Memory and Migration: Lampedusa in Winter

An interview with Jakob Brossmann, director of LAMPEDUSA IN WINTER

By Samantha Dunn

‘Being a witness of the deadly European border policy and how to live with that, and how it influences people that are confronted with it all the time- that was kind of the question’

Situated between Italy and North Africa, the image of Lampedusa in the media is predominantly as a no-man’s land, in which the immigrants and citizens of Lampedusa are forced to co-exist in a fragile equilibrium, competing for space and resources. Austrian filmmaker Jakob Brossmann focuses his lens upon the island of Lampedusa over the winter months in his film, Lampedusa in Winter, observing both citizens and refugees alike and the issues they face on the periphery.

Brossmann’s thoughts on refuge and migration, and in particular Austrian history, led him to casting his gaze upon the tiny island of Lampedusa. The director recalls how it was the story of Jewish Austrians trying to flee Austria or the so-called Third Reich in the 1940s who had been pushed back, despite already reaching Switzerland, which influenced a previous project- a screenplay about people being rejected on the Swiss border. This influenced his filmic concern with Lampedusa:

“I realised the question I was dealing with before was very much current today. It was 2011, many people in Austria hadn’t seen refugees in years. Lampedusa made me realise that those questions are very much up to date, questions in our present.”

The events of 3rd October- where 365 migrants drowned off the island of Lampedusa, is present in the films narrative, but is not the focus of Brossmann’s film. The filmmaker is quick to mention that this tragedy was not the first, or the biggest, but rather ‘just one terrible tragedy in a long row of terrible tragedies’. These events, he adds, bring a very intense media coverage, with an inordinate amount of attention being given to the same image, which is the picture of the migrant boat, “the over –crowded migrant boat coming towards the camera”. This led the filmmaker to wondering what lay behind the camera, an interest in examining the “not so spectacular things”.

Visually and thematically, Lampedusa in Winter conveys a sense of stagnation, of listlessness, of people in a state of stasis. However, it is also a portrayal of compassion, of strength and of resilience, which gives refugees and the people of Lampedusa a voice. The director tells me how he wanted to show the refugees and the citizens of Lampedusa as “speaking, questioning and political subjects” not simply as victims, which he adds, is not always an easy task. Nonetheless, this is the image that filmmaker Brossman conveys in his film, choosing to focus upon the intense encounter between migrants and citizens of Lampedusa as a witness to the genuine solidarity between the subjects of his film.

The citizens of Lampedusa’s own realities and struggles are observed, with a radio station, a youth football team, and crucially the ferry which connects the island with the mainland providing a narrative and backdrop of daily existence. I questioned Brossman about the role of the ferry in the film and its function, which seemed so strikingly symbolic:

“We got lucky it was such a strong symbol, because I knew before shooting that Lampedusa has a lot of structural problems- the schools, the water, the garbage, transportation […] a lot of things. I was quite sure that something would happen that would show us this relation and struggle of Lampedusa as an island, as a marginalised, forgotten outpost somewhere.”

These sequences are juxtaposed against the refugees’ struggles to move on from the island and secure basic human conditions, whilst they are there. The intention of Brossmann, in examining the plight of refugees alongside the pressures placed upon the citizens of Lampedusa, does not detract from what he says to be the real focus of his film, where “the main victims of the crisis are of course the refugees, but at the same time, in my opinion, it is very important, to look at the lives of the European people and what they suffer from […] Sometimes I feel like Lampedusane people and refugees are like very unequal siblings. The tension is very unequally distributed, and the picture of both in the Italian media is not very precise”.
Lampedusa in Winter is an important film, which deals with a subject matter that has arguably never been more pertinent.

Transcending the borders of Lampedusa, this film is situated within a wider narrative of immigration, with issues that are more than simply European, issues of marginalisation, of borders and of solidarity.

The story of Lampedusa is a drop in the oceanic pool of immigrant stories that are crying out to be heard, with concerns that mirror the situation of countless undocumented migrants all around the world who live in a state of uncertainty.

LAMPEDUSA IN WINTER is screening at the RAI FILM FESTIVAL on Friday 31 March, 9:15 AM
Information and tickets here