The house of migrants
An interview with the filmmakers, Ousmane Samassekou and Aïcha Macky, about their films: two stunning documentaries creating new narratives about migration.
- Interview by
- Sara Hanaburgh
Ousmane Samassékou just won the main DOX:Award at the 2021 CPH:DOX for his second feature-length documentary, The Last Shelter (Le dernier refuge, 2021). The film is an intimate portrait of the lives of Esther, Khady, Natacha, and several other individuals who pass through the House of Migrants, a refuge in Gao, Mali, as they embark upon or return from their tumultuous journey across the Sahara in hopes of reaching Europe. The film also screened at Hot Docs and is in competition at Doc.fest Munich. Aïcha Macky’s film Zinder (2020) had its world premiere at the Visions du Réel festival, where it entered the feature-length documentary international competition before going on to the Change Makers program at CPH:DOX. It is now competing in the Official Selection Competition at DOK.fest in Munich. Zinder, the second largest city in Niger, and where Aïcha was born and raised, became her camera’s focus once she earned the trust of gang members from the disadvantaged neighborhood of Kara Kara. By telling their story with them as opposed to about them, Zinder changes the narrative about the lives of gang members, not only in that country, but across the world. Ousmane’s and Aïcha’s films are the first two films that figure among those selected for the Generation Africa project in collaboration with STEPS South Africa, a series of short and feature-length documentaries made across Africa that seeks to create new narratives on migration from youth perspectives across the continent.
I spoke with Ousmane Samassekou (OS) and Aïcha Macky (AM) about their films, their collaborations, the inspirations for their films, their documentary auteur styles, and reception and funding.
I sought out Ousmane. I had met him a few times when we were in school, when he was a young producer. I had never made a feature before, and Ousmane gave me a chance to prove my worth. He is also lively and pragmatic and willing to take risks. For me, [the way to do it is] you start with someone who has zero experience and you let them shine. That’s how I came to work with Ousmane, and I do not regret it.
I met Aïcha in 2013. We were pitching our films then: she, The Fruitless Tree, and I, The Heirs of the Hill. I was in awe of the way she brought out fragility and humanity in her story. When she contacted me about her project Zinder, I was quite moved because I like what she does, not only as a film director, but also for her activism on social issues. It was also an honor for me, fresh out of production school. I immediately agreed. It was a pretty colossal project, a challenge, and it brought me back to my own first film, which was also inside a system that was quite violent.
What inspired you to make your films?
As a kid, I was fascinated by the people who would leave, because I had an uncle who had left. I don’t know why he left, or why he didn’t come back. And in my family, there was always this story about my uncle that remained in suspense. The absence of this uncle. As I was growing up, I came to realize that the entire family had helped him prepare to leave. Some had given him money; others had made sacrifices, prayed. My grandmother would tell me the story of this uncle who was brave, a warrior who had to leave everything to go and find happiness for the family, leaving his two children and his wife who never remarried. So I was always curious about how someone could just leave everything and go, and I wanted to make a film about it.
How did you go about writing?
I remember the first draft that I had written. I sent it to Aïcha and she said to me, ah, that’s very poetic, but there is no story in there. I was searching for the story I wanted to tell, and I was gathering images that were a bit metaphorical, you know? At that point, I was thinking only of the departure, of putting together various stories of people who had left along with abstract images of the desert, a pirogue on the river. Around that time there was the call for films by Generation Africa in Burkina [Faso], and my proposal was accepted. So we went to [Ouagadougo], and while we were there, a gentleman named Albert from Niger gave a talk on migration, and he started talking about a place called the House of Migrants. And being one of the only Malians there, I was amazed to find out that there was this house in Gao on the edge of the desert that welcomed migrants upon their departure as well as their returns. I had to go see what was happening there. Albert gave me the email of the coordinator at the House of Migrants, whom I harassed many times before I could get the authorization to go there. Finally, when I arrived, I was fascinated by a woman there who was amnesic, who no longer knew how to return to her home. She had been there for five years. That woman’s story brought back memories of my uncle. I thought that he, too, was lost somewhere.
That’s Natacha’s story?
