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'Asmarina' Addresses the Complexities of Diaspora

By Hanaa J. Masalmeh, Crimson Staff Writer

News on diasporas today often centers on counting streams of Syrian refugees and, while accurate in the most factual sense, this kind of crisis-focused coverage often leaves unexplored the everyday lives of most immigrants. “Asmarina,” a documentary by Alan Maglio and Medhin Paolos, explores this theme. The film, which was shown at the Center for Government and International Studies on Sept. 26 and was followed by a conversation with Paolos, represents a departure from the doom and gloom genre, instead delving into issues of mobility, diaspora, and xenophobia as they affect the daily lives of the film’s subjects.

The documentary is named after its invisible main character: Asmara, the Eritrean capital, hovers behind the film. Often personified as a woman in the memories of the subjects, the city’s simultaneous absence and presence imbues the film with a sense of unconsummated longing. In one scene, a woman calls her husband to play the song “Asmarina” for her, a musical signature of the Eritrean diaspora community. “I remember that!” the man says. “It’s from the ’30s!” Paolos mentioned after the screening that the song was actually from the ’50s, but she left the footage unchanged, trying to preserve the subjectivity of people’s memories. Throughout the film, songs, stories, and family albums are motifs through which the past is explored. Prosperous Eritrean families pose together, their smiles unmodified by the passage of years. Meanwhile, their descendants negotiate their Eritrean identity in Italy. Women make coffee in the traditional way, and men dance to music in the park as passersby look on. In one scene, a biracial Eritrean-Italian man describes his first night with a white woman.

While the director portrays these everyday moments, she is also quick to dig into the colonial history that created them. “The first apartheid was not in South Africa, but in Eritrea,” Paolos said. During the 19th century, Italy established the colony of Italian Eritrea in Ethiopia and assembled a diverse group of peoples under colonial rule. In an attempt to control the native population, the Italian government introduced segregated neighborhoods and strict curfew laws in the region, which would later break off from Ethiopia. The political unrest that resulted many years later caused hundred of Eritreans and Ethiopians to flee their country—and end up in Italy.

“[The Italians] are saying they don’t want us, but they are the reason [we] came here, and they need to accept the consequences of their actions,” Paolos said.

—Staff writer Hanaa J. Masalmeh can be reached at

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