Student Documentary to debut at the Kimmel Center



Kristian Stefanides



Students in the Communication Department’s Social Documentary class spearheaded the making of their film, “Limbo.” The premiere weekend begins on Saturday, April 23 with their conference “Stories Untold: African Migrants in Italy and Our Role in the Migration Crisis” from 3 to 6:30 p.m. in the Communication Department Studio in Garey Hall. The first screening of their film will be held on Sunday, April 24 at 7 p.m. at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia. The documentary features migrants from West Africa who are now trapped in Italian bureaucracy. Living in a small hotel in Monteroduni, the migrants must deal with a legal system unprepared to accommodate their needs and they face prejudice from the natives. The Villanovan had the chance to interview the directors of the film, Olivia Bickel and Cynthia Horvilleur, to hear more about this troubling situation.

Kristian Stefanides: How did your team choose this specific social issue for your documentary topic?

Cynthia Horvilleur: Many of the students in our class studied abroad in Europe during Fall 2014 and Spring 2015. Through their experience abroad, they encountered first-hand the migration crisis and how it was portrayed in European media. This sparked interest among the students to create a documentary about a topic that is relevant and timeless.

Olivia Bickel: Our professor, Hezekiah Lewis, chooses the location. However, it is up to the students to pick the social issue they would like to explore. We had a few students in the class who were ensconced in this issue as they were studying abroad the previous semester and felt strongly for making our documentary about immigration to Italy. 


KS: What was your main purpose and/or goal while making the documentary?

CH: None of us are in this class for the grade. We are in this class because we are passionate about filmmaking and social justice. The goal of this documentary is to humanize the migration crisis. Often in the media, we see stats and number of asylum seekers, number of deaths and number of countries, but we rarely get a glimpse of the emotional and psychological toll that the migrants suffer during and after this journey. By humanizing the migration crisis, we are adding a complex but vital layer to the conversation about what to do next.

OB:There are a few that must be considered when creating a documentary. First, the class asks, “Why Italy?” We could easily do a documentary on immigration in the United States, however with the ongoing “crisis” being a frontrunner in the media and the universality of the overall message we hope to convey with the film, Italy was the best option. Primarily though, our goal is to stay true to the stories that were revealed to us and tell them as genuinely as possible. We are not “giving them voices” but rather spreading their already strong voices to people who have no idea what they go through and went through to find opportunity. We also hope to spur action that will inevitably help change immigration policy either here or abroad to make it more effective. 

KS: What was the most challenging aspect of this project?

CH: The most challenging part of this process was finding our story. During our visit to Monteroduni, Italy we conducted new interviews every day and each person added something different to the conversation. We could have done a whole series of films with the amount of information we gathered, but due to time restraints and limited resources, we had to narrow our story down to one 30-minute film. We found our story through deep conversation and by learning to listen.

OB: Trying to find a story that would encompass the reality of the people who migrated from their homes in Italy was extremely difficult. There were so many people who all wanted and still need to have their stories shared.  

KS: What were some of the tough stories you heard while in Italy?

CH: During our interviews, we heard raw stories from the migrants. They suffered injustices and underwent tremendous trauma. Yet, they openly shared their stories with our crew. These stories involve persecution, death, faith, suffering and hope. The toughest part of the interviews was often the journey from Africa to Europe and you will hear more about this in our documentary.

OB: Honestly, of all the stories we heard, they were all heartbreaking. It is difficult to divulge specific stories that will do justice to the pain and suffering behind the words. Generally, just imagine being forced to leave your home and family, sometimes without warning, in order to escape war or poverty and embark on a journey that may or may not end in opportunity. Our characters witnessed people dying from thirst, heat and hunger which could have easily happened to them. Their strength, courage and luck allowed them to end in Italy.  

KS: If you could describe the documentary in one word/phrase, what would it be? 

CH: Empirical.

OB: Urgent.



KS: How have your views on refugees changed after this experience? 

CH: Being part of this class allowed the students to view the refugee crisis at a personal level. We connected to the migrants by listening to their stories first-hand, sharing meals with them and spending the day as they would in the structures. Migrants and refugees are stuck in these structures from six months to three years, with nowhere else to go. This experience allowed us to recognize our privilege as American students.

OB: My empathy for refugees has not really changed. If anything I grew more knowledgeable about their plights and empathize with them more after being with them for a short amount of time and keeping in touch with them through Facebook. I suppose instead of seeing them as “refugees”, or a word or title, I can picture them as individuals with names: Demba, Ben, Yahya, Richard, Lucky and so many others. 

After experiencing the refugee area in Italy first-hand, do you believe there is a chance the Italian government will be able to satisfy the refugees’ needs in the near future?

CH: The influx of migrants in Italy is not something that should be limited to the Italian government. The EU and the U.S. need to work together to come up with a viable and practical solution to keep both citizens and migrants safe.

OB: I hope so, but there are so many and some Italians do not see the employment opportunities refugees or people who migrate have to offer. It is difficult for the Italian’s too because of the recession in Italy. It is too much to ask for one country to take on as many people as they already have. Besides, a fair amount of the migrants would like to continue moving to find better opportunities than even Italy can offer. It seems that people are not listening to each other or valuing what different people have to offer. 

KS: Anything else you think people should know about the documentary?

CH: As you read this, someone is getting on a boat in Libya to travel to Italy, someone is being rescued off a capsized boat, someone is sitting in a structure waiting for documents. This is happening right now and it will keep happening as long as we fail to extend a helping hand.