Years of anti-immigration rhetoric has made us lose touch with our shared humanity. Migration Collective works assiduously to bring humanity back to how we relate to each other as individuals and communities, celebrating the movement of people. Our reporter Holly Bootman attended their flagship festival and shares her reflections on the power of art to shift narratives on the so called ‘refugee crisis’.
Art, academia, and action. This is the dynamic intersectional approach taken by Migration Collective to challenge the mainstream rhetoric on migration. Founded in 2016 by a group of artistic, experienced and spirited women, Migration Collective arose in response to the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ which saw a swarm of problematic narratives surrounding migration arise after a period of increased movement of refugees and migrants into Europe. Promoting the understanding that migration is necessary, and a far more complex matter than media could portray, Migration Collective works assiduously to bring humanity back to how we relate to each other as individuals and communities. They celebrate the movement of people and work with local and international communities to explore experiences and issues surrounding migration, displacement, and diaspora.
What makes Migration Collective’s projects and events truly unique, dynamic, and thoughtful is their commitment to a new rights-based approach to migration. This perspective underpins and echoes throughout all of their work. Their projects revolve around a relational and inclusive approach towards human-rights and migration and, in doing so, they bring together members of different communities with diverse backgrounds. They focus on what we as human beings share, rather than what separates us.
Migration Collective’s events reveal the incredible power of art and expression to widen the narrative on migration. I had the pleasure to attend a variety of events held as part of the seventh edition of the London Migration Film Festival. These are the moments that stood out for me:
A radiant Brixton launch enlivened by intriguing rhythms
Opening night was an evening of celebration and solidarity. Brixton’s Upstairs at the Ritzy was aglow with community, joy, and purpose. Saied Silbak, a Palestinian composer and musician, launched the series of events and films to come with wistful and energetic music, fusing together traditional Arabic and new musical styles. Saied was soon joined by a small ensemble of musicians, who set a stunning and poignant rhythm for the festival – poetic, political, and social. The whole night was full of life, also thanks to the renowned DJ (and co-founder of the Beirut Groove Collective) Ernesto Chahoud. With Ernesto’s intriguing and lively rhythms resonating through the crowd, the atmosphere and energy of the film festival was set, with such a sense of excitement for what was to come.
Confronting painful pasts through Semret
One beautiful part of the London Migration Film Festival is that it lights up across London, reaching boroughs and independent cinemas across the city. Genesis Cinema in Bethnal Green was one of the festival’s regular locations for events, and hosted the first screening of the programme: the UK premiere of Semret.
The film follows the lives of Semret and Joe, a single mother and her daughter living in Zurich, and their differing interests and experiences in relation to their ‘home’ country of Eritrea. As Joe pushes to know more about her heritage, culture and origins, Semret refuses to share her story, unwilling to reveal the traumas of her past. But challenges threaten the quiet life that Semret has built for her family, and she finds she must confront her history and stand up for her rights.
Through the themes of family, community, migration, trauma, womanhood, love, and friendship, Semret is a touching and soulful film that portrays lived experiences made up from many lives.
Following the screening of the film, Lula Mebrahtu (a multidisciplinary artist who was herself born in Eritrea and migrated to the UK as a child, and brings the character of Semret to life) joined Migration Collective in a Q&A panel. From the joy of art, to being drawn towards differences and finding peace within yourself, Lula shared her thoughts on the power of telling human stories, and her personal experience telling the story of Semret.
‘Vulnerability’ vs ‘precarity’ debated
During the week-long festival, fictional and non-fictional films were screened across London, each providing insight into different aspects or experiences of migration. The intersectionality of every film and event was beautiful; themes spanned across love, heritage, movement, memory, family, community, culture, identity, work and labour, femininity, equality, ambition, conflict and so much more. Some films were longer, feature length pieces, and others were presented as a curated collection of short films. The film festival also hosted a multi-disciplinary workshop ‘Through the Foreign City’, and an interactive panel discussion ‘On Solidarity and Dissent’.
Attending the panel discussion was truly invigorating, a room in which agency and passion for life and lives was tangible. It was centred on the question: What does meaningful solidarity look like?
The panel itself was made up of NGO workers, union leaders, filmmakers, and people with experience in, or interest in, human rights and migration. All had some degree of experience on the ‘frontlines’ of solidarity with migrants who are placed in precarious positions regarding their citizenship and freedom of movement.
A prominent insight I have retained from the discussion was on the topic of vulnerability, and the danger of labelling groups of migrants as ‘vulnerable’. This can be used strategically; it can create negative discourses for certain groups, and also connote levels of worthiness and deservingness which translate into reductive narratives and dehumanising policies. An audience member proposed we discuss ‘precarity’ instead; individuals are subjected to precarious states of being, they are not themselves vulnerable. However, arriving at an answer or a solution was not the goal. Together we opened up the complex topics of migration and solidarity, and discussed necessary changes on individual and systematic levels.
This was an energising experience of community sharing and learning, all based on a relational understanding of human rights.
From my perspective, the interactive discussion event was the epitome of Migration Collective’s core goals: To challenge the narrow rhetoric on migration, bring together people of different backgrounds, and create a community from which we can all share, learn and understand the agency we need to take.
Closing night archival artistry
The closing night film was a piece of archival artistry. Crossing Voices (‘Xaraasi Xanne’) uses cinematic archive footage alongside striking auditory elements to tell the story of the Somankidi Coura, an agricultural cooperative created in Mali in 1977.
Directors Raphaël Grisey and Bouba Touré have carefully woven together footage to explore the journey of western African immigrant workers living in workers’ residences in France and their experiences of colonial agriculture and ecological challenges in Africa.
This was a luminously curated creative documentary which presents geographic movement in a new light and challenges conventional ideas of trajectories within migration.
A powerfully invigorating festival
The London Migration Film Festival realises an incredible power to invigorate audiences by stimulating a sense of collectivity and agency. It is a perfect example of how art, experience, academia, and community can be organised to challenge a narrow rhetoric and bring back the beauty and humanity of migration as a global phenomenon.
Whilst based in London, the festival is inherently international, and accessible to all. What’s more, the London Migration Film Festival also have an online selection of films, which can be viewed on their curated list ‘Best of Migration Cinema’ on MUBI.
The London Migration Film Festival will hopefully return in 2023 but, in the meantime, I’ll be sure to keep up with what they’re doing and to continuing affirming that we should remain focused on that which is shared between us, rather than what separates us.
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