Cultural initiatives seeking to dispel stereotypes, change nation’s mindset
Dagmawi Yimer of Ethiopia is making a career as a director of documentary films that tell the stories of immigrants to Italy.
Seven years ago, Dagmawi Yimer was “between life and death” when Italian navy officers rescued him from a skiff in heavy seas between Libya and the Italian island of Lampedusa.
Today, the Ethiopian directs documentary films about immigrants like himself from the home he shares with his Italian partner and their 2-year-old daughter in the city of Verona.
He is part of the fast-growing immigrant population that is changing the face of Italy, just as it has transformed the populations of more-northern European countries like Britain, France and Germany.
He is also one of many foreigners who are trying — through cultural initiatives such as films and books — to change the racist views of many Italians about the immigrants in their midst.
Contrary to popular perceptions, immigrants are making their mark across the country. African- born author Kossi Komla-Ebri, a 59-year-old doctor, has published six books, all in Italian.
“Many immigrants think our emancipation is only economic and political, but we are convinced it’s cultural and that we can have a more profound influence through culture,” he said.
It isn’t easy. Italy’s immigration wave is swelling just as the country is struggling to emerge from its deepest economic downturn in the postwar era.
Nearly 8 percent of the Italian population is foreign-born, and in 50 years the number will be 23 percent, according to a projection by Catholic charity Caritas.
Italy’s 1-million-strong AfroItalian community, one-fifth of all legal immigrants, gained a high-profile representative earlier this year when African-born Cecile Kyenge became the country’s first black minister.
It did not take long before she was likened to an orangutan by a well-known politician and had bananas thrown at her at a public meeting.
‘A lot of prejudice’
Italy’s immigration policies are ill-equipped to deal with the thousands of immigrants who show up — with scant identification and on rickety boats — on its southern shores.
Yimer, 36, harvested grapes in the south and later handed out fliers to university students in Rome until he took a video production class offered to immigrants by a nonprofit group.
His fifth documentary film, released this month, is about three Senegalese men recovering from racist attacks.
Titled VaPensiero, after the chorus of an opera by Giuseppe Verdi about an immigrant’s nostalgia for home, the film follows the men as they try to come to terms with the hate and violence they endured.
The first man was stabbed and left for dead by a skinhead at a bus stop in Milan. Passers-by ignored him for more than an hour. The other two were randomly shot by a radical rightwing thug who hunted down and murdered two other Senegalese men in Florence in 2011, and then committed suicide.
At an early screening of the film for possible distributors, the reaction was that of having been “punched in the gut”, according to one representative of the Stateowned TV network, who suggested softening the tone.
But Yimer and his Italian partners on the film stood their ground.
“I’ve experienced a lot of prejudice,” he said, “and I see a worrying trend in Italy where racism is becoming more ideological.”
Dagmawi Yimer, of Ethiopia, is making a career as a director of documentary films that tell the stories of immigrants like himself who have migrated to Italy.