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CPH:DOX 2021 Dox:Award

Review: The Last Shelter


- Ousmane Samassekou's CPH:DOX winner is a haunting and intense documentary about a refuge for migrants on their way to Europe or back from it

Review: The Last Shelter
Esther Dorothee Safiatou in The Last Shelter

In art, and especially in filmmaking, there is the notion of "meat" — the most potent, telling, essential segments of a film, as opposed to "fillers," parts that just serve to fill the running time. Malian filmmaker Ousmane Samassekou's The Last Shelter [+see also:
film profile
, which world-premiered at CPH:DOX and won its top prize, the Dox:Award, is all meat.

The film kicks off on an appropriately intense note, with an improvised graveyard on the edge of the city of Gao in Mali, in the south-west of the Sahara. People buried there, often with just an approximate year of birth scribbled on the metal markers that stand in for gravestones, were inhabitants of the House of Migrants, which has for decades been hosting migrants on their way to Algeria, and then hopefully on to Europe, or those coming back after an unsuccessful attempt to find their place in the imaginary paradise of the West.

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16 year-old girls Esther and Kadi have arrived from Burkina Faso, both exiled from their families. Esther comes fully covered in a chador except for her face. Hurt and hardened, she carries herself with pride and distrust. When the large, always smiling, unnamed man who seems to be the manager of the place tries to convince her to give him her personal information - surname, address, contact for a next of kin - she keeps silent. But when he starts explaining the dangers ahead, and relates experiences of other young, uneducated women who ended up sold as sex slaves in Algeria, or worse, a single tear starts rolling down her cheek. Among the film's many powerful scenes, this one stands out as an emotional watershed moment for the viewer who begins to realise the depth of migrants' plight.

These men and women from all over sub-Saharan Africa have very little chance of success. If they get to Gao, they need to cross the desert and reach the north of Algeria, which is hardly a welcoming harbour. A lot of them fall prey to scamming smugglers, or get robbed, raped and killed by armed groups and bandits, including Al Qaeda, which hold checkpoints along the way. But even if they manage to get on a boat taking them to Europe and do not drown or end up in prison, in their imagined paradise, they are met with exclusion and discrimination.

One man talks about how his family believes he is in Europe, and about how he is too ashamed to tell them that he has not made it despite all the money they managed to squeeze out and borrow to fund his hopes of the future. Natacha, a quiet 48 year-old woman, has been in the House of Migrants for five years, probably for the same reasons. Until Kadi and Esther (now wearing Barcelona and Arsenal t-shirts, a piercing reminder of the ruthless colonisation-globalisation cycle) pull her into their little circle, she is always sitting alone with a board game on her lap, aimlessly throwing dice. This haunting feeling of being in limbo pervades the film, and Pierre Daven Keller's drony, whooshy score sounds as if it has plucked this very quality out of the noise of the Sahara winds.

The film's strength lies in the way Samassékou, who also lensed the film, and editor Céline Ducreux, present and order the stories of the protagonists, including men so traumatised that they seem barely present, or are immersed in delusions and paranoias. There are bright and tender moments too, thanks to Samassekou's deeply humane portrayal of the House's inhabitants, flashes of light that break through this heart of darkness — a heart created by old European empires and further blackened by their ruthless, shameless successors who have the nerve to call themselves democracies.

The Last Shelter is part of the Generation Africa project, initiated by South Africa's STEPS, which also holds international rights and has co-produced the film along with France's Point du Jour - Les films du balibari, Mali's DS Productions and Arte.

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