what “a human face carries with it”1. This is not so much a question of possibility but rather of will and strategy. Migration law, in fact, has invented the new legal status of “nonpersons”2, and has done this subtly manipulating the humanitarian logic. This is exemplified by an institution like Frontex, a European agency deputed to the control of borders and the management of clandestine migrations, where the modalities of rescue, acceptance and assistance are characterized, as Sandro Mezzadra has recentely observed3, by a structural interlacing between a humanitarian logic, a militar logic, and an economic one, giving the measure of how in the regime of border control, especially in the Mediterranean area, the sense of the human has been colonized and even affected by an economic rationality and militar practices.
The films selected in the Lampedusa festival insisted on the brutality of the law governing the politics of migrations. They denounced the violence of a legal regime that is incapable to consider migration as a fundamental human right, and to recognize a civil status to the migrant poor. The narration of loss, death and, in better cases, of imprisonment, forced deportation, the break-up of families and lives; and then to be sent home to a place that is often no longer “home”, reveals the “banality of evil” produced by papers and permissions, and an alarming short circuit between “humanitarian” and human. European legislation, responding to opportunistic political and economic exigencies – that is, electoral xenophobic consensus and low-cost labor recruitment -, refuses to recognize a worldly citizenship and free movement to migrant people, thus producing itself illegality and ultimately programmed death. The October tragic shipwreck in the Sicilian canal, which attracted the attention of media all over Europe, as more than three hundred people died there, is just the last chapter of a shameful twenty years drama written by the communitarian and national regime of border governance inspired to a tracotante, calculated obtuseness.
The doc Vol spécial, the first prize, narrates the system of repatriation in Switzerland, from within the detention center for sans papiers of Frambois. For the first time a camera is allowed to register the life inside an immigrants’ detention center. With a direct language that never indulges in victimhood or paternalism, and playing wisely on a provocative ambiguity between fiction and reality, Melgar shows with much evidence how alienating the bureaucratic machine can be. The relationships concerning both the immigrants and their families, and the immigrants and their jailers seem to be enclosed in a world of dehumanizing constraints. Those working in Frambois seem to show solidarity and compassion for the pain of those who are sentenced to repatriate, yet they never let their role be questioned by their capacity to be affected. The jailers assist to the daily life of the enclosed immigrants; they bring them the letters from their beloved, come to meet their families, their Swiss-born children; they know their histories, the fact that they are not criminals but people without permission – in most cases as a consequence of job loss – and yet treated like criminals. When the sentence comes, a humiliating ritual of removal follows implacably. The sans papier is invited to leave his room and objects, then his family; his inmate friends embrace him, while his jailers carry out scrupulously the procedure: order him to undress to check that no arm is hidden, then put handcuffs on his hands and feet, and conduct him into an armored truck, towards the airport. Not infrequently, the scrupulosity the jailers show in this procedure of arrest has proved fatal. Once a Palestinian died during the flight because his chains were too tight. This is not simply law enforcement, this is a “force de lois”, to recall Jacques Derrida’s definition of the aporia between Law and justice4; it is an exercise of power impelled by a will to dominate, control and arrest life. So, in the country where the International Conventions of Geneva were signed, this is how law is enforced: at the expense of justice and reason.
The sense of a senseless and void reality is also echoed in Mineo Housing, the Amnesty International award. The doc draws the suspended lives of the migrants hosted in what was once the residence of the US military from a Nato base in Sigonella, turned suddenly into a reception center in the wake of a big migration of refugees from Lybia, in 2011. In a desert countryside, except for a line of pastel small houses, near the small Sicilian city of Mineo, the center appears behind its perimetric barbed wire, with the migrants wandering around there, entrapped in an incomprehensible waiting, abandoned in a coercive limbo. Under the images of this singular country we can hear the voices of the interviewed migrants, telling about their stories and hopes. In this sense, the doc seem to preserve what the system and politics of acceptance seek to render, as Federica Sossi maintains, “non-enunciable”, “non-archivable”5, and ultimately cancel, that is, the individuality and the stories of migrant people, and the possibility to retrace them, tell them, and defend them from invisibility and forgetfulness. Both Vol spécial and Mineo Housing seem to restitute voice, history and dignity to those ghost-like existences, and with them, the sense of a different reality. This is particularly evident in Vol spécial, and more incisively in Fernand Melgar’s other doc, La vie est comme ça, where melting lyrical intervals by modern griots singing their pain and desires come to break the absurdity of the frame, functioning as poetical and ethical reminders.