Natacha, exactly. I thought, maybe my uncle is dead, or perhaps he is like Natasha, whose family is waiting for her somewhere, thinking that she is dead and awaiting her return. That’s how the journey of making The Last Shelter began. The question had become how to transport the viewer into the space of the desert on the migrant’s journey without filming an individual or a migrant actually making the journey, with only images of the desert.
What inspired Zinder, Aïcha?
I was born and grew up in Zinder, and until I was 30 years old, I had never once set foot in Kara Kara, a neighborhood up on a hill, where lepers and beggars were sent away to. It seemed mythical to me. Mythical because people talked about it but had never been there. I thought back to my childhood. When I was in preschool, age four or five, there was a water tank which would cross the city every day, transporting water to the people in Kara Kara so they could have water to drink. As children, we would see this, and I remember we would give food to the children of Kara Kara; but we would open their bags with sticks so as to avoid coming into direct contact with them, so we were not contaminated. So there was this injustice that we committed, even as children. You see, there was a sort of invisible border— a psychological barrier—between us and them, and that astounded me. As children we were manipulated to think that lepers were contagious and so I started thinking of making some sort of reparations for the people whom we had stigmatized. Additionally, at one point, the international media started reporting on acts of violence carried out by gangs, called “palais.” It brought back childhood memories when we used to welcome anyone who was hungry to share our food—our doors were always open—or when I would run around with my friends, and climb and slide down those huge boulders which you saw in the film. All of that was no longer possible because of those stories of violence. That resonated with me. So I decided to go back to my city to find out what was really going on. That was the first time I ever set foot in Kara Kara, that neighborhood completely ocher in tones, and it stirred up all sorts of emotions inside of me, including fear, and fascination too.
How did you decide to portray Kara Kara in your film?
I had to kind of completely change my life and meet the people there; let go of my judgments. In Kara Kara, I saw people who were not so different from elsewhere, from gangs in the ghetto of the United States, for example, or from the children in the Parisian banlieues and other peripheral neighborhoods across Europe, where people live a certain social injustice and are seeking rights. Rights to education, rights to food, to shelter. Quite simply, that was what led me to point my camera at this social situation, to try to document it from the perspective of this youthful population whom people wanted to hide from view.
At the beginning of Zinder, you ask one of the reformed gang members, Siniya Boy, what the difference is between you and him. His response is education. What does he mean by that?
There are many things lacking in Kara Kara compared to my neighborhood, which is also a rather modest neighborhood in the city. Arriving in that neighborhood led me to understand so many things, not only a certain poverty all around, but also that strong communities had formed around these people who knew that their wrongdoings were not the answer. On the state level, the neighborhood was created; it was unplanned. There was no water, no hospital, there was absolutely nothing at all. It was a sort of nomad’s land to herd people, like animals. At first, lepers were sent there. Then beggars. It was a sort of statelessness within the state. Even in terms of forms of ID: they didn’t have it. As a result, many people there did not have the right to go to school. The few who were allowed to go to school had to leave their desks and let other children sit there because some more advantaged families didn’t want their children sharing the desk with the poorer children. And that really got to me.
Also, I think of the favelas in Brazil, which is yet another example of communities that society prefers to hide and maintain invisible, voiceless.
Actually, the favelas in Brazil, the banlieues in Europe, or the ghettos in Nigeria were exactly the types of examples we talked about when we were producing Zinder. These are neighborhoods which at one point or another had been invaded by modernization and urbanization, and were just left to fend for themselves, make their own laws. The police didn’t go there, nor did the government. In fact, there was no policy for the development of these enclaves.
Let’s talk a little about the writing, the creative process of your films. Both of you had to gain the trust of the individuals and the communities you were filming. It comes out very clearly in each of your films. Ousmane, you capture a deep intimacy with regard to your characters Khady and Esther. And then they become friends with Natacha. It is obvious that you also have contributed to this sense of intimacy between them.
