Against racism

Cul­tural ini­tia­tives seek­ing to dis­pel stereo­types, change na­tion’s mind­set

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By STEVE SCHERER in Rome Reuters

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.”

TONY GENTILE / REUTERS

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.

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