It was not easy to shoot Alganesh, today on Netflix, a film among the refugees Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia, along a border that is a source of constant conflict. But it was a big challenge because there was not much in the way of narrative about what happens there. And it is our duty as documentary filmmakers to tell the drama of a people amidst intrigue and violence.
Alganesh, an uncomfortable presence
Knowing the story of Alganesh Fessah can help us to believe in humanity. She is an Eritrean doctor who lives in Italy and who is in the front line on the refugee routes, helping those who have been in the camps for years and finding those who have disappeared. She is an uncomfortable presence: she speaks out against regimes, she highlights hidden wars, she goes to the most dangerous places, risking her life to tell the world the truth.
The film Alganesh recounts a few fragments of his life, and moves us to action. What can we do ourselves?
The Aurora Vision crew in the refugee camps
Four of us went to shoot the film: Marianna Beltrami and I as directors, Ferran Paredes Rubio as camera operator, Andrea Morghen as producer. In Addis Ababa we met up with Alganesh to go north to Axum. From Axum we went by jeep to the five refugee camps on the border with Eritrea. One of these camps is dedicated only to children, who run away from the age of 6, alone, without anyone.
On our arrival at the first reception camp, we see a truck arrive, loaded with 100 people, old people, women and children, thirsty and exhausted from an escape in the hottest desert in the world, Dancalia.
We set up the cameras. As soon as the door opens, a young man jumps and is pushed from behind, breaking his ankle. Amid cries for a drop of water, we turn off the camera and start to help out.
Emotionally, it is really difficult to work in such contexts: you don’t have time to process, and you have to stay focused on your job, which is to tell the truth. Emotions and feelings have to be locked in a drawer.
The Kunama, in a refugee camp for 17 years
One of the five camps, in all more than 200,000 people, is dedicated to the Kunama people. A people of Nilotic origin, who only 50 years ago numbered more than half a million, are now reduced to perhaps 50,000. They had to flee the conflict that started in 2001 and for 17 years have been forced to stay in the refugee camp. They tell us that 70% of the men are suffering from psychiatric diseases.
A young anthropology graduate, who arrived at the camp two years ago, tells us that we are the first crew to enter and that he cannot guarantee reactions. I meet some old men who 20 years ago worked on the Capuchin friars’ farm, with which I had collaborated. The farm employed 800 families and in three days it was all burnt down by the war. Their lost looks are stronger than a thousand words.
The coffee ceremony
The film is accompanied from beginning to end by the coffee ceremony, so important to the culture in Ethiopia and Eritrea: from roasting, to grinding, to boiling. We chose coffee as a symbol of welcome, of sharing, of hope. Coffee unites peoples in a single path towards freedom. Alganesh on Netflix, a film among refugees
Alganesh on Netflix, a film among the refugees
Watching Alganesh brings us into the daily life of the refugee camps, where ‘passeurs’ come to recruit people for unlikely escapes, where children try to survive on a meal, where old people only hope to be able to go home to die.
And watching Alganesh brings to life the story of a strong, determined, courageous woman. A woman who manages to help thousands of people with the Gandhi Charity onlus organization.
The film Alganesh was accepted at 32 international festivals, winning 14 awards. Among them: in China Special Mention at the Silk Road Film festival, in Montecarlo Best Director, in Los Angels MasterDoc Best Documentary, Best Cinematography and Audience Award in Serbia at the Spiritual Film Festival Zajecar, again in Chile and India, and at the Salerno Film Festival.
You can watch Alganesh on Netflix from 17 September, distributed by TVCO.