This can be considered a recall to reality coming from subaltern voices, what significantly resounded with a much more immediate accent in the events going on the island just during the festival, under the disoriented or even annoyed eyes of the tourists (mainly from northern Italy). Besides new landings and a refoulement at sea, there was a demonstration against the Dublin Regulation by the Eritrean refugees enclosed in the C.I.E. of Lampedusa, the center for identification and expulsion, hidden in the island’s rocky hinterland. The refugees refused to be fingerprinted in order not to be captured in Italy, what would happen as soon as they became registered locally, according to the Dublin Regulation. They left the C.I.E., gathered in the central square of the town and organized a pacific overnight protest in front of the main church.
The Eritrean “no fingerprints” demonstration was warmly supported by the festival organizers and participants, who joined the protest and created the space, within the festival seminar, for a more attentive dialogue with the migrants. This unexpected event offered the festival the possibility of a more direct confrontation with what the films seemed to be primarily focused on: the contrasting yet opaque relationship, in the governance of migration, between alienation and reality, and the uneven struggle between the deadly nets of e refused freedom and a persistent desire for insubordination and life. This can be defined as a struggle between a colonial will and a postcolonial desire, whose most glaring example was given by Chimenti’s doc, Just Play, concerning Palestine, the land, par excellence, besieged by the colonial politics of borders. The doc follows the prodigious Ramallah orchestra’s tour in the Israeli checkpoints, where the young musicians directed by Ramzi Aburedwan, who is also the founder of this itinerant project, just stand there and play in front of the military, ignoring their menaces, thus turning music into a political instrument of a defiant resistance.
The Eritrean protest, as well as the other experiences of oppression showed in the films, gave the idea of how a sense of a distance and precariousness is afflicting human relationships. This emerged particularly from the doc Il limite, the second prize, which registers the hard daily life of a fishing boat’s crew confined for months in the open sea between Tunis, Libia and Lampedusa, and the return of the boat to its marine town, Mazara del Vallo, where the crew can finally join their family even though just for a few days, before leaving again. The fishermen, three Italians and three Tunisians, live together in the tiny space between the bulk and the deck, yet in an almost total lack of dialogue. Despite their physical proximity and common destiny the fishermen seem to keep a barrier between them. Their boat Priamo and its intimate narration of spatial and communicative distance becomes the mirror where the present reflects itself, especially when their route, often, crosses the boats with migrant people seeking to reach Europe.
So, Lampedusa shows how, under the regime of Western political economy supported by instrumental securitarian propagandas, the act of crossing the frontier, especially for the poor, is turned into an experience of dehumanization and death. This recalls the word “necropolitics”, used by the scholar Achille Mbembe6 to describe the racist colonial power as a deadly biopower, that is, a force acting on the (black) bodies and makes them silent, disposable, subjugated, exploited, humiliated, tortured, invisible, dead. Of course, the Western necropolitics exists before and beyond Lampedusa. What happens in the Mediterranean also characterizes other histories, other borderlands, other migrations, other bodies. For example, the film-doc Marìa en tierra de nadie, which earned the jury’s special mention, transposed us into the desperate stories of the Us-Mexican border, following the dangerous and extenuating route of the Salvadorean mothers towards the United States, in search of their sons who disappeared during their migration.