Actually, when I pitched the script, I didn’t even know that I was going to meet Khady and Esther. I met them during the last shoot. But what I did know was that Natacha was always there. So the project developed quite a lot in terms of writing while I was filming Natacha. However, in practice it was quite difficult with Natacha, because she was always very quiet and didn’t manage to construct her own story. And then, by chance, during the last shoot, I found Khady and Esther. At first, Khady was more willing to be filmed, and Esther outright refused. She just wanted to leave, and the people from the House tried to calm her down. But she was very spirited, she wanted to leave. So I started filming Khady first and started showing her images to Esther and as she watched, she became more and more relaxed. Once I had established those exchanges with Esther, I said, now let’s make a short scene, but this time without Khady. And when I made that short scene, she said, oh wow, I want to be an actress now! She started to loosen up. She had dreams: of becoming an actress, a boxing champion. And I was there, like, wow. I told her that what we were doing was a little different. It’s a documentary, so you have to be more natural. We’re going to film you in your everyday without interfering very much. I started filming them together and getting to know Esther better and better. She was extremely natural and unbelievable! Sometimes she would forget I was even there with my camera and would fall asleep while I was filming her! There’s something unbelievable about that young girl! She is incredibly warm, intelligent, spirited. I mean, she can be jovial, happy, joking; then she can be completely curt. And when she started telling me her story for the first time, about her mom, I made the connection with Natacha, who was also searching for her family. Esther almost didn’t know her family at all. She did not know her father. She only knew the woman who raised her, and when she passed away, Esther was told that that woman was not her real mother. The children of that woman told her, “You are not our mother’s child.” So it was a double shock. Esther was looking for a mother and Natacha was looking for a family. She doesn’t remember if she has any children. But when you look at Natacha, you sense that she does have children. So I tried to focus on her interactions with Esther in particular, on connections between a mother and a daughter—one looking for her family and one looking for her mother.
What a process, wow!
Yes, that’s what I like about the documentary genre. It’s those surprises. I could have never imagined Esther and Khady. I didn’t know at first that they were going to be the main characters in the film. And yet, they carry the film, and I am happy about it.
Aïcha, I noticed that the members of the palais love to flex their muscles for the camera. Did that allow you to enter into their space with your camera? But seriously, how did you gain their trust and in what ways were they engaged in the process of telling their stories?
I had the opportunity to meet some of the palais members several times. [Electricity cut interrupts the interview, we laugh.] And I started observing how those palais function, and there were all sorts of rituals involved. If, for instance, someone wanted to join a palais, they were given a test, to test their loyalty. I didn’t manage to pass the tests, and they tried to scare me, but I kept going back and, at some point, they gave up. They could see that I was not going there just to film them. I was for real and I wanted to talk with them. I went back several times, which allowed them to see there was something that I wanted to have with them. In the end they understood that I wanted to make a film that would allow their voices to be heard, to allow them to express themselves. That is how I managed to convince them that I had a way for them to make themselves heard beyond that border. And once they understood that I could also be their bullhorn, all the walls they had built between them and me started to come down. It took years.
How many years did it take you to build this trust?
Eight years. From the pitch to the pilot, it took eight years. It was a project in the making well before The Fruitless Tree. Also, I did not set out to make a film about the children of Kara Kara. My preference was to make a film with them. And making a film with them implies their participation in making the film. If you’re going to make a film, you have to come to where I am from. To come to where I am from, you cross borders. When I was going to Zinder, I was also working on several other smaller projects. I was also a volunteer in a USAID program called Search for Common Ground. For that, I was training youth with respect to transformations from conflicts and how we could confront extremism and violence through debates and conversation, and so the film is about something very real that exists in the heart of communities. That is how I really came to understand the mechanism of how those gangs worked and that’s how I “infiltrated” them.
Ousmane, many people who pass through the House of Migrants have some sort of psychological trauma. What inspired you to place emphasis on this subject in your film?
Well, it has always been a sort of taboo subject when someone does not manage to achieve their goals, doesn’t manage to get to Europe and is repatriated and returns home in spite of him or herself. This has always been a taboo subject because immigration has always been a family affair in Africa. That’s to say that when a child decides to leave, the whole family supports him. What the child is not told is that when you are on that journey, you will pass through dangerous zones in the Sahel or the desert or on the sea; there is a lot of smuggling—human smuggling, sexual enslavement—many things that are really inhuman. And when you go through that sort of thing, you never come back as a full human being. I thought it was important to show in the film that there are many types of trauma.
