It Was Tomorrow: Collaborative Ethnographic Film and Co-Creative Research With People Who Have Experienced Illegal Migration

Alexandra D’Onofrio

How should social researchers bring fantasies and events of people’s past into life? It was Tomorrow (2018, 53mins, Italy/UK: the University of Manchester, distribution: RAI, is an experimental ethnographic film on the topic of migration, that was produced as part of collaborative social research that brought together ethnographic fieldwork methods with creative practices.

Migration is one of the most topical themes of our times, represented and discussed in the media on a daily basis through images and words that often have little relationship to the personal experiences of the protagonists. In fact, what emerges from the stories of the people directly involved are complexities and nuances that reveal the dilemmas, desires and struggles of the people involved in the phenomenon we call migration. It was Tomorrow and its accompanying research, recognize the fundamental role that imagination and future possibilities play in people’s perceptions of reality, in their decisions and actions, and finally in the way they narrate their experiences. In order to better understand how individuals make their choices, interact with each other, understand themselves and the world around them, I have argued that we need to take into account their biographies and imaginative inner lives as the ways people retell their stories allow space for contradiction, feelings of ambivalence and uncertainty, unlaced and unfinished thoughts and dilemmas. Imaginative realms of existence are ever-changing and ungraspable, posing a challenge to conventional methodologies in the social sciences which rely heavily on observation, interviews and text, hence this research has been grappling with both existential and epistemological questions.

I first met Ali, Mohamed and Mahmoud in 2010 when they came to participate in a theatre forum project which concluded by bringing on stage the difficulties experienced by those who live in Italy without legal papers. When we decided in 2012 to embark on a collaborative practice-based research project that would explore more in depth their personal stories, an amnesty decreed by the Italian government changed the stories they used to tell themselves regarding their choices to cross the Mediterranean Sea and risk their lives for better opportunities in Italy; suddenly their future was refilled with hope, with new possibilities and with long-cherished dreams. When discussing with them about what part of their stories they wished to document through film, they expressed the desire to revisit their past by going back to the first places of arrival after crossing the Sea: the harbours in Lampedusa, Sicily (two islands in the South of Italy, renown for migrant disembarkations) and Udine (a fluvial port in the North-East of Italy where merchant ships unload stocks). Interestingly, it was by revisiting the past that my research participants could relate to the future and their present more vividly.

For almost two years a variety of collaborative creative practices created the context  to explore memories and  imaginations of the future, of what could be, or could have been if things had gone differently in my research participants’ lives. We experimented with theatre, storytelling, photography, documentary filmmaking and animation. Each of these processes facilitated a different aspect of the research, and importantly contributed to create a reflexive ethnographic context through which the theoretical arguments and counter-narratives emerged intersubjectively. The theatre improvisations (present in the film in the form of black and white rotoscope animations) were useful for the exploration of non-verbal and more bodily expressions connected to their experiences while the storytelling events allowed us to work on the narrative aspect of stories (autobiographical, religious or mythical) they wished to share with a mixed audience of people, most of which did not share their experiential, social or cultural background.

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Click on the image to play the clip. Storytelling extract from film by Alex D’Onofrio

Photography, documentary filmmaking and participatory animation further supported the co-creative process of audio-visually representing their stories, memories and imaginations. Whilst animated documentary as a research tool is still very new to the social sciences, our collaborative filmmaking was built upon two pre-existing ethnographic methods. The first tradition our filmmaking process related to was that of Jean Rouch’s ethno-fictions, through which I engaged Mohamed, Ali and Mahmoud to improvise their acting in front of the camera. Similar to psychoanalysis, protagonists of ethnofictions would make previously implicit information explicit (Sjöberg 2008) by a process Peter Loizos has called ‘projective improvisation’ (1993:50). When improvising what they say or do in front of the camera, the protagonists express what they would normally take for granted. As I filmed Mohamed, Ali and Mahmoud react to places that had been meaningful for the beginning of their lives in Italy, I realised how the environment was triggering the associations my subjects were making. Similar to the process of ethnofiction, the situation triggered another experience they suddenly remembered, as the unforeseen environment and unrehearsed situation fed the imagination and gave life to new associations. My own participants engaged in a creative flow that was the outcome of the dialogic relationship between their material surroundings and their subconscious, and also an interplay between memories and imaginings. The photographs from these journeys attempted to capture a still image of this free flow which would have been very difficult to visualise there and then without interrupting their creative momentum.

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Click on the image to play the clip. Collaborative extract from film by Alex D’Onofrio

Secondly, the performative practice of walking and narrating has been used previously by Andrew Irving (2007) as a mnemonic method to create ethnographic contexts  through which memories regarding death and disease would take place. Irving asked his field participants to take photographs as they walked around their neighbourhoods in Kampala. Relying on the protagonists’ decisions of what to tell, where to go and what to capture visually, Irving explains, not only transforms our conventional informants into ‘collaborative co-researchers’, but also places ethnography in the subjunctive mode, where it becomes receptive to the instability of memory and of people’s circumstances. Amongst many memories, experiences and photographs, Ali, Mohamed and Mahmoud made specific choices by voluntarily or involuntarily discarding others. In the complex narrative thread composed of performed movements, the materiality of the environment, improvised speech and photographs, my ‘co-researchers’ were rendering certain memories and imaginations public by exposing what would have not been immediately accessible by sight and knowledge of the anthropologist and of the audience.

