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Interview: My film echoes a personal story

At the screening of his film ‘The Last Shelter’ in Brussels in March 2022, director Ousmane Samassékou gave us an interview.

 

Your film deals with the theme of migration. To do this, you followed the daily life of men and women who try to make their way to the other side of the Mediterranean from  the migrants’ house in Gao. What prompted you to look into this theme and to focus on this migrant house in northern Mali ?

I made this film as an echo to a personal story, that of my uncle, who was 32 at the time when he left for the great adventure. Since then, he has never been heard from again, leaving my family with several unresolved concerns and questions. Initially, I wanted to make a film by questioning the memory of my grandmother, my parents, and other members of our family. During my research, I discovered the Maison des Migrants in Gao and finally decided to go there to find out what happens in terms of reception but also in terms of recovery of migrants passing through, leaving, or returning. So, I put my camera in the migrants’ house to capture human stories.

The filming took place in the North of Mali. The security conditions must not have been easy. How did you overcome these challenges ?

Shooting in Gao was a challenge because it is an area where there is a lot of insecurity: there are attacks, kidnappings. The presence of a camera in this type of place is particularly dangerous for the people we are filming but also for ourselves and the teams. We therefore chose to film mainly inside the Migrant House. As a filmmaker, it was important to capture images of the desert. The desert is an essential component of the film. Initially we wanted to film the desert at the Algerian border, but this could not be done because of security problems. Therefore, we relocated the filming to the Timbuktu region, an area where many migrants also pass. This allowed us to get the desired illustrations of the desert, to retrace the trajectory of some of the migrants, but also to guarantee both the protection of the people we were filming and our own.

Why is the desert so important?

From a cinematographic point of view, the desert is an essential component. It is both poetic and wild. It allows us to represent the journey, the solitude, the sorrow, the wandering of these migrants who are no longer, or only rarely, heard from. It is also a way of giving a voice to the people who have passed through this place as well as to all the other traces of life (animals, bones, etc.). I also wanted to underline the danger of the desert and the hostile conditions in which the migrants find themselves during the crossing. The desert represents somewhere the obstacle to overcome to reach the final goal.

Let’s go back to the protagonists. How did you manage to penetrate their intimacy, their daily lives? 

When you film vulnerable people, you have to be patient, you have to put yourself on their level. Every person who sets out in search of a better future carries one or more burdens. They don’t usually want to be seen in the light of that vulnerability. It is the director’s responsibility to make them understand the purpose of his work. From the moment the director is sensitive to their reality and specifies that he is there to document moments of a life that can inform and raise awareness, an opening is created. Immigration has often been vilified by the media, which sometimes tends to dehumanise migrants.

The film succeeds in establishing a real empathy between spectators and protagonists. We would like to know what happens next in their stories. Have you kept in touch with them? 

It is important for a documentary filmmaker to maintain links with the witnesses to the stories he or she is telling. The time spent filming gives rise to the creation of surprising links with people. So, I tried to keep in touch with them by phone, social networks and so on. Among the protagonists of the film, Natacha is still living in the migrants’ house, Kally was picked up by her parents in Burkina Faso and Esther continued her journey and is now in Algiers. After the film was edited, I was able to contact Esther, thanks to the efforts of an NGO, who was staying in Tamanrasset while waiting to be transferred to Libya. She finally stayed in Algeria and is currently residing in Algiers in a UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency) house.

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