The absence of the state is noticeable in each of your films. Can you talk about that?
Yes, it’s important to talk about that. Kara Kara, as I mentioned, was a village that was created with absolutely no public policy, whether access to health care or education, and this continues today in the 21st century. So as we are organizing international screenings for June, I’ve asked UNHCR if we can bring five characters so that they can bear witness to the film being shown internationally. But of course, in order for them to travel abroad, they need an ID card to get on the plane. To travel. And they don’t have one. So right now Siniya is having his friend’s birth certificate made. And the guy, Tchicara, is in prison. He has no birth certificate! This thirty-year-old has no civil status. That’s one reason I talk about these stateless individuals inside the country. You are there. You exist, but in reality, you do not exist, not when it comes to the state. And you mentioned the hospital. Even when it comes to the public hospital, there isn’t really basic care for stateless people. That’s the reason that many children who are born in Kara Kara have not been to school, because in order to receive even a little care at the hospital, you have to have a little money. To pay for the bed when a woman gives birth. But that’s money people don’t have because they barely have money to eat. There are many people who are born without legal status, and if you don’t have access to civil status, you don’t have access to school. And when the child is old enough to vote, he cannot vote. His voice is stolen.
Immigration is a situation that brings grief. Everyone in my family is still asking whether my uncle is coming back. Is he alive or dead? We also know other families who are grieving the departures of their sons and daughters, women who are widows but don’t know it, who are there waiting for their husbands; there are lots of fatherless children because of that. Why does this situation persist today in the 21st century? It’s because there is no real policy, actually, that prevents people from leaving. Why do people leave? They leave because they don’t have basic care. They leave because there is a lack of education. The majority of those who leave have not had the chance to go to school. So either they went to school and did not finish, or they completed their studies but there are no jobs. They go so they can provide for their families. There is also inequality of opportunities in the hiring system, so those who come from minority or poor families have to go looking elsewhere. The first thing that comes to mind is to go to Europe, to go through the desert or across the sea. There’s a lack of political commitment on behalf of the state. That’s what makes me want to be in this profession, to make documentaries, to talk about taboo subjects and denounce what is wrong. That’s also why I love the name of Aïcha’s production company, Taboo Productions. Those are topics that are almost untouchable in our societies, but we are going to touch on them. We’re going to talk about them.
Let’s talk about sound and visual framing. Ousmane, your film is very poetic. Particularly striking in your film are the whipping winds of the desert. But also, visually, your framing is distinctive.
In terms of sound, when I was in the desert for the first time, I was amazed to hear that the desert has its own musicality, and its silence is glacial! It’s different from any other silence. When you’re in the desert and there is absolutely no sound, it’s unbelievable. And the force of the wind brings out different emotions. Visually, I wanted to make something photographic, to show for example that when the sun starts coming up and you see a little sand, it’s as if the sand were coming out of embers. It’s stunning. So what I wanted to convey in the film is that the desert has something poetic about it but at the same time something sad.
Aïcha, visually, one thing that resonates in your film is the relationship between the body and the land of the Sahel. For example, you manage to capture beauty even when you’re filming scars. Can you talk about that?
Yes, for me it was important to approach it allegorically. The history of that neighborhood goes back to the question of skin, actually. Just as drought leaves marks on the earth, leprosy leaves scars on one’s skin, and in the same way terrorism in a city also leaves its indelible mark. So, whether drought, illness or terrorism, it all leaves scarring on one’s skin. So, I made allegories out of this, and I am proud to hear that they come through in my film.
How were your films received at the festivals?
When it comes to festivals, with these world premieres, I find it to be quite a beautiful thing but also quite a pity at the same time, because oftentimes the people who are in the film don’t have the opportunity to see themselves on screen before the international audience sees it. On the other hand, the interest of the international audience allows the film to echo beyond borders.
Have you shown your film locally? Did your cast get to see themselves in your film?
