REFUGEES: Gradually revealing the entire picture, this observational documentary not only highlights many of those missing during the Arab Spring, but also the constant nature of a woman’s work.

Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher. Regular contributor to Modern Times Review.
Published date: April 8, 2019

Those Who Remain

(Celle qui restent)

Ester Sparatore

Laure DahoutGiovanni PompiliPatrick AndréGeneviève Lemal

France, Italy, Belgium

Only the film’s end titles provide the tragic historical coordinates – 504 Tunisian migrants who left for the Italian coast during the Arab spring remain missing to this day. In Those Who Remain, Om El Khir – whose husband is amongst the missing – tells their story.

Om El Khir enters the film as an acousmatic voice; first, behind a black screen, then, from a semi-closed turquoise door without lock or handle. We then see her from behind, simultaneously talking on a mobile phone and also to her children in another room. In the third shot, she sits on a sofa, holding a large framed photograph of a man’s face in her lap, whispering to her youngest child to give him a kiss. The child does, embracing the photo, whispering, «Dad».

Om El Khir Ouirtani
Om El Khir Ouirtani

A woman’s work

From these early shots, viewers learn the two most important things about the film – the father in this family is missing, and the mother is constantly forced to do several things at once. One of its more peculiar qualities is how the emotions of care, fear, love, and friendship are visualized by showing women at work – cooking, making a bed, unpacking her children’s clothes.

One of its more peculiar qualities is how the emotions of care, fear, love, and friendship are visualized by showing women at work

Om El Khir Ouirtani
Om El Khir Ouirtani

Om El Khir manages to take care of her children, from their basic needs to their education, while simultaneously organizing the women’s struggle to find their missing husbands and sons. Her very first words indicate she is also involved in organizing the shooting of the film. Yet, this focus on work is not a personal trait. It also is not the result of the director’s efforts to hide the act of observing. In fact, one of her children regularly peeks into the camera, and we hear visitors remark, «Ah, you are filming, please go on». This focus acknowledges the historical fact that multi-operability is a distinct feature of the way women work – they work all the time. The female director, at the advantage of the female gaze, brings this to the fore.

We are on the other side of the migration.

Gradually, the world beyond the initial family’s immediate living environment is laid out – a modern-day Tunisia where the objects of technological progress, digital television, printers, and mobile phones, intertwine with traditional customs such as circumcision and ethnic clothing – where sandy beaches and dirt on the street mixes with the polished corridors and glass walls of official buildings. We are on the other side of the migration. As children play in shallow pools of water by the sea they cheerfully pretend a nearby abandoned wooden box is a boat, and they have successfully reached Lampedusa.

Those Who Remain. Director: Ester Sparatore
Those Who Remain. Director: Ester Sparatore

A people’s protest

It is truly fascinating how the film manages to provide all the necessary information by mere observation of ordinary activity without commentary, titles, or direct address to camera. We learn everything through Om El Khir as we follow her on errands, at meetings and street protests, observing and listening to organizational discussions, quarrels amongst the activists, and misunderstandings about locations. The narration is meticulously structured in two parallel directions. We get to know Om El Khir more personally through the film – she becomes more relaxed and we even see her playing in a band and dancing. Simultaneously, the fight for information about those who are missing becomes more public.

The film manages to provide all the necessary information by mere observation of ordinary activity

The initial behind the back approach repeats several times throughout the film, but in different contexts. First, we follow her walking through private spaces – at home, with family and friends. Second, as she visits public spaces, beaches, the squares where activists protest, the bars where they meet for coffee, and third, as she walks through the cold white corridors of official buildings. In one of these meetings, the people waiting in vain to know what happened to their family members put their pain into words as they explain why they decided to block traffic on the bridge. We see them on the Bizerte bridge, holding up posters with portraits of the missing, sitting in front of cars, facing their fellow citizens who want to go on with their errands. They scream, «Give us back our children!» until they are drowned in the police sirens. Such graduate elaboration serves to justify the protesters’ actions not by the authorities, but to the audience, this provides a unique analysis of a people’s protest.

Modern Times Review