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Homo Africanus, the bogyman of our times: How he is perceived in the Italian collective imagination and why he strikes fears

Rosetta Giuliani Caponetto

The representation of African immigrants living in Italy has occupied a special place in the films of Italian and African directors of the last two decades, including Michele Placido, Gianfranco Pannone, Tarek Ben Abdallah. The interest in the immigrants’ condition has emerged in large part from the presence in Italy of an ever increasing community of citizens from Africa who, starting from the early 1980’s, moved to the peninsula in search of a better life. Along with the arrival of thousands of immigrants, Italy had to confront different cultures living within its territory and became soon the arena of episodes of rage and intolerance between groups pitted against each other in the defense of territory, power and identity.

The significance attached to foreign immigrants in Europe depends on the commonplace that views immigration as a threat to national identity. In his essay Imagined Communities (1983) Benedict Anderson discusses the way in which the nation-state is a problematic model of belonging in the age of globalization. He defines nation as an “imagined community” in so that the sense of belonging depends more on individual perception than objective factors (4). On this score, Alec Hargreaves points out that if we define nations as cultural entities, “their boundaries are contingent on subjective relationships binding together groups of individuals who may or may not constitute a spatially distinct whole” (149-150). What national communities seek to do is to make cultural and political boundaries to coincide (Hargreaves 150). By their very nature, immigrants threaten the desire to eliminate cultural diversity within a nation’s borders in the moment they bring into the new society cultural values that differ from those prevailing in the host country (Hargreaves 150).
In my paper I will examine two films, Waalo Fendo (1998) by Algerian director Mohamed Soudani and Torino Boys (1997) by Italian filmmakers Antonio and Marco Manetti. Both movies are released in Italy at a time when fiery animosities against foreigners are raging. Their common main goal is to reveal to Italians the identity of the immigrant and to promote a dialogue between foreign labor and host community. My study will briefly explore the way Torino Boys and Waalo Fendo remodel the encounter with the Other as well as the cinematic and narrative strategies each film adopts in describing the cultural clash or apparent fusion of immigrant community with Italian society.
As I see it, the directors approach the subject of immigration from a personal perspective, each having a specific outlook and purpose. If Torino Boys intends to blunt the fears raised by the immigrants’ presence in Italy, Waalo Fendo wants to go deeper into the matter of foreigners being a threat to a cultural heritage that all Italians share. In the course of my analysis I will argue that despite their different approach, Waalo Fendo and Torino Boys have in common the potential to reveal the problematic terms of integration. Whether immigrants are willing to relinquish their cultural roots or not, they will be always branded as “culturally unfit.” Their acceptance has nothing to do with their desire to come to terms with the host society. Integration will be possible only when the euphemism with which racist discrimination has been covered up, will be broken.

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