The myth of Melusina reimagined

IDENTITY / Delve into the complex identities formed by Luxembourg's immigrant youth

Presented as the world premiere in the Portuguese Competition programme of Doclisboa, The Melusinas at the Edge of the River poetically examines travails experienced by children of immigrants in Luxembourg. Using photos and home video movies shot in the late 1990s and early 2000s punctuated by allegorical visual metaphors, the film spins a rhythmical tale of reflections of four young women on processes accompanying growing up in a country they couldn’t fully see as their own. Although all four characters in the film come from immigrant backgrounds, they come from families of various nationalities, cultures, and languages, testifying to many shades and attitudes toward the prevailing sense of otherness they live through.

The Melusinas at the Edge of the River Melanie Pereira
The Melusinas at the Edge of the River, a film by Melanie Pereira

Language proficiency

Luxembourg, with its immigrant population accounting for almost 50% of society and three official languages (Luxembourgish, German, and French), is a point on a map that surprisingly often escapes analysis of the immigrant life. Experiencing several waves of immigration from different European directions, the country attempts to incorporate children into its complex three-lingual education system as early as possible. The politics of the school system are based on strict requirements of all three languages proficiency, and in case of lower grades in one of them, a child is inescapably transferred to less prestigious institutions. Since immigrant parents often have problems speaking Luxembourgish, they cannot represent their children’s rights. Very early on, children of immigrants learn that they are on their own and need to be self-sufficient and self-reliant.

It’s often accomplished, however, at the psychological price of a heightened sense of nervousness, anxiety, and the prevailing urge to fit in. These emotions, once prolonged, are constantly being internalised and sensed. Sometimes, they lead to feelings of anger at Luxembourg and the home country that forced parents to leave. More often, they result in frustration with a perpetual feeling of not belonging. Adding to this the divergent requirements of behaviour at school and home that often necessitate a completely different set of rules at various places of their life, the children of immigrants divide their living space into various entities dictated by language, and hence also by separate cultural codes. The psychological pressure connected with multiple distinct cultural realities the children live in (Luxembourgish, German, French, English, and the home-country language) results in an overpowering sense of fragmentation that could be overcome only with much effort.

Since immigrant parents often have problems speaking Luxembourgish, they cannot represent their children’s rights.

Lived fragmentation

Coming to terms with the lived fragmentation of multiple distinct cultures often requires moving out of Luxembourg. As the characters reflect – it is a sort of cultural pressure that could be resolved and eased only by leaving and constructing one’s identity, free of tension, from somewhere else. Only by leaving do they start to see how Luxembourgish they’ve become and how much they differ from their family’s home country’s people. All these young women are slowly constructing their identity in a space in-between cultures, languages, and influences – a hybrid whole composed out of selected fragments of different cultures, a whole that is fluid and evenly changing configurations of its particular cultural elements. There is no one stable constant identity; the identity is in a continual formation process, as postmodernists theorised, and the film’s characters perceive their everyday reality.

Journeys to the family’s home country, if possible, are not easing the anxiety. There are always other people’s reactions to one’s gestures, mimicking, walking, or talking that gives impulse to the realisation of being different. From childhood to adulthood, the social environment stresses out their distinct background and repeatedly puts it in focus in various contexts, from the most innocent to the most unpleasant. Talking with each other and exchanging their life stories, the four characters reach, however, some realisations that recently rather rarely appear in documentaries on immigration, i.e., they recognise the reason for their childhood struggles lies in social class status rather than in a sole fact of being an immigrant. The class consciousness connected with living in one of the wealthiest countries on Earth but having very limited resources at one’s disposal is apparent, although not a crucial element of their discourse.

The Melusinas at the Edge of the River Melanie Pereira
The Melusinas at the Edge of the River, a film by Melanie Pereira


All these reflections on years of growing up in a foreign country are put in a framework of the Luxembourg medieval myth of Melusina – a mermaid forced out of her stable domestic life among people by the indiscretion of her husband and now living in a river, but repeatedly returning to former home missing and crying for the lost life. The mermaid, the hybrid connecting distinctive worlds, cannot rest and find peace in any of them; she ventures between the worlds in search of wholeness that eternally seems to be beyond reach. The Melusinas at the Edge of the River gives a new interpretation to the centuries-old myth – a Luxembourgish myth in a new twenty-first-century rendition connecting the space and the people living in it at different times. Something unique for a place and its multilingual culture that goes through the veins of all the people who grew up there, even those born in other places.

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Aleksandra Biernacka
Aleksandra Biernacka
Anthropologist and sociologist of culture. She is a regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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