Malian director Ousmane Samassekou's second feature-length documentary The Last Shelter has become one of the biggest festival hits of the year so far, after winning the top prize at CPH:DOX. We took a close look at how this film, which was supported by the IDFA Bertha Fund and took part in IDFAcademy Summer School and IDFA Forum, was conceived, developed, produced, and funded.
When Ousmane Samassekou was a just a few months old, his uncle Amadou left for Germany. He was a brave, dignified man who risked everything for the honor and well-being of their family, Ousmane's proud grandmother would tell him as a child.
Thirty-two years passed, and no one had ever again heard from Amadou. The family interpreted this silence and absence as a sign of hope. This state of limbo is well known to many African families, and it inspired the Malian director to make a film that eventually became The Last Shelter. It world-premiered at this year's CPH:DOX and won its top prize, the Dox:Award. A few weeks ago, it also picked up the Best African Film award at the continent's most important documentary film festival, the Encounters in Cape Town.
The feature-length documentary takes place in the House of Migrants in the Malian city of Gao, on the edge of the Sahara Desert. Samassekou's uncle is not present in the film, but his story is—in the director's own voice-over, but also through the experience of many other Africans who go through this refuge on their way to Europe and its imagined paradise, or on their way back, disappointed and defeated.
"As I grew up, I realized that for this trip to Europe, everyone in my family had contributed to the journey by giving money, food, clothing, or by making the sacrifices and blessings necessary for the journey to go smoothly," says Samassekou. "Over time, this interminable waiting created many internal quarrels. But outside the family circle, when we were asked about him, we pretended to have received news, because after all, having a migrant in the family was an asset, which attracted the envy and respect of those around us."
In 2018, Samassekou and Nigerois director Aïcha Macky were developing Zinder, which they produced through Niger-based company Production Tabous at the Produire au Sud workshop in Nantes. There, Samassekou approached French producer Estelle Robin You of Les films du Balibari with the idea of making a film about migration, focusing on the issue of return and why it is so complicated for African migrants to come back home.
"He just came up to me and said, you're going to be the producer of my next film," Robin You recalls. "We had met before through Aicha and my partner in the company Clara Vuillermoz, but it rarely happens like this, and I was immediately interested because I knew his work. I was kind of in the center of that question: at the time, I had a Nigerian man staying in my house a lot because he had nowhere to live. I was always wondering why people like this can't or won't return, when I couldn't imagine conditions for them at home could be worse than what they were going through in France."
But Samassekou did not yet have a specific story for the film at that point, when the project was called Witnesses from the Shadows. So he applied for the pre-development workshop set up in Ouagadougou by the South African company STEPS for their Generation Africa Collection.
"We had experts in documentary filmmaking from Africa and outside, as well as experts on migration from the International Organization for Migration (IOM)," says Tiny Mungwe of STEPS. "We also invited people who were engaging in the process and asking them to reflect on what is the stereotypical way in which stories of migration were being told in mainstream media."
This was where Samassekou first heard about the House of Migrants, even though he had been to Gao a dozen times, making various films for NGOs. When STEPS put down the first funding for the film—€1,500 for a research trip—he was able to take a camera and visit the future location of his film for the first time.
"Before that I had a partial idea for an abstract, contemplative film using elements like water, earth, sky, desert—all this was already in my head, but then the House of Migrants gave me the real inspiration and structure," Samassekou recalls.
There he met Natacha, one of The Last Shelter's primary protagonists. She had already been staying in the House of Migrants for five years, after having lost her ID papers and her memory.
"She is very charismatic on the screen, but she is very silent and sometimes it's as if she's not with us. I thought this was related in an interesting way to my uncle's story and the issue of absence, but I was struggling with how to use her character. Sometimes I didn't understand what she was saying, she'd go on tangents about God, her work and her mission... Nothing made sense at all," says the director.
While Ousmane was researching, Robin You, Mungwe and Andrey S. Diarra, Samassekou's partner in the Bamako-based company DS Productions, were working on putting the funding together. The French producer applied to regional funds Région des Pays de la Loire and Procirep-Angoa for development, and received positive answers within a few months.
"There was a lot of unknown in the film because it is hard to build a project like this in which characters come and go and you can't really develop any personal stories," says Robin You. "This is why the development funding was so important, so that Ousmane could go back as many times as possible."
With the initial footage and a treatment, they applied to IDFAcademy Summer School and got accepted.
"That was very useful because Ousmane is very open to meeting people and brainstorming, and sometimes it goes into many different directions but he found his own path through this process. The IBF Classic, IDFAcademy Summer School, the Forum Round Table Pitch in 2019 and Works in Progress in 2020, and later IBF Europe—it was just a constant support for the project," says Robin You.
Meanwhile, STEPS managed to arrange a collaboration with Arte for the Generation Africa Collection.