The gaps between the photographs and stories told by Irving’s informants, ask for whoever assists to imaginatively recreate the experience for themselves. This research project involved the protagonists of the stories in the further creative exploration of some of those gaps, through the imaginative and expressive process of animation.

The latter was carried out at the final stage of the research in a studio: a very different, confined and professionally-defined space. After making a careful selection, my informants used some of the images as the visual and storytelling basis of the painted animation thanks to the collaboration of Francesca Cogni, a professional animator who helped facilitate the process. I argue for the use of animated documentary as a practice towards new anthropological directions of envisioning and working with people’s, not only migrants’, life stories, which need to encompass future and conditional tenses as much as they do the present and the past.

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Click on the image to play the clip. Mohamed’s Other Life by Alex D’Onofrio

Scholars in film studies, Alan Grossman and Àine O’Brien (2007) and visual anthropologist Steffen Köhn (2016), have argued that documentary film can be effective in bringing us close to the experience of people who have migrated, as it has the potential of questioning conventional representation by placing the protagonists themselves at ‘centre stage’, and thus facilitating “a deeper understanding of the lived, contradictory and at times ephemeral conditions shaping the lives of migrant subjects” (Grossman and O’Brien 2007: 6). It is my contention to add to this argument that animation in particular brings an innovative contribution to ordinary ethnographic practice and representations, as it creatively engages with people’s imaginative possibilities that often lie beyond our grasp.  Animation offers the opportunity to expose ‘anthropologists and ethnographic filmmakers to ways of using image and sound to create expressive, rather than realist, representations of aspects of human experience and discourse’ (Sarah Pink 2001: 24). It is in its power to explore an aspect of ‘reality’ we want to find access to, that social scientists can gain outstanding advantages. In Understanding Animation (1998), Paul Wells defines the animated documentary through its ability to evoke internal spaces of being, to portray what is generally invisible to the naked eye. Thus, the animated film can become the very method that can help us identify and represent particular kinds of experience and perceptions which do not find adequate expression elsewhere. Being completely constructed, this film genre also indicates the limits of other methods and forms that claim to be more ‘objective’ and neutral, but whose truth claims have been highly critiqued and contested in post-colonial and postmodern theory.

The experimentation of using these creative processes as part of the fieldwork and at a later stage to include them into the documentary, has also opened the way to trace and identify the forms and qualities that imaginative possibilities, within the process of remembering, take in people’s experiences. Not only can animation be useful in the process of memory and knowledge making, but it provides an interesting aesthetic quality that is faithful to the evanescent and at times unsettling character of memories. Finally, It was Tomorrow as a film and social research intends to make a wishful argument for social research to engage participants in more collaborative and creative practices in the study of migration, as a necessary way of involving the protagonists in producing the questions and counter-narratives that reclaim their acts of struggle and their creative imaginative abilities to contrast objectifying political discourses and exclusionary legal and bureaucratic procedures.

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Click on the image to play the video. It Was Tomorrow – Official trailer by Alex D’Onofrio


Grossman, A. & A. O’Brien (eds) (2007). Projecting Migration: Transcultural Documentary  
Practice. London: Wallflower Press/Columbia University Press.

Irving, A. 2007. ‘Ethnography, art, and death’, in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
13: 185-208

Köhn, S. 2016. Mediating Mobility: Visual Anthropology in the Age of Migration, Columbia University Press

Loizos, P. 1993. Innovation in Ethnographic Film, Manchester University Press

Pink, S. 2001. Bringing anthropology and film together? The 7th International Festival of  Ethnographic Film, SOAS, 16–18 December 2000. Anthropology Today 17(2), April: 24–25.

Sjöberg, J. 2008. ‘Ethnofiction: Drama as a Creative Research Practice in Ethnographic Film’, in Journal of Media Practice, Vol.9, No.3: 229-242

Wells, P. 1998. Understanding Animation, Routledge

Alexandra D’Onofrio is a social anthropologist, documentary film director and community arts facilitator. She uses documentary filmmaking, animation, theatre and storytelling as collaborative methods of ethnographic research on the topics of migration, imagination, memory and lived experience. In her social and cultural work on the ground, she applies similar creative methods in order to create social contexts to foster community building and the sharing of stories. In 2006 she co-founded the Fandema community theatre group, in 2009 the Italian language school for newcomers Asnada, and in 2015 the storytelling project on motherhood MAdRI. Education-wise she first graduated with a BA in Social Anthropology (2004) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), then completed an MA in Visual Anthropology (2008) at the University of Manchester, where she graduated with a photographic audio-documentary “Caught in between Darkness and Light”, on the experience of flight of a group of Ethiopian and Eritrean friends to the UK through Calais. In 2017 Alexandra obtained her PhD in Anthropology Media and Performance (AMP) at the University of Manchester, one of the very first practice-based PhDs in Anthropology, combining theatre, storytelling, photography, documentary filmmaking and animation as reflective methods to research experiences of illegal border crossing. As a result of her research, she has produced short and feature documentaries that have been screened internationally in festivals, civil society events and in schools and universities for educational purposes. She is currently a lecturer at the department of social anthropology at the University of Manchester and parallely working on her first manuscript Future Perfect, based on her PhD and film It was Tomorrow, for Manchester University Press.

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