Clearly, the distant yet interlaced stories of migration showed in the festival transposed the spectator beyond filmic representation, and the island itself. From these new space-time coordinates, Lampedusa is not simply a rock covered by desert scrub some 200 kilometres south of Tunis. It is a borderland in the south of Italy, of Europe, of the First World, where geographical distance is annulled by political, historical and cultural immediacies.
In this sense, the sea, and all borderlands as well, is not just a scenario where the tragedies of the modern world consume, but it can also be considered as a contact zone, an immense dispositive of interlaced histories, cultures, languages, sounds. Here different memories of migration, those submerged beneath the waves of a racialized modernity, cross and compose what can be defined as the “liquid archive” of the Mediterranean.7 This was exemplified by the suggestive encounter, on the Isola dei Conigli, with Iain Chambers and the activist and musician Giacomo Sferlazzo, about “Music, migrations, worlds: toward a different sense of the Meditarranean”. Mingling critical analysis, music and songs, Chambers and Sferlazzo’s “performance” showed how the sounds coming from the northern and southern shores confound and exceed the inherited cartographic and historiographical definitions of Europe and its “outsider(s)”, melting into what can be referred to as a Mediterranean musicality, from the sound of plucked instruments like the ‘oud, and the guitar or the mandolin and the bouzouki, to the nasal and melisma vocals characteristic of Arabic song but also of Sicilian and Neapolitan song, flamenco and rebetika8. The fluidity of the Mediterranean sounds where past and present, here and elsewhere incessantly overlap, disrupts the obtuse frame constructed by nationalist political power and its obsession for borders. Our notions of belonging, history, identity are invested by a critical wave transposed by sound, which proposes a wider, plural, mobile sense of what is supposed to be proper and what is instead considered as other.
Similarly, the exhibition “With the migrants’ objects”, curated by the Lampedusa Museum of Migrations, made up with the remnants of the shipwrecks, salvaged from a public dump near the port -what is now known as the cemetery of the boats- evoked the sense of the sea as a liquid archive composed of fragmented memories, which can nonetheless be reconstructed, re-created and reactivated. Those lost objects are in fact turned into works of art where the memory of the loss is recovered and re-worked into a migrant memory.
Then, the encounter with the other can be thought in terms of a cultural border-crossing or as an experience of transposition, like the aesthetic and simultaneously ethic one envisioned by art. It can be considered as a becoming other, or “strangers to ourselves”9 – to recall a feminist lesson -, which allow us to disanchor ourselves from the rigid confines imposed by First World law and the dictates of its version of the globe. This would be an encounter with an alternative sense of the world and the self, a sense that can be defined, in a word, as postcolonial.
1 Carl Schmitt, Constitutional Theory, trans. Jeffrey Seitzer, Duke University Press, 2008 .
2 Alessandro Dal Lago, Non-persone. L’esclusione dei migranti in una società globale, Feltrinelli, Milano, 1999.
“Quest’Europa si fonda sui confini. Intervista a Sandro Mezzadra”, Global Project, 13 ottobre 2013:
4 Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law. The ‘Mystical Foundation of Authority’”, trans. M. Quaintance, in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, eds., Drucilla Cornell, Michael Rosenfeld, and David Gray Carlson, New York: Routledge, 1992, pp. 3-67.
5 Federica Sossi, Migrare. Spazi di confinamento e strategie di esistenza, Il Saggiatore, Milano, 2006, pp. 132-133.
6 Achille Mbembe, “What is Postcolonial Thinking?” Eurozine 12, 2008: www.eurozine.com/articles/2008-01-09-mbembe-en.html.
7 See A. De Angelis, C. Ianniciello, M. Orabona, M. Quadraro, “Introduction: Disruptive Encounters: Museums, Art and Postcoloniality”, in I. Chambers et al., eds., The Postcolonial Museum: The Arts of Memory and the Pressures of History, Ashgate: Furnham, forthcoming.
8 See Iain Chambers, Mediterraneo Blues. Musiche, malinconia postcoloniale, pensieri marittimi, Bollati-Boringhieri, Torino, 2012.
Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves, trans. Leon Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.