"We set up a meeting with all three documentary departments [GEIE, ZDF, and Arte France] to present them with this opportunity," says Mungwe. "There are not enough films from Africa about the issue of migration because the broadcasting infrastructure within the continent is still nascent. We made a proposal explaining that we are assembling a great community of filmmakers in different parts of Africa, and that we would be accompanying them every step of the way to make sure they deliver a production that was on an international level. They immediately said yes, and got on board to co-produce one medium-length and six feature-length documentaries."
Development funding from the Hot Docs Blue Ice Doc Fund, Sundance Documentary Fund, and the IOM allowed the filmmaker to take more time at the House of Migrants and find his story.
"It was also building a community around the film, who thought it was very timely," says Robin You. "There have been many films about people on migration routes who arrived in Europe or the US, but very rarely we were actually within African communities talking about the weight of the family structure on the shoulders of migrants."
At the fourth shooting—which turned out to be the last, as the COVID-19 pandemic started soon after—Samassekou finally found the protagonist who would end up as the anchor for the story: the 15-year-old girl from Burkina Faso, Esther, and her friend Kadi.
It was, however, not easy to gain Esther's trust, even though Samassekou's way of working is very intimate: he needs the camera close to his body in order to connect to the protagonists, and having a different cinematographer was never an option - also because Gao was restricted to foreign visitors.
"Esther was very rebellious. She has a strong and very complex personality and in the first two or three days she would not even accept my presence," says Samassekou.
"But Kadi is more open and lively, and the connection I created with her probably helped. Slowly, Esther accepted me almost as a big brother, after I tried to help her come up with solutions for their trip and started showing her the footage I had shot. Then I started telling her about my uncle and told her that people have the need to know what was going in their heads before they leave.
"The key word for Esther is patience. Sometimes I would leave the camera running for half an hour and sometimes she would fall asleep in front it, or the two girls were there together, being silent, and I was filming the silence and not trying to force anything. Esther is very emotional and you can really see things going on in her face, so from morning to evening I would stay with her and just build trust," the director recalls.
Esther also caught the attention of editor Céline Ducreux, who soon proved an essential addition to the team.
"I always wanted a woman to edit the film, and I saw Yukiko which Céline edited for Korean director Young Sun Noh and immediately felt connected to her," says the director. "There was something very abstract and poetic in her work, and I felt we had something in common."
At the time, Samassekou was still undecided as to which characters would be in the focus of the film. In addition to Esther, Kadi and Natacha, there were other people in the House of Migrants that he captured powerful footage with. But when Ducreux watched the rushes, she knew immediately that it had to be Esther.
"When I saw the scene that ended up as the last scene in the film, the one of Esther's monologue, I was incredibly moved by it. It had never happened to me before to feel so strongly connected to a character," says the editor.
The film also includes segments shot in the desert in Mauritania, as it was too dangerous because of terrorist groups to film in the Mali part of the Sahara. These poetic sequences are often accompanied by a voice-over, as a result of the decision to avoid talking-head interviews.
"Because the characters were so strong, we realized we had to create something different for every desert segment, so that the audience wants to see it as much as it wants to see the protagonists," Ducreux explains. "It was difficult and we found the right way to do it quite late in the process. Jordana Berg, the editing consultant who came through Hot Docs' Blue Ice Doc Fund, was instrumental in shaping this part."
In addition to development funding, The Last Shelter accessed production financing from Arte GEIE, the CNC, Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie and the Organization of ACP States, IMS Documentary Film, and IBF Europe. As a project of Generation Africa, it received support from the Robert Bosch Foundation and the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, which was channeled through the Deutsche Welle Academy.
"This three-way co-production between two African countries and one European country really allowed us to make the most of what international funding offers," says Robin You. "With the Francophone and Anglophone sources, plus funds that support emerging African filmmakers, it was really a great dynamic. It also gave us the opportunity to shape the project from many different perspectives, and the editing process benefitted from different visions at the table with the co-production partners, Arte, and the consultants from the labs.
"It was the right timing in many ways. Only five or six years ago it would have been much more difficult for films coming from French-speaking African countries."
Samassekou agrees and adds: "In parallel we were also fundraising for Zinder, and one film got funding that the other didn't and the other way around, so there was a really interesting dynamic between the two films. Also, Downstream to Kinshasa paved the way a year earlier, so this development is quite new and very exciting."
The Last Shelter is going to a slew of festivals around the world until the end of the year, and is part of a global broadcasting event that STEPS is planning with Arte. It will be available to African audiences on STEPS' platform Afridocs, geolocked for the continent, as well as through the company's extensive network of mobile cinemas in East and South Africa.
"The Last Shelter will be available also through our partner broadcasters on the continent," explains Mungwe. "Our goal with Generation Africa is always to create an impact in the community, and facilitate conversation on the films' topics, and for this film, it is especially important to talk about migration as a family project: what does it mean for family to select best young people and put together all the resources to send them to the desert, and what are the risks that families are taking."
Amadou may be gone but his story will live on through his nephew's film, and help drive the conversation about one of Africa's, and the world's, most important issues. The hope his family clung on to for more than thirty years can now be reshaped into a hope for the future of the continent.