Nation, Migration and Film Workshop

November 30, 2016 @ 9:00 am – 4:30 pm Europe/Rome Timezone
Villa Schifanoia, Sala Europa
Via Giovanni Boccaccio
121, 50133 Firenze
Valentina Bettin


Anna Triandafyllidou | European University Institute, Ulrike H. Meinhof | University of Southampton
and Orit Kamir | Israeli Center for Human Dignity

This workshop questioned the relationship between nation, migration/ return migration and film. It started by questioning the ways in which nation and migration interact and mutually transform each other. In particular, we were interested at exploring how dominant discourses of the nation make sense of migration,  return migration or circular migration, seek to reject, deny or accept and incorporate it in the ‘story’ of the nation. We were also looking at how alternative narratives of the nation emerge through confrontation with transnational mobility (also of own nationals, notably emigration or return migration) and through encounters between non-migrants, return migrants , mobile and non-mobile citizens in sending and/or host countries.


A privileged arena where such discourses confront one another and seek to justify, deny, legitimise or reject migration and its relationship with the national narrative is film. Film is a genre of discourse that presents several advantages for studying the interaction between migration and the nation. It is a meta-discourse on social life and it has no clear finality like political discourses. It is a discourse that is usually more perceptive of differences and contradictions as by definition film makers are people who seek to explore the dilemmas and contradictions of social and political life without necessarily providing for a solution, a prescription, a way out of an impasse. They may simply offer a reflection, highlight a dilemma and point to the contradictions of our everyday lives and of our narratives of belonging and alterity.


Films are powerful objects of art – as the proverb says an image can speak a thousand words, well in that case a film can speak a million words. Films reproduce or also challenge national narratives.  They do so in concise but also elliptic ways. A significant amount of knowledge about who is the nation and what is the nation is often assumed and/or mobilised in subtle ways particularly in films that confront the question of migration, of the migration paradox as Abdelmalek Sayad put it, of the double absence- presence of the migrants, – absence from her home country and presence in another country, which defies the nationalism norm that ethnic, cultural and territorial boundaries should coincide.


The workshop was very much hands on and concentrated on film-making as a particular methodology to (re-)tell a nation and migration story.


The morning session built specifically on the film Songs for Madagascar by Cesar Paes, shown on the previous day at the Festival dei Popoli which offers a portrait of 6 socially engaged musicians of Malagasy origin whose life trajectories illustrate processes of migration within Madagascar and between Madagascar and Europe. The film offers an intimate journey across the island of Madagascar and parts of Europe, following the creative work of these musicians and showing their encounters with local communities and other artists. It is a work of art without any explanatory commentary from anyone, relying entirely on the voices of the artists and their interlocutors and the images captured by the director’s camera. The rationale for the film is thus left entirely implicit, and it is up to the audience to engage with it in their own ways.


In the discussion we wanted to focus more generally on the ways in which social themes such as migration have been presented in ethnographic film and music documentaries. We hoped to raise questions about the interconnections and potential tensions between research and artistic representation in different scenarios: the researcher as film director, as is often the case in ethnographic film; the film director as translator of someone else’s research into an artistic medium; the researcher and the film director as collaborators, the film director as creator of new research fields. Are there tensions between scientific research and the aesthetics of film, and if so, how can they be overcome? Can or should music and film be put to the service of educating the public? Can or should the arts attempt to influence public opinion and will it produce the desired results?


The afternoon session offered a more general critical methodological discussion on how we can produce films on migration that are self-reflexive. How do we negotiate the power relations between ‘native’ director and ‘immigrant’ subject or actor? How do we engage with national narratives of nation and migration? Can we deconstruct them?