In March 2014 we collaborated on a common cultural project, hosting the visit of three activists from Italy—Stefano Liberti, Andrea Segre, and Dagmawi Yimer—to our respective universities in California. As filmmakers and reporters in a variety of media, the three of them engage with contemporary human rights abuses connected to Italy’s involvement in the control of Mediterranean migration. In our respective programs we screened one or more of their documentaries with Liberti, Segre, and Yimer in attendance and in dialogue with the spectators: A Sud di Lampedusa (2006), about migrants in sub-Saharan Africa trying to reach Libya to find employment; Come un uomo sulla terra (2008), about the difficult trajectory traversed by Yimer and many of his compatriots from Ethiopia to Italy via Sudan and Libya; Mare chiuso (2012), about Italy and the EU’s pushback policies following a number of controversial decrees enacted by Berlusconi’s government in cahoots with Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi; and Và pensiero (2013), about two vicious incidents of racism directed at African immigrants in Florence and Milan.
Ideally, and perhaps idealistically, we wanted to engage students, colleagues and local communities in a transnational dialogue across continents on issues that are global, and which are as much about biopolitics and ethics as they are about poetics and aesthetics. Formerly the site of multiple European and American colonial and imperialist conquests, California is a state that has been traversed and transformed historically and physically by different waves of migration. As such, it offered each of us, through our respective geographical and cultural points of belonging, the opportunity to engage the work of Liberti, Segre, and Yimer from a variety of perspectives and refraction points.
We believe that a theoretical and aesthetic discussion of the films must be accompanied by a reflection on our locations, our academic work, and our pedagogical practices. Precisely because we welcomed our guests at both public and private institutions, with different missions, objectives, and audiences, we find it compelling to examine the various permutations and kinds of reception that these presentations produced. This essay, therefore also addresses the role that collaboration plays not only in organizing events of such magnitude and import, but also in providing pedagogical and scholarly advantages for us as intellectuals and for students who are the recipients of such practices. Our collaboration has forced us to consider, among other things, why broader academic exchanges such as ours do not happen more frequently, and to explore the material and intellectual obstacles that render such collaborations rare, not simply in Italian Studies, but in the humanities in general, across campuses and colleges.