Locally, I was able to show my film while it was in completion to one of the protagonists, Siniya Boy, who had come with me to attend a forum. He came to speak on behalf of the youth. He is among those who represent Zinder. I had invited him to my place, into my small living room, together with another person who had made contact with Siniya, whose name was Asmana. When they watched the film, it was very emotional. It was also the first time that I became emotional after the film, because they said to me: “We have never before been shown to be as dignified as you showed us to be, Aïcha.” And that moved me, them telling me that I had shown them to be human, as opposed to just showing them as criminals or thugs. For Siniya to come away from the film knowing that he was shown with so much humanity, so much dignity as he said, that made me feel like I succeeded. I could have shown them in a different way, images of their fights, their fresh wounds.
But there is not a single image of that.
Right, I really wanted to show that violence was something they had left behind, that they had taken the path of change. And what I am doing currently is, I am organizing a peace caravan to bring my film to more communities in Niger. Each morning, there are about a hundred buses that leave Niamey, the capital where I live now, for various cities around Niger. My impact campaign, with support from UNHCR, is to put my film inside those 100 buses, and I will be there too, along with some characters from the film. And like that, we are turning those buses into mobile movie theaters.
And the funding?
I am currently seeking funding. We have already applied to the USAID YALI—the Young African Leaders Initiative—because each year they have the Alumni Engagement Innovation Fund. I need to secure additional funding, and I am going to seek funding from the government of Niger. And with the support from UNHCR, the impact campaign is something that resonates throughout the world, in the US and in Europe. It’s a model. We make linkages between the children of Kara Kara, for example, who can participate in training and educational programs if we have funding. And they can then pursue their dreams. My larger goal is to build bridges between these youth and international organizations
Ousmane, have you been able to show your films locally as well? In Mali? In other countries in Africa?
Regarding the circulation of my film, like Aïcha, we have what you call an impact process, and we are seeking institutional funding from NGOs and private companies to circulate my film. In Mali, we are quite used to working with the Digital Mobile Cinema, the CNA, to show the film across Africa. We’ve also promoted the film in Mali, for instance at the French Institute, at the Cine Balimbao, and also at a few big schools in Mali, which allows us to show the film to lots of youth, some of whom want to leave. We talk about what is at stake when it comes to immigration. And we hope that we’ll be able to go beyond that, to go to the most remote areas of Mali to show the film, because I think that, like Aïcha said, it’s extremely important for an African filmmaker to be able to show our work in our countries. We are also planning to show The Last Shelter in Gao at the House of Migrants, which is organizing a screening for each group of migrants upon their arrival because their role is to inform people as best as they can about their departure. Also, the film allows people to see themselves and what this House offers in terms of welcoming and recovery, and reestablishing contact with families.
What do you hope that The Last Shelter can bring to international audiences?
We have the capacity to show what is happening in our area of the world in ways that are not dehumanizing, without showing the poverty, misery, and illness that are usually incorrectly projected about Africa and that hide our actual reality, our humanity and humanism. I think it’s an opportunity for people to learn not only about what is happening, but also, I hope that a lot of people who see the film will understand what is at stake for those who are in this situation, who have these dreams, the desire to leave on a journey through the desert.
Let’s talk about production. In Bamako, you work with DS Productions?
I am an associate producer at DS Productions in Mali. With digital filming being favored, there is a lot happening. A lot of people are interested in cinema and television, and there are many initiatives, like Illustration Africa, OuagaLab, Africa Direct, and lots of young directors. The thing with digital filmmaking is that it has not facilitated North-South co-productions. What is of interest with regard to North-South productions is that it allows for the promotion of our films beyond Africa. We still need the North for financing and to be able to develop our films, because on the continent we don’t have a real cinema industry. But for digital filmmaking, we have great African technicians who can make films without any need for contributions from the North.
Aïcha, can you tell me about your production company in Niamey, Taboo Productions?
I ended up creating my own production company because there were practically none in my country. Also, in economic terms, making documentary films is not a big moneymaker like commercial films and doesn’t necessarily allow you to live from your art. You make a film and it basically belongs to your producer. So Ousmane encouraged me to open my own production company. However, I am not a producer. That’s why I called Ousmane, so that he could produce my film and I could concentrate on the artistic aspects of my film. Additionally, the idea was to help young talent, much like Balibari did for me, and so my production company is open to any artist who would like to work in it.
Ousmane and Aïcha, your first films were successful and now here you are once again, both on the international festival circuit. You’ve worked together as well. Can you talk about your collaborations?