Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

On the edge of the desert

MIGRANTS / The CPH:DOX winning documentary whispers migrant dreams and nightmares on the edge of the Sahara.

The Sahara Desert is a daunting, unpredictable feature of many migrant routes from Africa into Europe. Its hazards are many. There is the extremity of the climate, and the prospect of being lost for days in a treeless expanse without any drinking water. And there are the bandits — those with no qualms about cashing in on the desperation and helplessness of journeyers through fake roadblocks set up for bribes (as a coastal country on the Mediterranean, Libya is a key springboard for crossing between continents, and has been in a chaos of heavily armed rebel militias since the fall of Gaddafi a decade ago). Smugglers promising to transport migrants will take large sums to help, or lock their charges into debt servitude, with no guarantees of arriving, and betrayals of trust rife. As one migrant in Malian filmmaker Ousmane Saassekou’s documentary The Last Shelter puts it much more succinctly: «The Sahara was hell.»

The Last Shelter, a film by Ousmane Samassekou
The Last Shelter, a film by Ousmane Samassekou

Caritas Migrant House

The film, which was awarded the top prize of the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival (CPH:DOX), is a haunting and evocative vision of this migrant route as a space of spectres, in-betweenness, and anxiety; a non-place where history hovers in fragments of information and snatches of conversation, unmoored from notions of home, yet grasping for any future dream. Caritas Migrant House, on the outskirts of the Malian city of Gao, stands on the desert’s edge, and functions as a «welcome centre» for those either preparing to leave on the next stage of their travel, or coming back. Given the complexities and risks, many hopefuls need more than one attempt at crossing, before making it or returning home — or, in a tragically high number of cases, perishing in the sands or sea. The building’s aqua-coloured walls and sparsely filled but calm spaces emanate a sense of respite. Travellers watch television in a common area, have a drink or two outside together while swapping stories, or chat in small huddles on the mattresses they bed down on in dorm rooms. Saassekou has made the decision not to explain the migrant backstories too clearly in the film. Rather, what we get are fragments, which together create a sense of the piecemeal, negotiated and at times hidden nature of experience on a route which converges a dizzying array war stories and dislocation.

The building’s aqua-coloured walls and sparsely filled but calm spaces emanate a sense of respite.

Esther, a teenager from Burkina Faso, and her friend Kadi are determined to move on to Algeria, despite the house manager Eric Alain Kamdem’s well-meaning lecture on the perils that may well await them. He warns of the risk of sex slavery, and that prostitution is a common resort to make ends meet for the undocumented in Algeria. He presses them for contact details of relatives. The land around the centre, after all, is a veritable graveyard of unclaimed bodies, which turned up with only the scantest of identifying details. Lines of information back home can be severed for a variety of reasons, one of which is shame. One man, we learn, set out in 2016, and his family assume he has been in Europe since. He is unwilling to return, or inform them of his failed attempt, since they invested much financial assistance in his journey. The only option for those who see no way back is to try to cross again, and again. Or to sink into permanent borderless reality.

Read Also: Youth, migration, and documentary decolonisation: Don Edkins and Tiny Mugwe discuss the «Generation Africa» project.

Natacha, who sits up talking with Esther and Kadi, has been in the house for five years and counting, her reasons never quite elucidated. Mariko offers a hallucinatory account of a young woman he hears at his window and wishes to marry and take to Europe. In such a halfway stopping point of cultural dislocation, bodily vulnerability, financial stress and rampant exploitation, it’s no surprise that some come back from unsuccessful desert ventures bearing all the marks of psychological trauma.

The Last Shelter, a film by Ousmane Samassekou

Nature stands

Against these snippets of dreams and disillusioning terrors, the natural environment stands, both mesmerising, and formidable. Red sand stretches in barren swathes, sometimes whipped into storms, and the sun is a huge golden ball in the sky. It’s a migrant film that stands out, among the many documented journeys of the last years, for its poetic lens, and its reticence in pinning down locations or making too readily intelligible what, for the travellers, must always be impenetrable, as if grappling for coordinates in the dark. As it is, too, for those left at home, who may never know what became of their relatives as they slip into a void of oblivion from which no messages or signals reach back. The director knows this all too well: the film is dedicated to his uncle Amadou, who left 32 years ago and disappeared without a trace. For all that these stories of stateless limbo are unique, Samassekou suggests, the deep melancholy that resonates from them through the desert air forms the same sad, ominous song.

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Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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