Memoires d’Immigres by Yamina Benguigui
Elhum Shakerifar is an independent creative producer of documentary film and photography. Her work includes the award-winning documentaries A Syrian Love Story, Even When I Fall and Almost Heaven. She is also a festival programmer and an occasionally translator of Persian poetry.
I am a documentary producer and programmer; mildly obsessed with challenging the dominant narrative and looking for the stories that aren’t being told.
I don’t have to think twice to answer the question of a piece of work that marked a turning point for me: it was the three part documentary Memoires d’Immigres by Yamina Benguigui (1997). I watched it, aged 17, in a philosophy class where it was meant to illustrate the question “what is history?” It literally changed my world.
Combining archive and first person testimonies spoken direct to camera, the film explores North African migration to France, firstly through the stories of the men, who arrived alone as cheap labour after the war. The second part turned to the women – the wives who came to join their husbands some years later. And finally, the third part focused on the children – most of whom were born in France. It is a very simply constructed documentary and yet contains some of the most affecting interviews I have ever seen on screen, words and anecdotes of family, migration, lives and experiences that still move me to my very core. It also features some of the region’s raï music, lyrics that speak of love and exile, melodies that echoed through my childhood in France.
I am British-Iranian, I was born in London and my family spent much of my childhood in France because of my father’s job – France was an unexpected new culture, language, school system, friends and a new process of assimilation and integration for all of us. The story of North African migration to France was not really representative of my life, of my history or of my parent’s migration to the England, where they met in the mid 70s. And yet at the same time, it opened my eyes to everything I didn’t really understand about the society I was born in, the one I lived in, how it saw me and who I was.
Part of this recollection is also that it didn’t really change anyone else’s world – our philosophy teacher was very enthusiastic, slightly erratic and also permanently exasperated by the lack of interest and focus that she was met with by our obnoxious teenage minds. She was furious that nobody had bothered to even think about the essay she had set around the film. I was singled out as the only person who had put any thought into their work. Of course I was a geek. But perhaps this assignment mattered to me more than it mattered to anyone else. Perhaps it spoke to the very core of what I was trying to work out at the time. And perhaps it simply didn’t have the same effect on my classmates, because they didn’t have quite the same question marks.
Benguigui has reflected on the making of this film as something that enabled her to “rebuild” her own identity, to rethink the story of migration from Maghreb to France. Benguigui’s film reframed the narrative in such a way that it gave people a place in history on their own terms.
The power of this was a game-changer for me. It made me realise that there are those who write history, and those who write stories.
The films I make today all take root in this realisation and in the will to look for stories that are locked out of dominant narrative. They are no less and no more part of the big picture, but often quieter, less visible, more fragile. And therefore vital and often need to be fought for (to be understood as valid, often to be funded, to be shown, even to be made at all)
You may not see it at first, but there is always another side to the story. Look for it and don’t just listen to it – hear it.