The Last Shelter


Reviewed by: Matthew Anderson

The Last Shelter
"A stark, yet contemplative meditation on the profound hardships of exile and the migrant experience."

La Maison du Migrant (House of Migrants), a safe haven on the edge of the Sahel desert, is the focus of Ousmane Samassékou’s The Last Shelter, a stark, yet contemplative meditation on the profound hardships of exile and the migrant experience. Also expressing the conflict between self-determination and harsh circumstance; this documentary pits forward movement, escape and betterment versus bitter acceptance and retreat.

Located in the Malian city of Gao, the welcome centre has for many years been home to exiles from all over West Africa and beyond. Dreaming of the bright lights, football stars and opportunities of Europe, for many this is merely a stopping point on their way to a new life. Or so they hope. For others, passing in the opposite direction, it is the last stage in a long journey, defeated and returning home, the harsh realisation that their quest to reach France, Italy and other nations has proven to be no more than a mirage over a distant horizon. For some, Gao becomes a final resting place; we see humble graves with as much information as is known about individuals from Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo.

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Though a bastion of solace, sanctuary, hope, La Maison reflects the film’s title, no matter what the direction of travel. Routes that run outside the city limits towards Algeria are barred by road-blocks and al-Qaeda-controlled territory. In spite of warnings, and guidance from the centre’s founder, friends Kadi and Esther resolve to continue northwards, not willing to return home to Burkina Faso, in spite of the dangers, particularly for young women. Ashamed at his family’s belief that he has been in Europe for several years, when in fact he never came close, a man fears returning home a failure, having received such encouragement and support – financial and otherwise – from relatives.

With this spoken testimony dislocated from footage shown by Samassékou of a solitary tree, struggling against the windswept, barren landscape, though the director keeps any question and comment to himself, he skilfully counterposes, and often fractures, sound and image to profound effect, creating lasting visual metaphors throughout. The dichotomy is apparent from the film’s opening frames where a white, blinding sun fills the screen and an aircraft is heard overheard. Travelling to faraway, unattainable new lands, the brutal Saharan sun a life-threatening reality and the sound of escape, opportunity constituting a sharp conflict for the senses.

Extending further beyond the metaphorical contrasts of movement and stasis, with many trapped in this transient existence, the very real perils that these individuals have faced, and menace that lies in wait further down the road, are ever-present. The matter-of-fact manner in which past horrors are relayed is neither laboured nor dumbed-down by the director, who certainly does not pity or seek to make an example of his subjects. Rarely intrusive, the plaintive, resonant score does at times pierce the listlessness, the monotony of one day being much like the next. None of these individuals has any certainty as to when a change will – or could – come and it is in this that their respective situations seem, at times, truly hopeless.

Some of The Last Shelter’s most tragic, arresting images are of Natacha. Consistently alone, playing chess and other board games on her own, she is a reluctant surrogate to Kadi and Esther, but does not have their drive to leave, having spent five years at the centre, unable or unwilling to move on. Her reasons for doing so are her own and the film does not seek to find out what they may be. And neither do those who run the centre. Given a safe place to lay their head, counsel as to their future options, medical assistance if needed, The Last Shelter equally seeks no judgement, and makes no demands of its residents, who are the film's subjects. People at a difficult juncture in their lives find themselves at this crossroads, a microcosm of stories of displaced persons which echoes across the world, all deserving of the same honesty, compassion and understanding as Samassékou offers those in his is latest film.

Reviewed on: 25 Apr 2021
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The stories of exiles from across West Africa who live at the House of Migrants in Gao.

Director: Ousmane Samassékou

Year: 2021

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: France, Mali, South Africa


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