The short film titled Vecinos, translated as Neighbours (9”45) opens with a montage sequence—views of a busy underground metro; graffiti etched and painted onto walls; a sleeping man in a blue hooded jacket huddled next to a fence on a concrete sidewalk; a dirty mattress abandoned on a street corner; pedestrians walking on a street; a group of young urbanites dancing in a city park; red candles burn and fade into an out of focus shot of the street at night.
The sequence offers a sense of space, time period and, in some ways, the transitory theme driving Sydelle Willow Smith’s short film. Smith is an award winning freelance photographer and filmmaker. A South African born in Johannesburg and based in Cape Town, Smith studied at The Market Photo Workshop and The University of Cape Town, focusing on Social Anthropology and Cinematography. She travels widely to produce her photographic works, which have been recognized in South Africa and beyond. Smith describes her artistic practice as focused on “memory, place and home making with a strong focus on migration” and “as intrigued with how people who are a minority, such as African ‘migrants’ in Barcelona, navigate the city” (Africaisacountry.com).
In Neighbours, Smith follows three African migrants as they navigate the urban space of Barcelona. The project was produced as part of an International Artist Residency in ‘Urban Creativity’, a program inspired by the idea of “establishing a creative and sustainable relation between neighbours in a district” (jiwarbarcelona.com). Smith’s stated theme comes in the form of a question: “How does one hold on to a deeply rooted sense of self, a cultural identity, and make new paths whereby lines of ethnicity, race, and nationality begin to shift and become malleable in order to adapt and make new forms of home?”. To address these issues by visual means, participants were offered disposable cameras, with which they made pictures of what they wanted to show in the city of Barcelona, Spain. This mode of image making and collection enables the participant to show—in terms of their unique personal experience of navigating and negotiating the city. Smith calls this working method ‘neighbourhood making’, part of an overall project that includes several working modes, including documentary portraiture and participatory photography.
This article takes the picture offered by Neighbours as a point of departure. It brings the participatory narrative into conversation with a politics of diaspora that works to disrupt links between nation and knowledge. The dynamics of this conversation may appear by asking: How may we understand the relationship between the black traveling self, the photographic and filmic image, and the dynamics of African diaspora? What happens when we linger on such images? In the context of a short film or brief essay like this, some features may be mentioned but not elaborated upon. However, the impact on understanding the complex conditions of black people everywhere may form grounds for cultural resistance.
Photographs and films are media through which complicated processes of desire, projection, and identification come into view. The mediums frame the embodied self in self-evidentiary ways and, at the same time, open it to interrogation. In Neighbours, there are dynamics of difference, specificity, and belonging in operation. The participants share an investment in showing and seeing spaces of belonging—neighbourhoods, in this case—as both geographic spaces and as active ideas that may cover over less approachable issues of difference among peoples.
Dynamics of difference that include self-hood, culture, race and ethnicity are viewable through photographic and film-based media. In particular, documentary and participatory filmic modes provide a unique vantage point from which to consider issues of connection. In Neighbours, the focus is on collaboration among people of African descent living beyond African soil.
In Neighbours, three people of African descent now living in Europe are interviewed and filmed: Xumo Nunjo, a musician born in Cameroon; Mamadou Dia, a writer and educator born in Senegal; and Gelia Barila Angri, from Equatorial Guinea. These participants offer viewers an opportunity to consider notions of home and belonging in Black Europe.
Neighbours features and follows people of African descent, framing its narrative around a real or symbolic return to Africa. In this way, the film invokes discourses of internationalism and coordination of the interests of peoples of African descent around the world. These are dynamics of black diaspora.
Neighbours registers a particular moment in the history of the African diaspora in Europe. The Africans pictured in the film describe their lives as they unfold on European soil. Noting these practices of everyday life troubles any nationalism and racial essentialism suggested by the film’s premise or narrative. It also piques my interest in the film—the short documentary indicates productive moments of tension in the emergence of racialised and ethnicised subjects.
Such moments of tension may be openings: windows through which articulations of black diaspora may be seen and explored. The three subjects that appear herein are Black, of African descent, and settled in European territory. The people here celebrate contemporary African diaspora in ways that challenge a viewer’s available markers of identity. Diaspora as a term of analysis allows for an account of black transnational formations that attends to their differences in make-up. Brent Hayes Edwards describes this as “the political stakes of the organization of the ‘African abroad.’ The accepted risk is that the term’s analytic focus ‘fluctuates.’”
The present analysis is part of my thinking about what it would take to see black people as central to “the landscape of everyday life” in Europe and beyond. A different view or filmic premise to that in Neighbours might show the three participants as central and internal to everyday life in Barcelona, not marginal, foreign, or aberrant. Such a view means giving more attention to the participant’s communities, exploring interactions between people and spaces of Barcelona, and featuring participants engaged fully and actively in authoring European everyday life. Neighbours does not have room to elaborate this alternate view.
Instead, Neighbours provokes its viewer to consider what it would take—that is, to make room for the possibility—that African diasporic experience is emergent. Cultural contact happens on different terms and contingent interests, and may take place independently of social, economic and political marginalization. A picture of what is required to realize this sort of cultural politics does not fit the frame of this film—in fact, such a picture is a different challenge to black African visual production than that presented by Neighbours. However, the participant’s comments underscore the possibility for just this different sort of scene. Xumo Nunjo warns African travellers must be “universal, you have to be planetary. Home is the cosmos, home is this planet. Don’t accept anything else.” Nunjo comments: “I feel comfortable here [in Europe]… at home with problems, but I am home.” Nunjo continues: “Today, many African people want to go to Europe, because with the propaganda, people think Europe is the place where the knowledge is happening… but it is not true.” Nunjo seems to struggle with conventional understandings of belonging and cultural identity, refuting the paradigm in which Europe is the “centre of knowledge.”
As a term for knowledge production, the use of diaspora comes out of Pan-Africanism and black Internationalism. This discourse of internationalism aimed generally at the cultural and political coordination of the interests of peoples of African descent around the world. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in 1933: “Pan-Africa means intellectual understanding and co-operation among all groups of Negro descent in order to bring about at the earliest possible time the industrial and spiritual emancipation of the Negro peoples.” Du Bois’ interest was part of an ideological “return” to the figure of Africa, as a figure for the question of origins. The problematic of return and cultural retention has, since then, animated a series of black ideologies. If Neighbours does not initially aim to theorize black Internationalism, it does so in its assembly of participants from across the continent.
One participant, Mamadou Dia, notes the impulse to move, to walk, to discover and to explore is human, but in reality, people travel for a better future. Filmed while on a beach, Dia appears in a red jersey sweater with two white stripes and blue jeans, strolling along the shore. He recounts, in brief, his experience of traveling to Europe—a precarious and traumatic boat journey across the Atlantic during which he lost many brothers. It is an elegiac narrative that recalls his experiences, but also his sense of being-in-the-world. Dia calls for justice, equal opportunities, equal rights. Dia describes his life, including his 3052 km long journey to Europe, as a life of practice, little theory. Dia’s life practice is described as one of integration, encounter and learning in order to be part of a community and culture encountered on arrival.
In some ways, the film motivates a desire to explain, challenge, or consider the racialised experiences of individuals like the three participants pictured herein. In the film, black Africanity dictates their appearance and belonging, and thereby chart their life’s course. More than a document that works as evidence, the film asks the viewer to question its subject’s humanity in terms of racial and ethnic authenticity. What is more, it urges a search for tools that dispute the participant’s lives as they take shape in Europe. The basis for the dispute depends upon our (the viewer’s) own ability or inability to see her/him as European and thereby evaluate the legitimacy of her/his claims to racial victimization. How might we register this particular moment where black Africans appear, impossibly, as Europeans? How might viewers come to terms with a national idiom that shows the black participants as undeniable members of European society?
What emerges in the short film Neighbours is a subject that simultaneously rearticulates european-ness, blackness, and diaspora.
The images in the film work together with biographic detail and the viewer’s own understanding of what constitutes human being. Black, African, European converge in the participants pictured herein.
Gelia Barila Angri explains she travelled to Europe to “fight for [her] future, to make a better future,” and debunks the negative views of Africa that appear in the media. Angri arrived in Europe to study. In the first year she felt alien and alienated—until she formed her own circle of friends. While she accepts and believes racism exists where she lives, she claims to have never experienced racism. Like Dia and Nunjo, Angri also feels at home living in Europe, and she is able to experience daily life without a sense of loss. She remembers her birthplace, but is able to live, feel and make meaning beyond such boundaries.
The folks interviewed and pictured in Neighbours are shown on the margins of society, at the seaside or on a rooftop, on a street corner or in appearing as reluctant and inauthentic members of groups that can only be poor substitutes for remembered (or imagined) communities in Cameroon, Senegal and Equatorial Guinea. Basic facts of birth and the circumstances of travel act as historical captioning that attempt to make sense and meaning of the lives pictured.
The fifth minute of the film shows young black males selling faux designer handbags. The bags are displayed in rows, placed on a sheet. The four men stand close to each other, each holding a set of stings, displaying their wares to passers by. In a crucial moment, they yank the strings they hold in their hands, an action that gathers together the four corners and edges of the cloth. In an instant, this pull brings the full stock of handbags together within the sheet, which is slung over a shoulder and quickly carried away—all in the moment before a Spanish police officer arrives on a motorcycle.
The viewer watching Neighbours is given license to question the participant’s ethnic, racial and national identity, to juxtapose European being and African existence, and evaluate the participant’s claims—to community or autonomy, to being at home or feeling irredeemably estranged, to a right to earn a living. As I suggested earlier, the strength of the film may be the pressured challenge it presents to conventional terms of identity and to analyses of diaspora, even as it puts those analytical tools to use.
Featured image credit: Screen capture from Neighbours. Director: Sydelle Willow Smith
- Campt, Tina “Family Matters: Diaspora, Difference and the Visual Archive” Social Text 98, Vol. 27, no.1 Spring 2009, p.83
- For extended discussion of the issue of black Europe, see Darlene Clark Hine; Trica Danielle Keaton; Stephen Small, eds. Black Europe and the African diaspora Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.
- Edwards, Brent Hayes “The Uses of Diaspora”, Social Text 66 Vol 19, no.1. Spring 2001, p.10
- This eloquent phrasing is borrowed from Tina Campt. Campt, Tina “Family Matters: Diaspora, Difference and the Visual Archive” Social Text 98, Vol. 27, no.1 Spring 2009
- Edwards, 2
- Campt, 84.